By Joseph S. Pete

Okay, radical honesty:
The Elbow Room probably wasn’t the greatest bar in the history of bars,
but the enduring tavern was established in 1933,
making it a relatively historic artifact in a scorched-earth Midwestern city
that presses its strip malls and suburban dormitories
further and further into the fading bean fields of swollen collar counties.

The cozy, gloomily-lit dive of course occupied a flatiron building
like you’d you find in Manhattan or Wicker Park,
or that gentrifying stretch of historic Fletcher Place.
Despite the pool bros and college football marathons
and the stodgy menu of bland traditional pub fare that included tuna melts
long after everyone ceased ordering them,
in spite of the silver-tongued marketer’s billing as a pub and deli
when it was really just a pub,
the Elbow Room was down, electric, a scene unto itself.
The dive bar once hosted poetry readings,
once offered a needed venue for slam poets,
and poured craft beer before Sun King ruled everything around me.

The second-floor bar boasted beaucoup bay windows,
offered a sweeping, neon-lit vantage on the cityscape,
of street life and the preening pageantry of passing parades.
One could play darts or Big Buck Hunter
against a backdrop of well-worn wooden panels
while the world passed by under the streetlamps outside.

Even better,
one could swing in and grab an Oskar Blues craft beer
before dropping by the nearby Central Library,
savoring the aged scotch of the historic wood-paneled reading rooms
where the fireplaces always burned cozily,
showering in sunlight in the glassy and oh-so-contemporary atrium,
coasting up the escalators to the sixth floor
for the most sweeping vista of the Indy skyline
outside of the breathtaking approach from I-70 from the east.

The Central Library is a palimpsest in the best sense,
gleaming new welded onto stately old,
exactly what urban planners fantasize about
in REM sleep reveries,
a living city writhing in the Petri dish of a preserved past.

But in Indy, the past so often gets erased.
For every Angie’s List that repurposes a historic near-east side warehouse,
for every redevelopment project that preserves
the ornate Art Deco facades of the Mass Ave. Coca Cola Bottling Plant,
a grand if shambling old lady filled with shifting stacks of memories,
like the bygone Star newsroom at Pennsylvania and New York,
comes down to make way for generic, glassy, mid-rise apartments.
Entire streetscapes have vanished, dimly recalled
or memorialized in vintage black-and-white photos
on interpretive signs overlooking radically overhauled downtown streets
from the glass-encased vantage of the Indianapolis Artsgarden.

The Elbow Room was replaced by a more modern venture
with a trendier name and a fresher menu,
with “street snacks” grounded in a “new rural and new urban cuisine.”
Decades of history wiped away
for a flash-in-the-pan “urban lunch cafe” concept
that will likely be retired and replaced
as soon as it’s deemed stale.

Indy is a city with a storied past that spans
Kurt Vonnegut, Wonder Bread, the Gatling Gun.
The Elbow Room endured
for more than eighty years,
served generations of the thirsty and the convivial and the lost.
But Indy is a city that moves on. ■



Indiana Humanities - INseparable logo (black)This story was produced in partnership with Indiana Humanities’ INseparable project. Read more stories in the series here.

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor, Inland, Hoosier State Press Association, and Indiana Society for Professional Journalists award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He is the author of the forthcoming books Lost Hammond by The History Press and 100 Things to Do in Gary and Northwest Indiana Before You Die by Reedy Press.

Cover image courtesy Joseph S. Pete.

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at $5 per month.