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Grassy Knoll: A Provocative Place That Isn't Just a Hangout

June 17, 1993|TERRY MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SILVER LAKE — The Grassy Knoll, a new coffeehouse in Silver Lake, is more than just another hangout for cappuccino lovers.

The coffeehouse, which opened shortly after the first of the year, anchors a building on Sunset Boulevard near Sanborn Avenue that also offers low-rent apartments for "sober-living" tenants, a basement commercial area, and meeting and performance space.

"We wanted to have as literate as possible a crowd and we wanted something provocative enough to start a dialogue," explained proprietor Vanya Seiss, referring to the new business' identification with the site where, some believe, gunmen fired shots during the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy in downtown Dallas.

Seiss, 36, and Stewart Eddins, 29, are co-owners of the coffeehouse and manage the 18 apartment units upstairs.

Just a few months ago, the Sunset Junction Building, a former hotel built circa 1924, was mainly populated by transvestite prostitutes, undocumented immigrants and drug users.

Seiss says it took two years to persuade the owner to let her take over the premises. She gained his trust, and financial support, by starting art programs in two of his other apartment buildings in nearby Hollywood. What she offered in return was a gradually stabilized environment in the building.

"It's a poker game," Seiss explained. "I give him a good tenant, he donates a piece of gym equipment for the basement."

With the owner's approval, Seiss evicted the criminal element and now the tenants, including 15 singles and three couples, are mostly people in recovery programs.

The landlord, who prefers to remain anonymous, said he is a "silent" partner and has invested more than $50,000 toward the renovations and other costs.

According to Seiss, she and Eddins have faced their share of challenges in getting the project off the ground.

When they started cleaning out the building, they had to contend with hundreds of pigeons that had settled in the air shafts. Seiss said they tried without success to contact wildlife foundations to help with the problem.

"We banged on pots and pans to chase them out," she said.

During heavy rains in November, the roof collapsed and flooded eight apartments on the evening before an art show opening in the building. But the event went on as scheduled.

Seiss said that, even with the odds against them, there were hopeful signs.

After the first of the year, the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM) gathered at the Grassy Knoll in an attempt to strengthen its weakening bonds.

A red-tailed hawk which, along with the eagle, symbolizes positive energy in Indian culture, flew in through an open-air shaft the day before the meeting and stayed. After the meeting--which was attended by AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, the group's local chairman, Michael Hunter, and nearly 60 other American Indian activists--the hawk flew away. But the large bird of prey comes back to visit occasionally, Seiss said.

Seiss was interested in starting a nightclub when she first approached the landlord. When their discussions turned to obtaining a liquor license, Seiss--who says she abused everything from wine to heroin--began to think more about her own problems with chemicals. So she went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and got hooked on recovery. She says she has been sober for two years.

Eddins--who recently entered a recovery program--ended up as co-owner and manager under a series of circumstances. He had been working with Seiss' former partner on an art show when the partner dropped out of the building project.

Seiss, a single mother who had been in a hospital having her baby, honored the deal with Eddins and, after learning that he was like-minded, artistic--and skilled in renovating properties--pulled him in.

Eddins, whose marriage was ending, had no permanent place to live. He was spending more and more time at the Grassy Knoll helping out and quickly agreed to the partnership. The two partners are not linked romantically.

Now the Grassy Knoll complex forms a loose community that works on the honor system. The only requirement for tenants is that they pay the rent--$500 for a one-bedroom unit, $400 for a single--on time. All tenants have signed an agreement not to throw wild parties or invite tenants in recovery to share a drink. Those not in recovery programs can imbibe quietly in their homes.

Seiss says the system is more about people taking care of each other, rather than being restrictive.

The coffeehouse menu is fairly typical, distinguished by its low prices--for example, $1.75 for a slice of cake, 60 cents for a cup of American coffee. Seiss has also added Turbo Coke, a peppy concoction which she swears by. Simply, it is the famous soda pop laced with a shot of strong espresso.

The Grassy Knoll also offers nightly entertainment--acoustic folk, jazz guitar, a film festival, Latin theater, casino night.

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