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    The Flames of Disparity


    By Debra Walker

    A month in and I am still in shock. I know I am not alone in this.

    As I tried to put one foot in front of the other after the election and adjust to the wobbly nature of our political landscape, another blindside hit as my fellow artists perished in a warehouse fire in Oakland. My soul deflated again as I felt the blow of the Ghost Ship Fire. My thoughts and prayers go out to Oakland, to our community of artists and to the friends and family of all of those who were affected by this horrific event. I did not know any of the victims personally, but many of my close friends did. And the reality of the situation—I get it on a very personal level.

    I live in an art space that started out in 1972 in much the same fashion as Ghost Ship. Developing Environments (originally Project 2) was started by a dozen or so artists that needed space to work, and likely could not afford both workspace and a place to live. They squatted in the North Mission, catty corner from another bunch of artists who were doing the same thing right across the street at Project Artaud. Both of these buildings took shape in the same way as Ghost Ship and many others in the Bay Area. Artist gravitate here, work and live here, get educated here, and add billions of dollars every year to our area economies. They rent warehouses for art projects, and can’t afford both live and work overhead as they start out and, voila, they start living in these warehouses.

    San Francisco took heed back then, in the seventies, and worked with the willing owner of the Project 2 building to bring it up to code, including varying the zoning to allow both live and work. Artaud and Project 2 artists and many others engaged in a very long process to create the live-work ordinance to accommodate Project Artaud and pave the way forward for others wanting to create space for artists. (The live work ordinance was later repealed because of land use speculations and lack of enforcement of occupancy by artists. This recommendation was made by the SF Arts Task Force in 2006. San Francisco officials realized it was escalating land costs in the industrial areas. There was not consensus to strengthen enforcement to arts uses, and it was actually resulting in increased displacement of arts uses.)

    Project 2 was developed as a hybrid work space/accessory live space. Both buildings raised money to do the work and the city cooperated, evaluated, and supported these efforts to help create the path forward. It can be done. Project Artaud is owned by the members who live there as a limited equity cooperative. Project 2 (Developing Environments) has secured two successive long-term leases of the top two floors and the landlord maintains control of the ground floor. Both are healthy, active and up to current code today. We get inspected on a regular basis. Again, the help and cooperation of the city have allowed this to occur and, in the case of Developing Environments, a willing landlord made it possible.

    Most landlords that rent out space to these arts uses are looking for month-to-month tenancy. They want to put something in their building to bring dollars in to cover costs while they wait for longer term solutions, i.e., a long-term leaseholder who will pay top dollar, or a future development opportunity. Without a long-term commitment, it is impossible for the artists to raise capital to do the code work, so the landlord is able to get month-to-month tenants whom they can evict without any notice.

    These spaces do take on a life of their own, often ignoring building and fire codes completely. Building departments are overwhelmed and are not going out of their way to evict folks for use violations unless they are made aware of safety violations. If they can’t enter the building, they can’t force their way in unless they have a warrant. There is a process for getting that, but our “search and seizure” protections are important, and procedures must be followed. When does a situation of artists in a warehouse rise to priority? You have to investigate to answer that question. Clearly health and safety procedures, and rules, have to be met, but behind closed doors it is hard to know what is happening.

    I know San Francisco and Oakland both value their artists and arts communities. Artists are strong threads in the weave of our lives. The challenges are vast in this economy for any of us who earn much less than the median incomes. Most artists work many jobs in addition to doing their art, and yet it is still tough to afford both work and live places. There is a huge need for these creative spaces, but the codes and financial considerations often prevent their development. Landlords are looking for short-term building fillers while they make long-term plans.

    San Francisco over the past three years has aggressively pursued paths forward for art spaces. Getting control of these arts buildings is a priority, and the city and private foundation funders have been putting a lot of financial support towards these solutions. The Kenneth Rainn Foundation and other private foundations have partnered in this goal. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recently announced that such efforts will be expanding to the City of Oakland. The business community needs to step up and contribute to these efforts now. We cannot succeed unless the disparity is addressed and resolved. It is incredibly important to be proactive across the Bay Area to secure these arts buildings for current and future generations.

    I know the area around Ghost Ship. I worked for a bit on projects at a warehouse near there. There are many communities of artists close by. Here in San Francisco, several spaces desperately need safety upgrades. Hundreds of buildings are in need of code evaluation. Millions of dollars in code compliance work should be done. Our priority must be to secure these buildings. A first step would be in not allowing permanent evictions of current arts uses, even illegal ones. We took this step to protect illegal residential units and to encourage their legalization, rather than evictions. Temporary relocation will likely be necessary to make things safe, but if a landlord has been profiting from arts uses, they should not be allowed to use safety issues as justification for permanent eviction. We need to follow through with more “carrot and stick” solutions. Programs like tax incentives and density bonuses, for example, could help. Let’s give landlords a reason to want to partner in longer term solutions to make safe, vibrant art spaces.

    San Francisco has curbed certain evictions via a moratorium on displacement of PDR (Production, Distribution and Repair) uses and other more sensitive uses as developments are proposed for new construction. But we need to proactively engage on this issue with the goal of saving existing spaces, and especially, saving lives. Now more than ever, our cultural souls also need to be nourished through these trying times.

    I don’t want to sound radical when I say this, but the path towards tyranny is littered with the ruins of our culture, including our arts. Unconsciously following this path doesn’t make it any less deadly.

    Being in a state of continuously waking up and being reminded of whom this country elected, of the poisonous change in the air around the world and the tendency for blaming that tears kindred spirits apart, I am called to ask us all to engage in looking forward. If you need to look inward to start, then do that. We will be bombarded in the coming years, and these are the times that define us. This disarming moment of shock and its causes will never be our ‘new normal’. We cannot rest in bickering and blaming on anything. We must fix our creative attention to securing affordable housing and arts spaces, to Supreme Court nominations, to cabinet appointments, to the growing disparity, and to so much more.

    The tide has shifted. The water is rising, and before we lose more of our footing, we need to define our own new normal. Locally there are so many things we will need to do, together, to ward off and defend proactively by having a plan to get us through this mess. In California, we will not be able to look to Washington for help. We must come together to save ourselves.

    To hold up an example of the positive and powerful effect of political art: Krissy Keefer, Dance Brigade, Dance Mission will be celebrating their 40th anniversary next month on Jan 11–13 at Yerba Buena Center.  You can get tickets here:

    Supporting our artists and art spaces is always important, but never more so than now. Those of us who are artists should mentor others, helping to ensure that our culture survives. Krissy Keefer, myself and numerous others try very hard to do what we can, but we need your participation, too. Join us in January as we celebrate Krissy and the Dance Brigade legacy!

    Debra Walker is a Commissioner for the City and County of San Francisco Building Inspection Commission. A past president of the Commission, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club, Walker is also an internationally recognized painter and printmaker. For more information: