Up In Arms At Bent Elbow

Posted: October 29, 1992

On two Fridays earlier this month, a strange convergence of youth and age occurred at the Bent Elbow, a tavern on Roosevelt Boulevard in Rhawnhurst.

Inside, it was happy hour as robust "20somethings" hoist "brewskis" and check out the action.

Outside, it looked like a meeting of the local chapter of the Gray Panthers. Elderly residents blocked the boulevard, chanting slogans and carrying signs.

For the young, the tavern is an attempt at creating community, the ''Cheers" thing.

For the residents who have been demonstrating, complaining to the police and meeting with state and local politicians, the Bent Elbow is a community- buster.

But the bar, which is owned by Joseph F. Murphy, is much more. In early 1990, the establishment, at Roosevelt Boulevard and Napfle Street, made Mayor Goode's Top 20 tax delinquents.

Assistant city solicitor Joseph Schmanek contends that Murphy has filed for bankruptcy three times in the last two years in an effort to stall tax collection efforts. The tavern, which owed about $200,000 in city taxes a year ago, now owes $100,000, according to city records, he said.

Murphy, who said he lives above the bar, denied Schmanek's charges. He said he filed for bankruptcy after losing a civil judgment in the case of a person injured in a car accident by a driver who had been drinking at his bar.

"No way am I trying to beat the city out of its taxes," said Murphy, a father of six and grandfather of eight. "I paid $120,000 in taxes this year. I'd pay more, but the sheriff took my liquor license in May, in that case."

The bar has a lengthy record of citations from the State Police's Bureau of Liquor Enforcement. The tavern's current liquor license has been revoked, though that ruling is on appeal in Common Pleas Court and meanwhile the bar has been allowed to stay open.

Murphy doesn't hide his political connections. At one point, in an interview, Murphy noted, "And there's not a politician in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania who won't help me." Among his friends, he counts state Sen. Frank A. Salvatore.

Ten days ago, the suds hit the fan, in part owing to a steady flow of complaints from residents.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board sent the Bent Elbow a terse letter saying that it opposes the tavern's liquor license renewal for the year beginning Nov. 1.

The board said the tavern had "abused" its license, pointing to 12 citations either proven or under appeal. Murphy has appealed the LCB ruling and will fight to stay open during the appeal.

The LCB's letter was sweet music to Shirley Shamberg, who lives on Bradford Street, a block from the bar. Shamberg organized the two demonstrations against the bar. "Our streets are his parking lot, our grass is his toilets," she said.

Over the years, Shamberg said, she has had cars park in front of her driveway, she has cleaned up broken bottles, been awakened by screeching tires and late-night rowdyism, even looked out her window and seen young men urinating on her patio.

"I've been at meetings with Mr. Murphy. He promises everything and does nothing. Sometimes, he'll send out a few people to pick up trash," Shamberg said. "He has a right to earn a living, but not at the price of destroying our right to tranquility. We're trying to maintain the value of our properties."

Said Murphy: " Let's face it. You can't satisfy everybody." He said his bar is busy only on Fridays. "Let me have my one day," he said. "I keep a clean place."

Since he bought the bar in 1979, Murphy said, he's been harassed by a vocal minority in the neighborhood. "Look, I don't run a 'stop and go.' And I've got a petition signed by 10,000 people who don't want me closed," Murphy said.

Richard Hahn, an attorney who represents Murphy's tavern, said neighborhood residents have unjustifiably blamed a host of problems on the bar.

"I've been in there five or six times over a period of years," Hahn said. ''As far as I'm concerned, they have done all they could to work with the community." For example, Hahn said, a nearby hotel and its bar could produce some of the cars that park in the neighborhoods.

City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski says she knows the tavern and has checked into its problems. Of Murphy, she says, "He's a real nice guy and he always gives to charity."

Shamberg holds a different view. "He just doesn't care about us," she says. She did praise the police for a parking crackdown in the area after residents recently talked to 2nd District Captain Richard DeLise.

"We've been enforcing the regulations very carefully and we've told the owner so that he can alert his patrons," DeLise said. "We've also talked to residents. I talked to a 12-year-old who described watching a man urinate. That is totally unacceptable."

DeLise said he's also made it clear to his staff that the cars of police officers who frequent the bar and park illegally will be ticketed.

Hahn said residents tried to have the bar declared a "nuisance" years ago but failed. "The Bent Elbow has never been charged with being a site for drug dealing," he said.

One law enforcement source said that the bar is not as bad as some.

"The Bent Elbow is not up there with the worst. There have been no homicides. Narcotics officers don't work out of there, but I'd say it's definitely above the level requiring an immediate solution," the source said.

Sgt. John Lyle, who supervises 22 officers in the state police's Bureau of Liquor Enforcement, said his staff must answer complaints involving 3,750 establishments in Philadelphia and Delaware and Chester counties. He concedes his staff is stretched thin.

"The problem we see with the Bent Elbow are minors. They have a severe history of sales to minors and that's basically how they've gotten into trouble," Lyle said.

Lyle said his unit has tried to be responsive to community complaints. "In this case, there was real community involvement and we responded to it," he said.

Community action was also a factor in the Liquor Control Board's decision to oppose the renewal of Bent Elbow's liquor license, according to David Martin, director of LCB's bureau of licensing. The neighborhood complaints were gathered by Assistant District Attorney David Castro, whose nuisance bar unit has helped many neighborhood groups organize their opposition.

Late last year, an administrative law judge revoked the tavern's license

because the bar allegedly falsified applications for health licenses and then operated without one.

The bar promptly appealed that decision and the case was sent to Common Pleas Judge Edward Bradley. In June, Castro weighed in with a brief urging that the bar be closed.

"We can't comment on an ongoing investigation," Castro said. "But like the community, we await Judge Bradley's decision." If Bradley upholds the decision to revoke the bar's license, the business will be forced to close during any further appeals.

Bradley, who could not be reached for comment, has yet to rule on this case, which had hearings in June.

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