Unite Here Local 11, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, has launched a petition drive opposing a plan to integrate the Factory on Robertson Boulevard into the Robertson Lane hotel and retail complex.
Faring, the developer of the Robertson Lane project, plans to renovate a little more than half of the Factory building and acknowledge it as the location of Studio One, a well-known gay nightclub in the 1970s and into the early 1990s, and as the original home of Mitchell Camera Company, which was located there from 1929 to 1946.
The union opposes the recognition of Studio One, claiming the gay club discriminated against women and African-American men. In a press release announcing the petition drive, the union notes that Don Kilhefner, an LGBT historian, has been critical of the project and how it portrays the history of Studio One. “Kilhefner and other activists have criticized the project for ‘whitewashing’ the nightclub’s more controversial history and failing to take a proactive role in combating ongoing racism and sexism in the hospitality industry,” says the announcement.
“While Studio One famously held some of the country’s first AIDS fundraisers, it was also the site of vocal protest against the club’s discriminatory admission policy. The club allegedly required extra identification from female and African American patrons at the door.
“This project should be learning from the site’s history, not sanitizing it and allowing the mistakes of the past to endure”, said Kilhefner, who was a co-founder of the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front. Kilhefner called out Studio One’s history in an op-ed published in WEHOville in August 2016.
Faring agreed to preserve part of the Factory building after a campaign by local preservation activists that called out Studio One’s role in West Hollywood’s gay history and the history of Mitchell Camera Company.
“Faring Capital’s project offers a sanitized version of Studio One’s troubled history,” said Elle Farmer, research analyst with Unite Here Local 11. “We want the project to acknowledge its problematic past and take meaningful steps to ensure its future workforce is diverse and treated with dignity, respect and fairness.”
In contrast to United Here’s claim, Faring has said that it actually does plan to call out both the positive and negative aspects of the Factory’s history. In an environmental impact report submitted to the city as part of its application for approval of Robertson Lane, Faring states its intention to put together an oral history project “addressing the history and varied experiences of visiting the nightclub.” It also plans an “on-site interpretation and commemoration of the building’s significant association with LGBTQ history, culture and equality in West Hollywood.”
Faring has gotten support for its plans from Charles Stewart, the first co-chair of the National Association of Black & White Men Together (BWMT), which was founded in 1980. In a statement submitted to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, Stewart, who is African-American, said he had met with Faring “to discuss their plans for the Studio One history project. “I am thus far encouraged by both their willingness and thoughtfulness in addressing the concerns I and other members of the community have raised about preserving and sharing the civil rights struggle which is an integral and important part of history…”
Wes Joe, a gay activist with the Asian-American Pacific Islanders group, also supported the plans at the Historic Preservation Commission meeting. “I’m thankful Studio One’s complicated history, including its discriminatory admissions policies, have been explicitly addressed in the [Robertson Lane] mitigations,” he said in a document submitted to the Commission.
In an apparent justification for its campaign, Unite Here’s announcement says the hotel industry is guilty of “replacing black workers with non-black employees and paying women and people of color less than their white male colleagues.”
United Here itself has come under criticism for lobbying to exempt hotels with a unionized staff from having to pay the minimum wages for hotel workers established in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and Santa Monica. Such union exemptions do not have to meet state and federal pay standards and are alleged to make hotel owners more receptive to unionization of their employees.
“West Hollywood City Council will vote on the proposed project in the coming months,” says the United Here announcement. “While activists are hopeful the City Council will act, volunteers in red t-shirts are already out gathering signatures and are prepared to call for a referendum.”
United Here’s Andrew Cohen said the union hopes enough West Hollywood residents will sign the petition so that, if the City Council gives the project final approval, United Here can put a measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot to block the Council’s decision. Doing that would require signatures of 10% of the city’s 26,000 registered voters.