by Greg Foisie
The unlikely continuity of the UnUrban Coffee House on Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica may be due to a combination of illogical persistence, fierce determination, and the hopeful dedication to idealism of its owner. In the face of hard times, this people-centered, down-to-earth and charming gathering place has become a jewel amid unbridled West-side development that threatens to rip the soul out of neighborhoods. Its bohemian atmosphere champions freedom, acceptance, awareness, artistic expression and creativity.
A Community Effort
Pamela Stollings began this business in the summer of 1995 with two other partners but soon she became its sole proprietor. Being a dancer and stilt walker by profession, Pam pursued the business not primarily as a for-profit venture, but as a community resource because she cares about people.
Pam estimates that about 40,000 musicians/performances have showcased at the UnUrban over the past 20 years. She notes much of this activity has been possible due to people’s ability to give.
There’ve many community donations to the UnUrban, including the repurposed furniture. Over the years volunteers have helped host and performed at events that have included flamenco nights, wedding proposals, art show openings, and a Quinceanera. In Pam’s words, We’ve survived because the community has really stepped up and pitched in.
Her care for the well-being of others has led Pam to pursue a law degree from People’s College of Law in LA. She learned to navigate city red tape as she kept the UnUrban alive, and she seeks to broaden this ability. However, Pam is placing her legal studies on hold to support the UnUrban through a transition as it evolves to meet the demands of changing times.
Central features of the UnUrban Coffee House are its meeting, display, and performance spaces. Local art is displayed (changing every four weeks), and a wide variety of performers engage audiences each week as they perfect their art before live audiences. Pam makes cafe resources free to the community, only asking that those attending consider purchasing something to eat or drink there. The single exception to-date is that in her struggle to stay open, Pam now asks the UnUrbanís Friday Night Open Mic performers to chip in $5 per person for the evening.
Of special note is the menu. All meals are homemade, with continual accolades for Pamís turkey chili, soups from scratch, amazing smoothies, and great coffee, drinks, and sandwiches. One example of her dedication is her continual increase in quality of all products served (more organic, homemade/local, GMO-free ingredients, and Fair Trade, organic, local roast coffee). For Pamela and her supporters, this decision is mandated by ethical concerns for othersí well-being as well as the fact that people want that. The quality improvement increases her costs, yet the UnUrban maintains the most modest prices in town.
Pam has managed to keep the UnUrban Coffee House afloat through long hours and personal financial sacrifice, including carrying an extensive credit card debt. Her unlikely business plan is putting people before profit. Pamela’s personal philosophy also includes supporting self-expression. This is one reason the UnUrban Coffee House placed special emphasis on hosting open mics, where the public is welcome to share their creativity. She notes such opportunities are dwindling on the west-side. Other local establishments in nearby Venice like Witz End and The Talking Stick on Lincoln Blvd. and eateries like Local 1205 and Halís on Abbot Kinney have fallen to the wayside as rents have escalated over the past five years at an alarming rate. Former patrons of those establishments have found themselves thankful the UnUrban is still around, relocating their activities and business to its premises.
A Social Cauldron of Creativity
The local community has responded enthusiastically. UnUrban-based activities represent wide diversity. The cafe is home to dozens of artist, small business, club and organization gatherings: a wide assortment of discussion groups have met at the UnUrban from the Green Party to 9-11 Truth to Chem Trails; directors, actors and writers can be overheard discussing their craft; families often gather in the cafe’s rich ambiance; regular meetings have included creative writing classes and Poetry for Prose; gallery openings showcasing local art are par for the course; comedians present to each other Tuesday evenings during Komedy Night. Live music includes Mother Nature’s Army every other Thursday afternoon, and Almost Vaudeville with Brad Kay and Mews Small and friends every Sunday afternoon. Local film crews have used the UnUrban as a set. Gerry Fialka’s free cultural events (Laughtears.com); clubs such as the Santa Monica Go Club and the Santa Monica Astrology Club, and numerous AA Meetings have all called the UnUrban home.
The UnUrban is a testament to the importance of and belief in community spirit and the dignity of what it means to be fully human. In these times of corporate proliferation, the UnUrban is a personification of small and community are beautiful and the love of what is truly important that surely includes creativity, self-determination, and caring from others. So the UnUrban stands as an example of what it means for a business to serve others and care about them enough to nurture their needs and goals in the most supportive fashion.
As this article is being written, Pam and her crew are working long hours renovating the coffee house for the celebration of its 20th Anniversary in September. Check out up-coming Change-Links for a coupon for a free cup of UnUrban coffee, and come enjoy the atmosphere that is uniquely UnUrban.
The UnUrban Coffee House
3301 Pico Blvd.,
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Hours: Monday through Saturday: 7:00 am – midnight; Sunday: 8:00 am – 8:00 pm
To see the UnUrban Coffee House activity schedule and learn about upcoming events, go to unurban.com. To book art or performance space at the UnUrban, please call 310-315-0056.
Greg Foisie is a CSULA graduate student and UnUrban Coffee House regular, who has helped organize events at the UnUrban, including the community tribute and silent auction of the secret paintings of John Johnson, a founder and the long-time editor of Change-Links.