The communal living space called the Establishment at the corner of Leff and Santa Barbara streets has room for 19 tenants. Even when nobody is home, the Establishment is packed to the gills.
The exterior of the place is hard to nail down. Overgrown trees shade the profile of the Establishment’s front wall. To see the sign above the front door, you’d have to be looking for it. Between the trees and the fenced-off yard, only one side of the building is fully visible from the street. It’s easily overlooked.
Inside, tenants regularly collide with keepsakes from past residents in the Establishment’s innumerable nooks and crannies.
The Establishment is one of the few cooperative living spaces in San Luis Obispo. Since 1976, tenants have come and gone, leaving their marks. Each tenant has their own room, but the living room, kitchen and bathrooms are shared.
But even when the building’s common room is empty and seemingly dead, it has evidence of the liveliness that walks through it day to day. The room is full of keepsakes, photographs of tenants from generations ago and an unfinished puzzle from the week before. The ceilings, which feel higher than the outside should allow, insulate the traces of those memories.
This night, the kitchen of the Establishment is full. Four tenants cook four dinners across two industrial stoves and several feet of counter space. Other tenants are hanging on the chairs and over the table space, drinking coffee and laughing at dirty jokes.
Mark “Gizmo” Grayson has lived in the Establishment for a few years. He has a face like Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne with a curly head of grayish hair and is quick to laugh. Paired with his eccentric personality, he has a sort of oracle status with his knowledge of the place and the way he tells it.
In Grayson’s room, room nine, there’s a small figurine in a crevice. Even he doesn’t know where it came from.
“There’s a little weird hole in the wall. Everyone I’ve met says that little soldier guy was there from the beginning,” Grayson said.
No one knows who put the little soldier there, but everyone who has lived in the room notices it.
“They’re like, ‘Oh you used to be in nine! Did you see the little guy?’ Everyone has a super tight tie to their room,” Grayson said.
Nobody’s taken the toy. The soldier is left for the next passer-through. But when tenant Laura Anselmo found a memento in her room, she couldn’t resist grabbing it.
“When I lived in room 19, I was looking out my window. I found a creepy school picture in the wall of this girl,” Anselmo said. “On the back she wrote ‘Dear Jean, here’s my school picture. I hate the way I look in it. Love, Kelly.’ I thought, ‘I’m keeping this forever.’ There’s little nooks and crannies everywhere and who knows what’s hiding in them.”
Sometimes, old tenants come back and the mystery is solved. As she stood in the doorway of the kitchen, Emily Watson, the 24-year-old property manager and tenant, said a woman returned after two decades to search for her own memento.
“We had one woman come back. She stayed here in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. She came back and subleased for awhile. She was in the kitchen and pulled out a little Indian cutout in our cupboard. And she shouts, ‘The Indian! It’s still here!’ It stuck around for 20 years,” Watson said.
During the early ‘50s, before the Establishment was the Establishment, Jack Kerouac lived there for a year while writing “The Dharma Bums,” according to a 2009 “NewTimes” cover story. The tenants of the building take pride in the fact that a Beat Generation superstar may have spent nights in one of their rooms. Maybe a memento of his lies in the walls, waiting to be discovered. These myths are passed down to new housemates through conversation.
Watson said the preserved culture of the place is part of how it continues to exist today.
“It all relies on the people to carry over the culture, the tradition,” Watson said. “The owner is really hands off, it really has just been the people here passing that culture on to the new people.”
The further back the tradition goes, the shakier the details get. Grayson said there’s a story that the Establishment might not even have been built on the site it sits on today.
“There’s rumor that this building was across town to some degree and was rolled on logs to this location,” Grayson said.
When it comes to older myths about the place, creative interpretation has been added over the years. Even the landmark event of the house, the Establishment’s Halloween party, has a fuzzy past.
Nobody’s quite sure where the party originated, but it’s a cornerstone event of the house that is embraced anyway.
“Apparently this is the 30th anniversary this year, but we can’t tell if that’s just another one of those things that somebody came up with,” Watson said. “I looked at a newsletter from three years ago, and it said that year was the 27th anniversary. I’m relying on that.”
Watson walked through the house, and pointed out the defining aspects that bring the house character. The elements of unknown origin are almost better that way, shrouded in mystery.
“Eventually things get left places. Nobody can know where they came from,” Watson said.
The hall is full of cold cases like that, sitting and waiting to be discovered by the next tenant to walk on by.