A unhappy milestone has just passed. On May 31, our latest 15-year lease on Nexus from the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society expired. Although Nexus is attempting to negotiate with the Humane Society to purchase the property, the Humane Society had indicated they intended to place a metal fence around the vacated building on June 1. That fence did not go up on that date, but who knows about tomorrow?
In a variation of the Drayage demise facilitated by the city of Berkeley allegedly for the Drayage’s code violations, the Humane Society has offered to place a fence around the building to attempt to mitigate their non-compliance with the legal requirement for seismic upgrading of the landmarked Austin Building structure, originally Standard Tool & Die. The city waived fines placed against the Humane Society and accepted the fence placement as a temporary seismic remedy. This is despite the fact that the Building and Safety Division of the city’s Planning and Development Department has indicated some 50 buildings—many presumably occupied—in Berkeley are out of compliance with the unreinforced masonry seismic retrofit requirement. Vacant buildings are prone to blight and fire and several vacant structures have burned in West Berkeley. Where is the guarantee a fence will protect passers-by and parked cars from collapse of the brick façade of the steel-frame building, if an earthquake occurs before the building changes hands and the seismic upgrades proceed?
As the building owner, the Humane Society could have applied for another waiver of the arbitrary “deadline” but didn’t. As the tenants negotiating to buy the building, we asked to apply for the extension but were not allowed to by the Building Division.
The boarded-up Drayage is squatted, according to a former resident. In the case of vacant buildings, “accidental” fires often result in cleared sites which are easier to sell and build upon. The agreement reached between the Building Division and the Humane Society provides for no mechanisms for safeguarding the emptied-out buildings.
Nexus is also—theoretically!—protected by the arts and crafts ordinance and the protective zoning that requires comparable replacement space for arts and crafts uses elsewhere in West Berkeley if those uses are removed from their existing location. The sale of Nexus to some developer other than Nexus certainly raises that distinct possibility. Nexus and its community gallery are specifically referenced in the West Berkeley Plan. Some 25 artists and woodworkers currently use Nexus, many more over several decades. Many of the artists are UC Art Department graduates. The Nexus Gallery has been subsidized by Nexus Institute for years, providing exhibit/performance space for thousands since the early 1980s when the Gallery opened. Countless classes and open studios by Nexus artists have also occurred over the years.
Jim Hynes, Assistant to the City Manager, affirmed the “protected use” of the 19,000 sq. ft. the Nexus occupies in a July 23, 2004 memo. Notable West Berkeley activists such as former Planning Commission member/woodworker John Curl and photographer/Nexus Neighbor/West Berk-eley Association of industrial Companies (WeBAIC) member Rick Auerbach have spoken out repeatedly in support of Nexus, most recently on May 24 when John Curl spoke at the Art Commission meeting. The continuing existence of Nexus runs counter to the trend in West Berkeley and elsewhere of upscale "life style lofts", but many of the new residents welcome the amenity of Nexus, attending Nexus events and openings and supporting the landmark nomination.
CIVIC ARTS COMMISSION STEPS TO THE PLATE:
At their May 24 meeting, the Civic Arts Commission heard from John Curl and several Nexus artists, where the Nexus situation was agendized as an action item. A strong letter of support was endorsed unanimously, calling for delay of the Nexus evictions, affirming the protected arts and crafts use under the zoning, and calling upon displaced artists and craftspeople to be relocated in comparable space in West Berkeley before any eviction can happen.
This letter of support and concern has been forwarded to the City Council for action.
WE ARE NOT “HOBBYISTS”—NEXUS ARTISTS SHOW AND TEACH WIDELY:
Nexus Artist Co-President Carol Newborg is included in the exhibit "beyond Boundaries", a show of installation and multidisciplinary work, at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery in Fort Mason, San Francisco, June 7—30, opening Wed., June 7. Lisa Kokin is featured in "Menagerie" at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art in August , and Robert Brokl is artist-in-residence at the new de Young Museum June 14-30. Caitlin Mitchell-Dayton provided the real paintings and drawings for the fictional art student/up-and-coming art world star in the just-released "Art School Confidential." Sharon Siskin is an assistant professor at USF who for many years organized exhibits in the Nexus Gallery by her students who were HIV-positive or had AIDS.
CAN YOU STILL HAVE AN “ARTS DISTRICT” WITHOUT ARTISTS?
Nexus thrived for over 30 years because it was able to put down roots at a time before West Berkeley became the developer magnet it is now. The artists who maintained studios there—despite the unheated, even funky conditions—flourished, developing their craft and sharing it with the greater community in Berkeley and beyond.
If removed from Nexus and my studio of 24 years, I hope to continue as an artist elsewhere, but I will be forced out of Berkeley. The Drayage tenant attorney says 90% of the former Drayage residents have relocated outside of Berkeley. This is not just our personal loss. I would suggest Berkeley will be poorer as well. Its elected officials and staff provide lip service toward support for arts and artists but in reality mostly just stand by as the well-established Nexus cooperative of 25 artists and woodworkers and a community gallery are forced out to make way for—no mystery here—yet more life-style lofts. Maybe one day—too little too late—there will be a City-sponsored program to “reintroduce” artists in West Berkeley, their former “natural habitat,” long after they went extinct.
Robert Brokl is a Nexus building artist.