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Local, Cornered

A Mission restaurateur becomes the latest casualty of the gentrification wars.

Graffiti on the windows of Local Mission Market on May 9, 2014. 

 

On a Wednesday afternoon in July, someone spit at Yaron Milgrom. It happened on 24th Street near Local Mission Eatery, the restaurant that he opened shortly after moving to the Mission six years ago. Although the incident may have been random—Milgrom recalls the spitter as “just some guy”—he had reason to suspect that there was more to it, given the chain of events preceding the assault: the bricks launched at and through the windows of his seafood restaurant, Local’s Corner; the graffiti disfiguring all four of his neighborhood businesses with sentiments like “Die,” “Get Lost,” and “Keep the Mission Brown”; and the two protests, staged seven months apart, that accused him of racism, discrimination, and contributing to the Mission’s demise at the greedy hands of marauding gentrifiers.

Looking back, Milgrom wonders if his troubles might have started as soon as he gave his businesses their names. “Maybe we should have made it clearer that our use of ‘local’ isn’t about being local,” he says of Local’s Corner, which he opened in 2012. “It’s about our sourcing. People really, really get riled up, particularly about the possessive s.”

That possessive s—who owns what, who belongs where, how ownership can determine a city’s social, cultural, and economic fabric—is the root of San Francisco’s never-ending culture war. What’s become evident in the endless saga of evictions, protests, boycotts, and vandalism is not so much the antagonism between the warring factions as their surpassing failure to communicate with each other. The Mission community activists who have targeted Milgrom’s businesses believe that he and his ilk are doing nothing short of ruining their neighborhood and the city itself. The accused, in turn, react with befuddlement: They’re small-business owners, hiring locals, fixing up decrepit storefronts, and bringing money into the community. Why should they be held up as avatars of the apocalypse or, as happened one night in 2012 when a band of anarchists marched through the Mission, have their windows smashed and facades paint-bombed?

The only thing that Milgrom knows for sure is that the real problem began on Cesar Chavez Day in April 2013 when a 49-year-old woman named Sandra Cuadra came to Local’s Corner for brunch. The restaurant, which is on Bryant Street, is one of four businesses that Milgrom has opened in the Mission since 2010: In addition to Local Mission Eatery, there’s Local Mission Market, a grocery store on Harrison Street, and Local Cellar, a bottle shop on 22nd Street.

A server reportedly told Cuadra, a lifelong resident of the Mission and a Latina, that the 28-seat restaurant couldn’t accommodate her party of six, and suggested that they wait for an outside table or go to Local Mission Eatery. After hearing about the ensuing fallout, Milgrom contacted Cuadra and went to her house, where, he says, the two had an honest if occasionally heated conversation. But tensions grew: In May, Local’s Corner was vandalized. In October, shortly before she died of cancer, Cuadra spoke at a protest against Milgrom. In December, there was a second incident at Local’s Corner involving an African-American City College professor and nine students: A server reportedly told the group that their party was too big and suggested that they go to Local Mission Eatery. The following month, a window was broken at Local’s Corner. This May, all four of Milgrom’s businesses were vandalized.

That same month, Milgrom says, a friend sent him a Facebook post from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a statewide organization whose 100-member local chapter was planning a protest and boycott of his businesses. When he contacted the group, which focuses on issues affecting immigrants and low-income families, a representative told him, “‘This is like the soda fountains in the South,’” Milgrom recalls. “I said, you’re losing me right away if you think this is systemic planned racism against an entire people.”

The ACCE activists put together a list of demands that commanded Milgrom to (among other things) post a sign in his restaurants instructing patrons to call the Human Rights Commission if they felt discriminated against; undergo sensitivity training along with the rest of his staff; and hire workers from the Mission Language and Vocational School. In July, after Milgrom refused to sign the document, the ACCE put up posters around the neighborhood announcing the boycott.

“If you want to find one person you can use as a whipping boy for these major social changes taking place, he’s a good one,” says Phil Lesser, one of the vice presidents of the Mission Merchants Association and a permit expediter and consultant to numerous restaurant owners. Milgrom, he says, “set up in the more Latin part of the Mission, and he set up businesses oriented not to a working-class Latin demographic but to twenty- and thirtysomething techies enamored with the Mission.” In the process, Milgrom’s travails have made it clear that opening a restaurant in the neighborhood has come to be viewed as a de facto political act, a declaration of class, values, and demographic affiliation. Or, as David White, the co-owner of a Mission restaurant group that includes Flour + Water and Central Kitchen, puts it, “Restaurants are visible. It’s hard to point a finger at a socioeconomic group. It’s easier for someone to point at an establishment serving $15 pizza.”

