Bar Wars

Who is Joe Staebell, and why is he battling booze in Dogtown?

Dec 12, 2001 at 4:00 am
On the evening of Saturday, June 23, five patrol cars convened at the intersection of Clayton and Tamm avenues, in the heart of Dogtown. The officers stood around their vehicles, sipping coffee, chatting among themselves and, at times, explaining to the growing knot of bystanders just why they were there. The liquor license of Rosie's Pub was to expire at midnight, and word was that this final night would be wild. But it wasn't the blowout that had been threatened, although two summonses were issued for outside drinking.

Rosie's was a joint where a buck-fifty would buy a mug of suds and a bag of chips. It had 15 stools on the belly-up side and had been a watering hole since the repeal of Prohibition. Last year, Nicole Solomon bought the bar and continued business with the previous owner's liquor license. Once this was discovered, she had to reapply for a liquor license. Neighbors, opposed to the bar, became involved in the process.

By the time last call was made, the party across the street on Louise Cacia's front porch had ended. A group consisting of Cacia, her neighbor Lucille Bosse and the other onlookers had disbanded.

But Joe Staebell was still on the case.

Jack Minteer, a burly Vietnam vet and a regular at Rosie's, knew who was responsible for closing his favorite bar, and he was aware of their soirée across the street. "Finally everybody went to bed except Joe, and he's hobnobbing with the cops out there." At closing, as Minteer headed to his Harley, he saw Staebell at the corner coin-op laundry. "I walked up and told him what a little worm he was. I called him some other names, too, and I made sure no one could hear but him and me."

Staebell is arguably the most notorious man in Dogtown these days. Though he received positive attention for initiating the Dogtown Dog Project, a whimsical response to the People Project, residents and merchants alike are now fuming over Staebell's less whimsical interest in city liquor laws, which he has been wielding against Dogtown's drinking establishments like some latter-day Carry Nation.

A wine café was the dream of Carrie Bechtold and Kelley Green. They hoped to debut the Corkscrew in a space at the corner of Tamm Avenue and Graham Street, the former location of Lickety-Splits, a failed ice-creamery and, before that, a bar. They planned to offer coffee, tea, desserts, bread and fondue in addition to wine, which would be sold by the bottle but uncorked for sipping on the patio if a patron so desired. The proposed hours were 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on weekends. Staebell lives four doors down with his partner, Janis Jones, who owns the home.

Starting in early July, just days after the application was made, Staebell began soliciting signatures against the threatened establishment. Bechtold and Green needed the approval of a simple majority of property owners within the 350-foot-radius protest circle -- or a simple majority of business owners and registered voters combined. To stall the deal, Staebell needed only 10 signatures from one group or the other. He got them, and many Dogtowners were furious.

Sparks flew at the packed August meeting of the Clayton-Tamm Community Association. "Lots of us don't normally go, but because Joe had been working against the wine shop, we're, like, 'OK, this guy's got to be stopped,'" says Jaynelle Haynes, president of the Dogtown Business Merchants' Association. "But Joe doesn't show up -- the only time he's ever missed this meeting. And it's probably a good thing, because these residents just ate him up." They called him a "neighborhood nuisance," and then someone added, "We should start a petition against Joe."

Green says Staebell misrepresented the Corkscrew's intentions to potential signees and even denied heading the petition drive: "He was pretty sneaky. When I confronted him, he said, 'Oh no, I'm not the protest representative,' even though he was the one going around talking to everybody in the neighborhood."

At the Sept. 28 license hearing, St. Louis Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg tried to broker a compromise. The commissioner gave both sides a 30-day extension to gather more signatures and try to work it out among themselves. A month later, Bechtold and Green decided it wasn't worth the hassle and scrapped their plans. "I didn't see any great harm in this business," says Kraiberg. "The way it was described, even with an outdoor garden, it could've been controlled. This was not some chainsaw roller-disco."

At the September meeting, when called upon to explain his concerns about the business and to announce what Green and Bechtold could do to allay those concerns, Staebell refused, saying it would all come out at the excise hearing. At that hearing, he simply read a terse statement.

Many attending the October meeting were unhappy, to put it mildly, when it was announced that the wine café had withered on the vine. Kurt Canova, president of Tech Electronics, took the podium. Clayton-Tamm is a business district, he said, and if this sort of thing continues, the neighborhood will be labeled as unfriendly to new business. While others stood to bemoan the loss of the Corkscrew, Staebell just sat there, conspicuously silent.

"He did all this, and then he won't talk," says Patty Rush, another of Staebell's neighbors. "He stirs the pot and then he walks away when it starts to boil."

Recently Staebell told people he was writing a manifesto for the November issue of the Clayton-Tamm Association newsletter that would "explain everything." But when the newsletter was handed out at the meeting, Staebell's opus was absent. It had been withheld by business association president Dean Meredith because of its inflammatory content. Instead, Staebell handed out his own newsletter, The Corkscrew Truth, which claimed that the applicants never had grassroots support, that certain signatures were not kosher and that he is not anti-business, merely "anti-liquor-license."

