Pilsen Alliance disavows S.K.Y. confrontation; meeting follows
January 4, 2018

Photo by Troy Heinzeroth
Sigcho (at right) and Gillanders sitting down at S.K.Y. to discuss issues affecting Pilsen. Sigcho noted that negotiations can handle issues better than violence.

By Patrick Butler

Several weeks after protesters from a group called ChiResists held a protest march outside S.K.Y., a new “white tablecloth” eatery at 1239 W. 18th St., the Illinois Humanities group held what organizers hope will be the first of an ongoing series of conversations on how the community and new businesses coming into the area can learn to live together.

The ChiResists group confronted the restaurant’s general manager, Charles Ford, in late October. ChiResists, a newly organized local anti-gentrification group, blames places like S.K.Y. for driving longtime working-class residents out of the community.

Byron Sigcho of Pilsen Alliance, another anti-gentrification group, was quick to say that, even though some youths affiliated with the Pilsen Alliance went on a tour of the fast-changing neighborhood with ChiResisters and visitors from Los Angeles from a similar anti-gentrification group called Defend Boyle Heights, “we want people to understand we have always advocated for non-violence, especially in this politically charged environment.”

As Sigcho added, “We weren’t comfortable with what some of these other people were doing.” During most of the march, “only one person from our group was present. We already see enough hostility coming from the White House and elsewhere.

“We did not take part” in the incident “and we did not organize this,” Sigcho said.

Opposed to violence

Noting that vandals have tagged some buildings in the community with anti-gentrification graffiti, Sigcho said, “We definitely do not encourage violent acts.”

Sigcho said he has never been quiet about his concerns for Pilsen’s growing loss of affordable housing in what has for decades been a predominantly Hispanic working class community.

He and others have been holding town meetings on affordable housing, renters’ rights, a community-driven zoning process, and rent control. Last year, he held a town meeting in the fall at the Rudy Lozano Library, and organizers invited him to speak at the Nov. 30 Illinois Humanities forum on “The Increasing Presence of Upscale Restaurants in Pilsen.”

Sigcho believes negotiations can handle gentrification issues better than violence.

Leaders of ChiResists could not be reached for comment, but a ChiResists statement noted that “despite attempts to characterize us as bad and violent people, we’re not the ‘bad guys.’ We’re not the ones who have displaced more than 10,000 residents from Pilsen. We’re not the ones making deals with greedy developers who prioritize profit over people and community. 

“We are young residents, born and raised in Pilsen, that are hurting from seeing our people and history erased from our community and the city. We are the children of immigrants that watched our parents work for the homes they can’t afford to keep. We are the rent-burdened. We are the displaced.

“We know that at the root of gentrification are discriminatory policies and historic disinvestment from working-class communities. We know that those social injustices are what makes way for communities to be gentrified,” the ChiResist notice continued. 

Ford said the only thing he and his associates did was to renovate a long vacant building.

After a time at the protest, Ford said, he felt “berated” by the demonstrators and called police.

The ChiResists statement said, “We never touched the manager. Never threatened him. All we did was express our fears, rightful frustration, and demanded an end to business practices that accelerate our displacement. More than ever, it’s clear to us that demands for equality are seen as dangerous to those who benefit from inequality. 

“We are in fact the opposite of dangerous,” the statement added. “We have nothing but love for our community. And lastly, we will not allow for the irresponsible media to continue to present gentrification as a debatable issue.  Our right to housing is not up for debate.”

S.K.Y. owner and chef Stephen Gillanders, who is of Filipino heritage, said the place is far from a four-star eatery. He added that there is apparently a false impression of the type of restaurant it is.

Sigcho said he talked to Ford after the incident. “We had a good conversation,” Sigcho noted. “We discussed the other side of displacement.  We understand [protesters’] feelings, but there are better ways to deal with this.”

Community meeting

During the Nov. 30 meeting at LaCaterina Café, organized by Illinois Humanities, a group located at 125 S. Clark St. that encourages conversations about culture, moderator Xochyl Perez said most of the city already has become unaffordable to low income renters. Perez cited figures by the National Low Income Housing Committee indicating that, for every 100 extremely poor families, there are only 28 affordable apartments available for them.

“We see people paying 60 to 70 percent more on rent than they can actually afford,” Perez said.

Pilsen’s loss of 10,000 mostly low- to moderate-income Hispanic families over the past decade has meant school closings, forcing some students to get up at 5 a.m. to travel longer distances to get to class, Perez noted.

Among the complaints concerning gentrification from the approximately 70 people who turned out for the meeting were “losing our community” and memories of the old neighborhood and the loss of long established institutions such as St. Adalbert’s Church.

Other complaints besides widespread displacement included high prices, restaurant menus only in English, and a feeling that black and Hispanic residents are not welcome in some of the newer stores and restaurants.

Several neighbors said it is the newcomers’ job to adapt to the community, not the other way around.

“Why should Pilsen excuse people who impose a way of life that is foreign to the original inhabitants?” said Aldo Reyes, who described himself as a community activist. “The people who already live here have a way of life. The game of capitalism has divided people for hundreds of years. They say competition is natural. They are wrong. I say mutual aid is natural.”

New “people want to come here for cheap rents, but nothing about living here has been cheap for us,” said Ricardo Gamboa.

Another attendee who did not want to be named said, “And it’s not just whites discriminating against blacks and Hispanics,” noting he was “turned away when I was looking for an apartment because I wasn’t Mexican. I’m Puerto Rican.”

More business support

Local property owner Michael McLean said it might help for Hispanic business owners from outside the community to support the Pilsen community by moving there or coming back.

“If someone employs a lot of people who live in Pilsen, maybe his business should be here in Pilsen,” McLean said. “Maybe if you’re a business owner you should go to lunch in Pilsen and help those businesses that are already at risk.”

Elliott Hielman of Illinois Humanities noted some businesses target young, white professionals and may not welcome Hispanic residents as well as they should.

Sigcho said the meeting “was a good first step,” adding that he hopes it will be “the first of a number of such conversations. One of the issues we’re already working on is getting rent control.’’

Also in the hopper are “participatory budgeting for wards like ours,” Sigcho said. “And public zoning meetings. We’re trying to change the power dynamics in this community. We don’t want this to be us versus them.”

For more about ChiResists, log on to www.facebook.com/ChiResists/. Learn more about Illinois Humanities at www.ilhumanities.org/about-us/. For Pilsen Alliance, log on to www.thepilsenalliance.org/. For S.K.Y., log on to www.skyrestaurantchicago.com.