Diners attending the opening night at Dunsmoor in Glassell Park on Wednesday, June 29, walked past a vocal crowd protesting the restaurant’s alleged role in gentrifying the largely working-class Latino neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles. The approximately 50 demonstrators included immediate neighbors, nearby residents from Highland Park, and members of the LA Tenants Union (Northeast Local Chapter) and Street Watch Los Angeles, organizations dedicated to tenant rights. The restaurant’s large wraparound windows gave diners a full view of sign-holding demonstrators throughout service. Haphazardly scrawled banners read “Dunsmoor displaces,” “No queremos restaurante caros aqui” (we don’t want expensive restaurants here), and simply “fuera” (out), as diners tucked into roasted oysters, pork rillettes, and country ham.
Earlier on Wednesday, the restaurant’s exterior was graffitied by an unknown source. Written across the restaurant’s windows with red and white spray paint were the words “gentrification is genocide” and “el aburguesamiento es genocidio.” This is the fifth time Dunsmoor has removed graffiti off its storefront, which has cost the restaurant an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 on top of its $7,000 monthly payment for security.
Like many neighborhoods in Northeast Los Angeles, Glassell Park — where two-thirds of residents are Latino and the median household income hovers near $65,000 — is entrenched in a gentrification battle. The area, nestled between Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Mount Washington, Glendale, Atwater Village, and the LA River, is undergoing rapid social and economic changes that have led to sizable shifts in demographics, increased commercial development, a diminishment of its intrinsic culture, and the displacement of longtime residents and businesses. Though Dunsmoor isn’t the first new business to open in the neighborhood (nearby cocktail bar the Grant opened last August), demonstrators believe that it represents the final push before predatory developers irreversibly transform Glassell Park.
The group of community activists organizing under the “Dunsmoor is Done” umbrella say that chef Brian Dunsmoor’s restaurant, which is dedicated to preserving and sharing lesser-known American culinary foodways, is “harmful” for longtime Glassell Park residents, especially those who rent their homes. Businesses like his, which cater to a more affluent crowd with elevated offerings and prices, have attracted heightened speculation by developers and, in turn, landlords have raised rents and evicted long-standing tenants to take advantage of greater property values. Members of this loosely affiliated group hail from Glassell Park and meet weekly to organize around tenant rights and to protest newcomers like Dunsmoor.
Lifelong Highland Park resident Yaya Castillo, who attended the opening night demonstration, is wary of the incoming businesses occupying the historic building on the corner of Eagle Rock Boulevard and Avenue 35. In addition to Dunsmoor and the Grant, forthcoming tenants include Solarc Brewing and Bub and Grandma’s. “A building of this size and luxury will serve as a flagship of gentrification,” says Castillo. It will “signal to other developers that this community is ripe for the taking.”
Demonstrators say that nearby Northeast Los Angeles neighborhoods like Highland Park, Echo Park, and Silver Lake serve as a cautionary tale for the cultural erasure that results from unregulated development and the mass displacement of tenant residents. However, Glassell Park is not a monolith. While tenant residents fear being priced out of their rentals, many homeowning residents that benefit from the area’s increased property values are receptive to new businesses sprouting up. A representative for Dunsmoor said that many community members have personally welcomed the restaurant to the neighborhood and wished it well.
“The irony of all of this is that Brian and I are not multimillionaire restaurant fat cats,” says Taylor Parsons, a managing partner at Dunsmoor. “We are young people who rent their homes and work really hard in small businesses.” Parsons resides in Glassell Park, while Dunsmoor lives in Pasadena but plans to move closer to the restaurant once his current lease is finished.
In the months leading up to Dunsmoor’s opening, neither Parsons nor Dunsmoor heard many concerns from locals other than some pushback regarding an alcohol license. “This building was vacant for at least two decades. All the feedback that we heard from the surrounding community was excitement,” says Parsons. While construction was underway, Parsons and his team reached out to the neighborhood council, key stakeholders, and immediate neighbors to “let them know our intentions.” However, Parsons admits that “we didn’t have enough time and resources to really be as present as we wanted to be” prior to opening the restaurant.
Vee (last name withheld upon request), a spokesperson for LA Tenants Union and a Highland Park resident, says that, to her knowledge, no one from Dunsmoor reached out to or spoke with residents; she contends that the restaurant’s menu and prices make it inaccessible to those who live in the neighborhood. Vee stresses that restaurants like Dunsmoor signal that displacement is underway and that public demonstrations are the only way to convey the community’s dismay. “In my experience of dealing with people like this, there is no rationalizing. This stands as a symbol to invite other people not from around here with a lot of money to come into our neighborhoods and displace us,” she says. “Our message is literally ‘get out’ because this is going to bring harm to us. We’ve got to draw a line.”
While the Dunsmoor team intends to be “good neighbors” and “want this place to be an open door for everyone around us,” Parsons says they did not solicit feedback from community members on the restaurant’s overall concept, its menu of historically rooted American cooking, or pricing. “We’re not like a community revitalization organization. We’re not looking to be like, ‘Tell us what you want us to do and we’ll do it.’ We’re in this to open a restaurant with Brian Dunsmoor. And the concept is Brian Dunsmoor’s concept,” says Parsons. “That’s the restaurant that was opened, and this is the space we wanted to open it in.”
Although Dunsmoor is priced more affordably than comparable chef-driven restaurants in Los Angeles, its $9 tomato soup and $39 lamb sirloin are still generally out of reach for the neighborhood. “What working-class immigrant family here can pay $23 for lentils? What working-class people who come here can pay $11 for a side of cornbread?” says Castillo, the demonstrator from Highland Park. “That’s ridiculous and automatically excludes the majority of the working-class people in our community.”
Glassell Park residents who live on the same block as Dunsmoor say that outreach from the restaurant has been nonexistent, while the restaurant’s waste and construction have adversely affected their lives. Daniel Ramirez, who lives behind the building that houses Dunsmoor and the Grant, says that he alerted the restaurant to the odious smell of garbage emanating from the shared dumpster but received no response. “My sons are 7 and 9 years old,” says Ramirez. “They complain and say ‘something smells dead in the bin.’” Parsons tells Eater that the shared garbage will be collected daily now that the restaurant is fully open.
Another concern among neighbors was Dunsmoor’s general disregard for their well-being during the restaurant’s construction, with noise generated from power-washing concrete floors, hammers, and drills that disturbed the normally peaceful street.
Parsons, for his part, recognizes the complicated role that restaurants like Dunsmoor can play in a neighborhood’s gentrification, including attracting predatory developers, displacing longtime residents, and notably changing the “the tone and tenor of a neighborhood.” Though he and the Dunsmoor team understand that gentrification is “real” and are sympathetic to the neighborhood’s concerns, demonstrating outside the restaurant is an “ineffective use of energy” and doesn’t make “the life of renters more secure or stable in this neighborhood,” he says. Parsons says that talking to council members’ offices, housing development firms, and housing advocates and stakeholders could lead to more progress.
Though Parsons does not have a definitive roadmap for community relations in the long run, the restaurant is open to dialogue and will invite its immediate neighbors on Avenue 35 in for dinner next week. Further, he says, the restaurant will commit to not “undermining the quality of life in any way” on the restaurant-adjacent street by controlling the amount of noise and traffic the corridor experiences. The restaurant will also continue to hire from the community. Four of the seven members of the kitchen staff are from the neighborhood, says Dunsmoor. And once the restaurant gains its sea legs, the chef hopes to work with local children in some capacity through the neighborhood’s community garden.
Parsons plans to reach out to Eunisses Hernandez, the newly elected LA City Council District 1 representative, when she takes office in December to begin a conversation around gentrification. “She has been a pretty outspoken critic of gentrification and for a lot of very sensible and good reasons. I hope to have a dialogue with her about what her vision for this community is and how we can be a part of it.”
Members of the LA Tenants Union and Street Watch Los Angeles will continue organizing Glassell Park residents and educating them on their rights as tenants, especially with new landlords taking over aging buildings purchased during the height of the recent real estate boom. “We have multiple meetings every week and we have a very active group chat where tenants seek support and receive support from different community members who had victories against harassment and eviction,” says Joe (last name withheld upon request), a member of the LA Tenants Union and Glassell Park resident. He could not confirm whether any future demonstrations were planned at Dunsmoor.
While it is too soon to tell whether the collective efforts of community activists can slow the gentrifying forces at play in Glassell Park, those on the ground are committed to doing all they can to stave them off for as long as possible. “I wish I could transport [these new businesses] into somebody’s life who is experiencing housing insecurity, landlord harassment, not knowing where to go, not having anywhere to go. I wish I could transport them mentally for just five minutes,” says Vee. “Then maybe we can have a conversation. Until that happens, they really don’t know what they’re talking about.”