In early 2010, Mino Jegalian's family purchased a low-rent, five-unit retail property at the southwest corner of Fountain and Normandie, retaining three of the original tenants, and adding a fourth. But the corner unit, once home to a rowdy dive bar called the Grasshopper, remained vacant, unable to shake its sordid legacy. So Jegalian, anxious to exorcize the Grasshopper's ghost, took on the dilapidated space himself, and determined to transform it into a respectable pub. The Fountain, as he envisioned it, would be a place where local people could mingle over live jazz, tasty food, fine coffee, and local beer. He thought his plan would garner local support. But it's been an uphill battle ever since.
Jegalian was born and raised in Little Armenia, not far from the proposed site of The Fountain, and today he's raising a family of his own just a few blocks away. As a kid, Jegalian used to ride his bike throughout the neighborhood — a neighborhood that now boasts a bike route bearing the city's first official shared-lane markings, or “sharrows” (white stenciled chevrons and bike symbols that show cyclists where to ride safely, and remind motorists to share the road). Back in the 80s, young Mino's parents forbade him from riding near the intersection of Fountain and Normandie. But the Jegalians weren't afraid of cars. They were afraid of the Grasshopper.
“It was scary,” Jegalian recalled. The Grasshopper finally shuttered in 2007, and a concept called Temporary Spaces opened in its place — a pop-up nightclub that did little to endear itself to the neighbors. By the time the Jegalians purchased the property, Temporary Spaces had vacated, but the neighbors' prejudice against the space remained.
“The biggest problem we're facing is people's memory of what this place used to be,” said Greg Simitian, an East Hollywood local and longtime Jegalian friend who's been trying to expedite the approval process. “[Jegalian and I] live in the community,” Simitian said. “We want to beautify this place, and make it a nice place for people to come. We want to get rid of some of that tagging, some of that bad element. Our goal is to get this place going so we can renovate inside.”
Jegalian and Simitian plan to install windows, and give the building a much-needed facelift. They hope a visible change outside will help sway leery locals, many of whom fear another Grasshopper.
Hollywood-based community activist and former City Council candidate Stephen Box has voiced support for Jegalian, pledging to work with the L.A. Department of Transportation to install bike racks outside The Fountain in the hope that young, hip East Hollywood, Los Feliz, and Silver Lake bicyclists who use the bike route will embrace the new tavern as a bike-friendly pit-stop and neighborhood hangout.
“There are sharrows right out front, and there are no bike racks in the neighborhood,” Box said. “Instead you've got neighbors saying [Jegalian] needs to get a parking lot and an armed guard. This is just a local guy who wants to operate a little local business. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and [Jegalian] is a great example of a local guy who wants to invest in the community. Yet he encounters obstacle after obstacle. We should be giving him a proclamation…I think [The Fountain] would bring that section of the neighborhood to life.”
In addition to bike racks, Jegalian hopes free Wi-Fi will attract young patrons. And Simitian wants to install multiple flat screen TVs to help draw sports fans on weekends. Jegalian also plans to diversify the bar's liquid offerings.
“In L.A., either you go to a coffee shop or you go to a bar,” Jegalian said. “We're going to do some serious coffee. But we're also going to have sixteen local craft beers on tap, some German and Mexican lagers in bottles, some Eastern European beers, some Thai beers, and some Armenian beers. We're going to have some fun.”
Jegalian wants to carry wine, too, though he admits to knowing almost nothing about it. “I love the culture of beer,” he said. As for the food menu, he says we can expect to see panini, quesadillas, and some Armenian meats like basturma and soujouk.
While Jegalian plans to completely refurbish the space and install a small kitchen, he also intends to keep some of the establishment's more attractive elements, including the original solid wood bar, the live performance stage, and the molded concrete floor.
This summer, he enlisted a few East Hollywood locals to help him transform the dilapidated space. He hired a man named Mario, whose residence abuts the would-be tavern, to install the new windows, and he asked one of his tenants — a custom upholsterer — to add some flair to the chairs and booths.
Jegalian also plans to commission famed L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell to decorate the building's long east wall. Twitchell recently restored another one of his murals at the corner of Fountain and Kingsley, and he's expressed interest in working with Jegalian.
Yet despite all his efforts, and all his waiting, Jegalian may never receive city approval. “If I didn't own the place, I would never have survived this long,” he says. So at this point, he can only hope that his neighbors come to realize the value of what he's trying to accomplish, and rally together to defend his cause. But if they don't?
“Fountain's going to end up being nothing but auto body repair shops,” Box says. “Wouldn't it be nice to walk down the street, or ride your bike down the street, rather than just going on your way to somewhere else?”