Even after the applicants had withdrawn their application, Staebell continued to call and visit Kraiberg's office. "Our office's only contact with Ms. [Janis] Jones was about four minutes by phone," says Kraiberg, "while we've had about 14 hours' contact with Mr. Staebell. He's upset now because he feels like there should be a continuing hearing process that would allow him to show that it wasn't just a couple of people opposed to the license." Even though the issue is now moot, Staebell is still hard at work, trying to discount the petition signatures. His most recent investigation led him to conclude that one piece of property had changed hands, leaving the signature of the previous owner invalid. He's also saying that one woman who signed in favor of the license has died, so her vote shouldn't count. Says Kraiberg, "He brought the clipping from the obituary column. Now, how in hell are we supposed to know that? Does he think we track the obits every day and check them against applications for liquor licenses?"

An ordained minister in the Lutheran Church, Kevin Parviz runs Chai v'Shalom, an outreach ministry to the Jewish community, from a small storefront on Clayton Avenue. A big man with a sandy-red beard and a bushy shock of hair, Parvis portrays Staebell as a neighborhood activist, a man who stuck by his guns in the Chablis-and-fondue wars. "His was not a protest against business," insists Parviz. "His was a protest about the patio practically butting up against their front yard. When Joe and Janis moved in, they thought they would be living near an ice-cream shop -- then, suddenly, it's a bar."

Parviz says that Dogtown needs more viable businesses, not more bars. "The Hill has fine restaurants, and what's Dogtown known for? A place for drinking all night? We've got that covered with, let's see" -- he counts on his fingers -- "six liquor licenses that I know of, all in one small area." (Three of those six liquor licenses are not in use. J.R.'s, formerly R.L. Steamers, is closed, as are Extra Innings and Rosie's Pub. The other three -- Chuy Arzola's, Seamus McDaniel's and Pat's Bar & Grill -- are thriving.)

Parvis says that the "character assassination" of Staebell is both unfair and un-Christian. "Joe is a good citizen of this community. He has a right to be concerned about the quality of life on his block, and the neighborhood has treated him hatefully, turned on him like a pack of dogs."

The complaints against Staebell, though, don't end at the Corkscrew fight. To hear Tom Herd tell it, Staebell is the neighbor from hell. "He nitpicks you to death over tiny details," says Herd, a grade-school teacher. It didn't take long for problems to start when Staebell and Jones moved into the blue wood-frame house next door six years ago, Herd says: "First thing, he starts complaining about my music. He particularly seems to hate Tina Turner." Instead of asking him to turn it down, Herd says, Staebell calls the cops.

A few years ago, Herd put a new roof on his building, and Staebell could not resist interfering. "When I came home," recalls Herd, "he had had the workers down off the roof five times to pick up little pieces of roofing that had fallen on his property. I told him, 'Joe, they're going to clean all this up when they get done.' Everyone I've had here to do any work, he's harassed them to the point all they want is to leave."

But what made Staebell rabid was Herd's remark at a neighborhood meeting that Staebell was a neighborhood nuisance. "He's going to sue me for slander," snorts Herd. "He doesn't work, and I doubt he has any money to sue anybody, but, to be safe, I'm keeping a file on him." Thumbing through the file, Herd comes to an entry: "2:55 p.m. Oct 21. I'm in the yard. Joe says music too loud, asks could I turn it down. I climb three flights of steps to turn down music, and then they leave!"

Jeanarae Booth, who runs the Coffee House on Clayton Avenue, wishes Staebell would mind his own business and not hers. "I don't know how one man can wreak so much havoc," says Booth ruefully, "especially since he's not a property owner. He creates problems that were never there."

The owner of Pat's Bar & Grill, Joe Finn, characterizes Staebell and his cohorts as "people who don't work for a living and are basically refuting the capitalist system." Standing on the business side of the bar, Finn pours as he speaks. "The liquor laws were designed for good reasons, and they're being used for all the wrong reasons. The protesters want people to respect their property rights, yet they don't respect the rights of commercial-property owners to earn a living off their investment. Other bar/restaurants may try to come to Dogtown, but, with this group standing at the gate, I wish them luck."

Asked to comment on his anti-liquor crusade, Staebell explains that he is reluctant to talk because he has "never been portrayed well in the press." He says he'll talk to his lawyer and, if the RFT decides to write about him, well, there may be room in the libel suit he is already considering against another newspaper.

So Staebell remains a mystery. He is known to have been an employee of Vintage Vinyl for much of the '90s, where he worked in their used-LP department -- but his stint there ended badly. His cartoons, once a mainstay on the editorial page of the Post-Dispatch, haven't been seen in the newspaper for three years. The Dogtown Dog Project kept him occupied for several months earlier this year until the Corkscrew entrepreneurs came along.

But Staebell's not invisible. On a beautiful November day, he strolls down Tamm as if he owns it. He stops before the Typographers Union to admire the framed art in the window, an entry in the Dogtown Dog Project -- then walks into a musical-instrument-repair shop. Earlier in the day, Staebell had answered his door, bald pate gleaming and intense blue eyes blinking in the morning sun. He said he was busy, far too busy, to talk -- later, maybe, but he couldn't say when. As he exits the shop, he makes haste toward his rusted Toyota. He is still unwilling to talk, he says, a fact that surprises one former work associate, who calls him "the most talkative motherfucker I know."