PILSEN — Activists demonstrating how gentrification has changed Pilsen clashed with the management of a soon-to-open, high-end eatery on 18th Street in a confrontation that led the restaurant to call police.
The confrontation unfolded early last week as members of ChiResists and other anti-gentrification groups joined with the Los Angeles-based Defend Boyle Heights in a tour of the neighborhood that was recorded on Facebook Live.
Although he wasn't involved in the incident, Stephen Gillanders, the chef-owner of S.K.Y., said Thursday he and his wife — a Filipino and Korean couple — independently own the eatery that is designed to be a space that is welcoming for everyone.
"I think there's this false understanding of what we are," Gillanders said Thursday. "There's no big money — it's just us. We realize there's so much more to do and help, but we've got to have a conversation about it in the most constructive way possible."
In the video, the activists walk 18th Street and after about 13 minutes, come upon S.K.Y. Restaurant, which will open Nov. 17 at 1239 W. 18th St. Displeased with the arrival of the fancy restaurant, they give the middle finger to workers inside and fog the window to write "FU" before they are approached by S.K.Y. general manager Charles Ford.
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Activists tell Ford that the restaurant, attracted by the vibrant, already established culture of the neighborhood, contributes indirectly to rising rent prices, which pushes out poor residents who have nurtured the community for decades.
"You've inserted yourself into a community that doesn't want you, without talking to us first," one activist says of the restaurant. "It's national news that Pilsen is fighting gentrification, and you still" came here.
When Ford asks what he can do to help, one person immediately responds: "Get the f--- out."
ChiResists and several of the activists involved did not respond to requests for comment from DNAinfo. While some said they were also a part of Pilsen Alliance, the non-profit organization did not have a hand in orchestrating the tour last week.
Ford points out that the building was vacant and condemned before S.K.Y. began renovations in the spring. For years, the location was the home of Allport Medical Center, a low-cost clinic that closed in 2014.
"Well, welcome to being a f---ing poor person where developers and people with money don't give a s---," replied one of the visiting Los Angeles activists.
The group also told Ford that his restaurant was inaccessible to the average Pilsen family. Gillanders later said that wasn't true.
"We want to focus more on technique than extravagance, and the way we try to be approachable is big for us," the chef-owner said.
Shared plates start at $7, and entrees max out in the $20-$30 range. While similar to nearby Dusek's restaurant, the restaurant on the first floor of the renovated concert venue Thalia Hall, the prices are considerably higher than some longtime restaurants on 18th Street.
Even with the best intentions and what one activists calls the "token philanthropy" of working with the Pilsen Community Market and Kitchen Possible, the mere presence of restaurants like S.K.Y. and Dusek's contributes to the displacement of longtime residents, the activists said. Developers chasing the neighborhood's new trendiness are "consistently harassing" neighbors with letters and pleas to purchase their homes, the said.
"Literally, our lives are in danger because you are here," one activists tells Ford. "I feel like you don't understand that, and I'm really saddened by that."
The building at 1239 W. 18th St., seen here in October 2016, has been vacant since 2014, when the Allport Medical Center closed. Next month, S.K.Y. Restaurant will open in the remodeled space. [Screenshot/Google Maps]
"We're a restaurant of many different races and ethnicities," Ford said.
When Ford noted Gillanders' Filipino roots, the group broke out into sarcastic applause and cheers, saying "False alarm!" and "Diversity!"
The activists are in disbelief as Ford then calls police, although no threats of violence can be heard on the video. One activists holds out a glass to collect "white male tears."
"They don't see their actions as hostile, but as soon as we want to engage them in conversation they see that as hostile," another activist says. "They get to set the terms of what's hostile, what's violent, even though their opening of this restaurant is a violence against our community."
Police confirm they were called but said the group left before officers arrived. In the video, the group continues walking on 18th Street and heads to Dusek's, which someone calls the "No. 1 gentrifying f------ place in Pilsen" and where the group flips off diners through the window.
Stress levels high
Gillanders and Ford told DNAinfo that the live-streamed incident happened 12 hours into their work day as they were preparing for their first trial dinner at the restaurant with family and friends.
With stress levels already high, employees were concerned when the activists showed up outside, particularly after similar incidents led to people coming into the restaurant and causing a disturbance, they said.
"We had a pretty decent conversation, but at the same time, there are eight to 10 people in my face, calling me incredibly unfortunate names," Ford said. "Behind the camera, people are flipping me off and mouthing, 'F--- you.' "
"That's a long time to be getting berated for," Gillanders said. "And there was seemingly no end other than potential escalation."
Added Ford: "If you put any person in a situation that I think I was put in, many people will react the same way. I hate calling the police, but it was one of those situations where we didn't know what else to do."
While Gillanders only heard about the situation afterward, he said he fully supports Ford's decision.
"We're upset by it, but I firmly believe [Ford] is just trying to do the right thing by us," he said. "We got caught off guard at a point where emotions were running high, and we were taken aback by it."
Gillanders said he hopes to meet with the activists soon and clear the air, but is frustrated by attempts to sabotage his restaurant with poor online reviews before it has even opened.
"I thought with my wife and me coming in as owners, they'd be relieved it wasn't a Wendy's or a Starbucks or a restaurant group," Gillanders said. "Was it naïve to think we were a better-case scenario than most? Maybe. But we're really not 'the man.' I don't see us like that."