Thursday, June 12, 1997
The Crowleys and
The Hill inseparable


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Specs Crowley may be the guy who saved Mount Adams from becoming just another clump of upscale bars and expensive views. However much you admire The Hill the Bortz Brothers Built, along the way to prosperity, the neighborhood lost a little soul, some of its politics and nearly all its grit. Except in one tiny spot, capacity 99.

When Specs was growing up on Ellen Street, monks lived in the Monastery. Peterson's Restaurant was Holy Cross School. The Art Academy was Mount Adams Public School. Glutz Market's cramped aisles and dim lighting have been replaced by a United Dairy Farmers store. The narrow, wooden shotgun houses have been gutted, window-scaped and dabbed with decks.

More than a bar

The gentrified Mount Adams is safe, even charming, with old buildings carefully restored for home or commerce, and new ones mostly blending respectfully. When you're inching down narrow streets looking for a parking space among the BMWs and Saabs and Nissans, it's hard to imagine a day when working men used to carry gallon jugs into the neighborhood bar for a takeout of Burger draft. That was back when Specs opened up his bar at 958 Pavilion St.

First a Kroger store, then a pool hall, then Smittie's Inn, the place came to Specs in 1937 by paying back rent of $150, a CG&E bill of $10.19, a 6-month-old phone bill of $5 and an 8-cent IRS penalty. He tried to call it Highland House Cafe, but no matter what he called it, everybody else called it Crowley's.

''Dad was a gruff guy, but from the very beginning, he wanted the bar to be more than just a place to drink,'' David Crowley says. ''People could come here for help - to get jobs or bail. He helped people register to vote - as long as they voted Democrat.''

David claims John Gilligan began his political career in Crowley's. He was running for Cincinnati City Council in 1951, and somebody told him if you wanted votes in Mount Adams, you had to see Specs Crowley.

Specs was, as usual, in the rear of the bar playing pinochle under a few strips of flypaper. He listened to young Gilligan, then told him, ''You gotta set up the house.'' Only about six patrons sat in the bar, and beer cost 15 cents a glass.

So the future governor of Ohio invested 90 cents. Specs knew word would quickly make its way around The Hill that Jack Gilligan was the kind of pol who would buy a man a drink. And it did.

Did I mention that Specs was Irish? And Catholic? Specs - nobody called him Bill - and his wife, Verna, had 10 children. Eight survived, and most of them worked at one time or another in the bar. After Specs died in 1963, his son Mike took over and ran the saloon for 33 years.

After Mike had a stroke in 1995, brother David came home from Bosnia, where he was coordinating relief efforts for Catholic Relief Services. He laughs. ''A social worker, just like my dad.''

A regular party

This Sunday, from 3 to 7 p.m., the family has invited the ''regulars'' to celebrate their 60 years in business. Crowley's got a modest face lift for the occasion - some paint, new carpeting. The air is cleaner. ''New smoke eaters,'' says bartender Bob Stocker.

This might be as much change as would be tolerated by the ''regulars,'' who appear to me to be proudly irregular.

''For the first 30 years,'' David writes in a family history, ''Crowley's belonged to the blue-collar working man. He made room at the bar for the 'kook,' who moved over for the 'hippie,' who in turn squeezed over for the 'yuppie.''' Crowley's jukebox plays Jo Stafford, Wilson Pickett, k.d. lang, Rosemary Clooney, George Jones, Kool and the Gang and Garth Brooks.

Any day of the week, you can find collars of all colors. Sometimes it's the Playhouse crowd, people from both sides of the footlights - patrons, stagehands, actors. Writers, stockbrokers, electricians, lawyers, roofers and the occasional priest.

And although the oak back bar is very old and some of the pictures are ancient, the place doesn't feel like history. And although there's a big-screen TV at the back window, where Specs once bounced an unruly customer, it doesn't feel like a jock hangout.

It feels like a neighborhood.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE