Public Comment

Commentary: Defining Artisans Out of Existence

By John Curl
Tuesday June 27, 2006

The Berkeley City Council has just asked the Arts Commission to “review and update the definition of ‘arts and crafts’ as referred to in the West Berkeley zoning, which will enable an inventory of such space to go forward and ensure that the space is protected, as stipulated in the West Berkeley Plan and the zoning.” So far, great: protecting arts/crafts space is essential. But if you read on, another agenda appears: “The commission will no doubt struggle with what constitutes arts and crafts as their practice has been modified by the advent of computers and advanced technology.”  

This is not a debate over “what is art?” This is a struggle over development. “Advanced technology” is just verbal legerdemain, the latest sally in the current offensive from developers to touch off a gentrification explosion in West Berkeley.  

In fact the practice of artisans and artists has not been modified by computers. Potters still throw pots, glassblowers still blow glass, woodworkers still plane wood, and sculptors still chisel away, not in virtual space, but in real time immemorial, just as they have always done, in industrial-type studios. The very concept of an art/craft studio is to make space available for uses that cannot be done in an office setting. The definition determines what uses are eligible to be in an arts/crafts studio, and the current definition includes only those arts/crafts that actually need an industrial-type space. There have always been types of artists, such as poets for example, who do not need industrial-type studios, and these were purposefully not included in the West Berkeley definition. But to open the definition to all creative work, inclusive of that ordinarily done in an office, means doom to numerous working artisans and artists. The new computer media are practiced in an office environment, and can afford it. Computer art functions on a higher financial level than traditional arts/crafts, which generate only industrial-level rent. Office rent is double that of industrial. To include computer art in the definition means doubling the rent on arts/crafts studios, pushing working artisans and artists out of town, and converting all the arts/crafts studios into offices. 

It is actually no joke, poets being made eligible for arts/crafts studios. That’s what the city actually put in the shameful use permit of Strawberry Creek Center, a formerly industrial building located at Addison and Bonar, that was supposed to become arts/crafts studios, but which instead was converted into offices. Being east of San Pablo, West Berkeley protected use definitions didn’t apply. When Strawberry Creek Center first opened in the 1990s, a number of artisans and artists moved in, but these were soon pushed out by skyrocketing rents. The owners, with help of city staff, accomplished the conversion from industrial to office simply by their definition of “arts and crafts” in their use permit, which contained a list of over 300 examples of “artists and craftspeople” including gems such as architect, interior decorator, city or urban planner, civil engineer, communications engineer, aeronautical engineer, functionalist, daubster, copyist, stylist, writer, wordsmith, and of course poet. 

Remember those old movies where the villagers and peasants, after long-term abuse, finally rise up on a foggy night and storm the castle by torchlight with hammers and pitchforks? Well, West Berkeley artisans and artists just want to continue to work. Most of us usually ignore city politics. We are slow to anger. But if the city tries to redefine our studios out of existence, redefine our studios as offices, doubling our rents, at some point soon on a foggy night we are going to gather up our hammers and pitchforks. 

The Arts Commission holds the life or death of West Berkeley arts/crafts studios in their hands. I urge all people who support the retention of working artisans and artists in town to communicate that to the Arts Commission through its secretary at 


John Curl is a woodworker, poet, and co-chair of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies.