Sunday, April 16, 2000

Closing time at the Elder

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Elder Cafe wears a suit of weather-beaten plywood and peeling green paint that was applied on some long distant day like smeared lipstick at closing time. It's a missing tooth in the smile of Findlay Market, where old dowager buildings wear fresh makeup and stylish new outfits to sell salsa, mushrooms and “certified organic free-range chicken eggs.”

        The Elder was a foul-mouthed hooker at a church bazaar. Now it's closed for at least a year, probably forever, declared a nuisance by the court.

        “Hallelujah,” said Gary Mallin when he heard the news. The bar next door to his store, Leader Furniture, has been a constant, pounding headache of “cussing, yelling, screaming, shootings, killings, knife fights . . .” — don't get him started.

        “I yelled loud,” he said. “I'd call the police three or four times a day.”

        The cops made eight drug busts in six weeks. The menu at the Elder Cafe included draft or bottle, Percocet, weed, crack or heroin.

        A hidden drug stash was carved into the end of the bar. Cops said they went in one time and found heroin cooking in the microwave.

        “Just look at the police records,” said Marty Milligan, site manager of Findlay Market. “Everybody wanted him out.”

        “Him” was Elder owner Jerome Grogan of Hyde Park, who waged a six-week court battle to fight for what his lawyers called “a legitimate business.” Mr. Grogan cleared $100,000 a year from the Elder, but was nothing more than an “absentee landlord,” according to Common Pleas Judge Thomas Crush.

        Mr. Grogan's lawyers argued that he was a scapegoat in a City Hall conspiracy to clean up the Market area on Elder between Elm and Race streets.

        The neighbors laughed. “There was no plot,” said Mr. Mallin. “There has always been a bar next door, and there was never a problem.”

        The Elder was different. “My customers were afraid,” he said.

        “I used to hold onto my check comin' in here,” said shopper Kimberly Hinton. Now, she said, “It's beautiful.”

        Mr. Milligan said that on a typical day the Elder would spill forth a chug-a-lug crowd like an upended beer bottle. Druggies and stumbling drunks would wander the block with twisted paper bags of wine, scaring off the suburbanites and downtown workers the Market needs.

        “Jerry (Grogan) said it would never happen, he even bragged that the city could never close him down,” Mr. Milligan said.

        The trial took place in a quiet, carpeted courtroom behind red drapes, a long way from the peeling paint and cigarette butts that adorn the Elder's doorway.

        After listening to an objection to an objection to an objection, Judge Crush was down to the dregs of his patience. “At any rate, whatever,” he ruled.

        “So I have seen the evidence, I have heard it. It has been going for weeks. It's not a difficult case.”

        His decision is like a breath of clean air in a stale, smoky bar: “Nuisance is something, in general terms, that bothers other people. If this had never bothered anybody, I guess nobody would have ever complained. Obviously, it bothered enough people, they got city council to do something.”

        Finally, in January 1999, an Elder customer was shot and killed at the bar — and a room full of witnesses saw nothing.

        The cops moved in. The rest is Over-the-Rhine history.

        So is the Elder Cafe. And the people on the street said, “Hallelujah.”

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.