 

As targets go, Milgrom is both an obvious and an unlikely one. On the one hand, he’s selling $28 plates of pastured hen at Local Mission Eatery—along a corridor that Lesser describes as a “bastion” of Latino culture. At Local Mission Market, which Milgrom opened last November, you’ll find $14 jars of housemade applesauce and $32-per-pound sheep’s milk cheese from Sonoma. Conceived as a shrine to obsessive locavorism—almost all of its products are made in-house or sourced from within a 90-mile radius—it registers equal parts Portlandia and conceptual art piece.

But on the other hand, Milgrom is the kind of iron-forged progressive that San Francisco claims to adore. When he moved to the Mission from New York City six years ago, he was working on a PhD in medieval Jewish mysticism. The son of a rabbi, he grew up volunteering at homeless shelters. The oldest of his three young children is in a Spanish-language immersion program at a local public school. His wife is a family medicine physician at San Francisco General Hospital who also does work for Planned Parenthood.

And Milgrom is hardly the Mission’s only restaurant empire–builder. The businesses in White’s portfolio—Flour + Water, Central Kitchen, Trick Dog, and Salumeria—are the same pricey brand of yuppie catnip as Milgrom’s. The difference, White theorizes, is their location along 20th Street: When he opened Flour + Water in 2009, he recalls, the area was “the Wild West,” populated by derelict storefronts, warehouses, and prostitutes—but also by a growing number of upwardly mobile residents eager for better dining options. While White and his partners have experienced their share of animus, he says, it’s been nothing compared to the abuse hurled at Milgrom.

Still, geography doesn’t completely explain Milgrom’s predicament. A block away from Local Mission Eatery, Wise Sons has peddled $13.75 pastrami sandwiches without incident since 2012, while the $4 scoops of ice cream that Humphry Slocombe sells just off of 24th Street likewise haven’t provoked the community’s ire.

Miles Pickering, the owner of Pig & Pie, a restaurant on 24th Street, recalls that when he opened his place a little more than two years ago, he had to contend with occasional passersby who would spit at or flip off his storefront. But the hostility abated after a year; most people, he says, “were very welcoming.” He thinks that Milgrom’s problem is multifaceted.

“He has expanded quickly without being sensitive to the culture of the neighborhood,” Pickering says. “People feel like his establishments are for ‘outsiders’”—and so, regardless of whether anyone was refused service at Local’s Corner, Milgrom’s detractors have used the alleged incidents to justify their feelings about him. That’s one reason why Milgrom has become “the focal point of a lot of people’s unhappiness about gentrification,” Pickering says.

 

The owner of one Valencia Street restaurant says that neighborhood tensions make it all but necessary to hire a fixer like Lesser, who has built a reputation helping restaurateurs negotiate with disgruntled neighbors. “I paid Phil Lesser $50,000 over the course of two years to be a liaison,” says the restaurateur. “I had to do things like send out a mailer to all the neighbors and make them cocktails at the police station. Lesser’s like, ‘This is a political issue. You have to do the politicians’ jobs for them.’”

But Milgrom doesn’t have Phil Lesser. (Though they’ve met before, Milgrom didn’t consider asking him for advice because he didn’t know about Lesser’s work as a community liaison.) What he does have, he says, “is a very hard time engaging with ACCE.” Although the two parties have met, Noemi Sohn, the cochair of the ACCE’s Mission-Bernal chapter, says that the group won’t rest until Milgrom says, “Yes, I heard from the community, I would like to be part of the community, and I will sign off.”

Although Milgrom says that he has already contacted the Human Rights Commission about sensitivity training and has been working with the Mission Language and Vocational School, Sohn maintains that signing the ACCE’s list of demands is the only way for him to demonstrate his commitment. Does he deserve to be boycotted if he refuses? “I don’t know,” she admits. But she is adamant that any new restaurant in the neighborhood “has to reflect what the community is used to,” and feels that the owners of fancier restaurants are imposing their values and attitudes on the neighborhood.

If Milgrom had asked him for advice, Lesser says, he would have told him, “Don’t let them position you as some kind of outsider.” Regardless of what transpired between Cuadra and Milgrom’s staff at Local’s Corner (Milgrom maintains that parties of six during brunch service can only be seated outside and that the outside seating was full, but admits that this wasn’t communicated “sensitively” by the server), it has effectively cast Milgrom as an outsider. Since last April, business at Local’s Corner has been down 20 percent. The endless he-said-she-said volley between Milgrom and the ACCE has taken on a surreal, bureaucratic flavor that he describes as “Brazil meets Twin Peaks.” The ACCE demands that Milgrom play by its rules. Milgrom claims that he is. “Nothing goes anywhere,” he says. “It’s not clear to me where the exit is.”