The wall seemed to materialize overnight.
Where once there was the pleasantly twee boutique, its offerings of Navajo blankets and denim shorts carefully staged like an anthropological survey of Silver Lake, now there was a cinder block bunker. A sheet of paper taped to the window confirmed the new tenant: A bar, or, rather, an expansion of a treasured restaurant that had been at the same corner for almost 15 years. Yet there was something ominous, something threatening. Some people — even the same people who liked the restaurant — did not like this wall.
For weeks, it was a topic of conversation in the neighborhood. At the coffee shop next door, regulars scowled over their lattes. At dinner parties around the reservoir, longtime residents shook their heads. By the time it reached the Internet, commenters were calling for boycotts of the restaurant. One night, four words in suspiciously impeccable penmanship appeared on the wall, articulating the local consensus: “Tear down this wall.”
Gareth Kantner, owner of Cafe Stella and its cinder-block aspirations, defended his actions at a meeting last night in Silver Lake. According to a rendering he passed out to attendees, the cinder blocks would be covered by stucco (by last night they were already swabbed), painted blue and planted with bougainvillea. So why such a walled garden? “My patrons have told me they love their privacy,” he said, with much conviction. But Cafe Stella already has a vast and quite private outdoor patio to serve those patrons. What about those of us who like a little neighborhood with our wine?
The day before, Kantner had given a different answer. He told The Eastsider LA that the wall was to protect local schoolchildren from witnessing the indecency of adults enjoying alcoholic beverages. At the meeting, the truth became more apparent as he seemed to reveal that the wall was not for the children but rather for his own dining preferences. “I don't want to sit there with a beautiful meal and a bottle of wine and have headlights in my face,” he said. “People ask people to marry them at my restaurant!” It became clear these 6-foot-high walls were specifically designed to keep the unsavory elements of the street — cars! lights! those who can't afford to propose there! — far away from his duck confit.
The Blue Monster, as I've just decided to call it, sticks a sharp elbow out onto the sidewalk to claim a rather small triangle of outdoor space. The wall also blocks nearly all of the building's large glass window, rendering the new facade blank. Aesthetically, it has more in common with a bomb shelter, protecting imbibers from the imagined post-apocalyptic fallout of Sunset Boulevard. As I peered into the tiny space yesterday, I imagined the new Cafe Stella experience. I decided it would be much like drinking in a blue stucco jail cell while I was slowly suffocated to death, stealing sips of Chenin blanc between my final gasps of air.
Kantner hasn't broken any laws; he seemed to pull the right permits, and the wall is on his own private property. But the crime is that this visionary man, who has carved out two of the neighborhood's most vibrant spaces — Intelligentsia's patio for sure, and how about that sweet little courtyard outside the Cheese Store of Silver Lake? — seems to have lost touch with what the neighbors actually want now: to see each other.
Up the street, restaurants like Naya have seen the value in this, peeling open their facades to put drinkers closer to the sidewalk. But as I walked last night from the NBA-fueled cheers at Good toward the silence of Sunset Junction, I realized that the heart of Silver Lake is dead at night. People go somewhere else to drink. They leave the sidewalks. Our streets go quiet. This makes us look boring. But it also makes the neighborhood unsafe.
When the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council approved Kantner's expansion, they also granted him permission to apply for a hard liquor license and the ability to extend his hours to 2 a.m. So when this new bar stays open into the wee hours, supposedly flooding this corner with life, it will all be neatly and dishearteningly censored by the dark 6-foot-tall wall.
With so many businesses in flux along this strip, what Silver Lake needs more than anything right now is to show people drinking. Sitting outside, boozing it up. In public. At night. Seeing people having fun brings more people who want to have fun. Who will order more drinks. With money.
I can't believe a businessman who claims to know his customers so well can't see the value in attracting new ones.
The wall in question is located at Cafe Stella, 3932 W. Sunset Blvd.