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City Letter Prompts Shipyard Artist Exodus

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 15, 2007

The eclectic assembly of artists who have made The Shipyard a hub of creativity for the past six years was packing up over the weekend, evicted—they say—by the city. 

Not so, says Deputy Fire Chief David P. Orth, one of the three city officials who signed a notice to vacate and abate the shipping containers used by the yard’s 30 artists as studios. 

Jim Mason, who recently signed a new 15-year lease on the West Berkeley site, said he intends to organize a coalition of artists to fight for their right to stay in the city. 

Meanwhile, he said, “Many of the artists have major projects for the summer, and my first responsibility is to make sure they have a place to work.” 

As a result, many of the artists have already moved out of their containerized studios at 1010 Murray St. and into temporary new quarters in Oakland, while others were busily packing up Monday. 

Orth said the city acted after he noticed that Mason had recently added another dozen containers to The Shipyard. 

“We had been working with him for five years trying to legalize what he had, and then he decided to expand, adding another dozen shipping containers,” Orth said. 

But the city hasn’t ordered eviction—only that Mason comply with city codes, Orth said. 

The city served Mason and property owners James and Leann Lin with an eight-page letter May 8, but Mason was able to negotiate an extension to give his renters time to move. That continuation ends Friday. 

The letter, signed by Orth, city Building Official Joan MacQuarrie and Zoning Officer Mark Rhoades, cited 15 Building Code violations, 13 city and state fire code violations and 4 city Zoning Ordinance violations. 

“It was impossible to meet,” Mason said. “There’s probably a million pounds of stuff to move, and with the threat of jail and $2,500-a-day fines, there was no choice but to move. 

“They had us surrounded on all fronts,” he said. 

But Orth said the issues involved safety and clearly established code violations, among them encroachment on other property, including the existing railroad right of way the city intends to acquire for a bike trail. 

The site also is located near another piece of property the city plans to use as an emergency equipment warehouse that will serve Orth’s department, he said. 


Vanishing artists  

The closure of The Shipyard marks the fifth closing of a Berkeley artists’ community in the past six years, and the third triggered by city action. 

A 2001 sale forced the eviction of artists who lived A 2001 sale forced the eviction of artists who lived in the live/work spaces in the old warehouse building at 2750 Adeline St. That building had housed an unusual collection of artists, including one-time resident R. Crumb, the noted underground cartoonist. 

The following year saw the closing of The Crucible, a community of studios very similar to The Shipyard, after city officials cracked down on code violations following a raucous party that led to a pair of shootings near the site. 

That facility was located at 1036 Ashby Ave., a block from The Shipyard. 

In 2005, city officials cited the owner of The Drayage at 651 Addison St. for multiple violations , leading to the end of another cherished West Berkeley artists’ community—though, as Orth observes, spaces there were rented as live/work units, unlike The Shipyard. 

West Berkeley lost yet another arts collective last year when the 31-year-old Nexus Collective lost its lease to buildings owned by the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society at 2701-2721 Eighth St. 

Once known as a haven for artists seeking congenial company and low rents, West Berkeley is gradually losing the artists for which it was once widely known. 

Mason vows to fight back. 

“This is a systematic problem in Berkeley, and two officials are primarily involved, the deputy fire chief and the building official, and they have very little oversight,” said Mason. “They’re making the same dubious claims of safety issues. 

“The problem is that claiming a public safety threat is kind of like claiming a terrorism threat: It’s vague, it’s always everywhere but at the same time nowhere, and it always relates with difficulty to anything in actuality on the ground.” 

Mason said he intends to resolve the issue over the coming months, “not just for The Shipyard but for all of the artist communities that are being driven out of the city. This is much bigger than The Shipyard, and there will be a coalition of arts organizations against the structure of officials who have led to the loss of artists from our community,” he said. 

“We’re already getting the e-mails,” said Orth, “and we’re working on a boilerplate response letter. But none of this would have happened if he hadn’t brought in another dozen shipping containers. 

“He’s a nice enough guy and they do some really cool stuff, but you can only go so far.” 


Works in progress 

The Shipyard is a steampunk’s dreamworks, a haven for techno creations ranging from a steam-powered car to Mechabolic, a high-tech “terra preta” trash-to-energy system that will be one of the highlights of this summer’s Burning Man festival in Nevada. 

“It’s a large-scale sculpture that ingests trash like paper, tires and wood scraps and converts it into fuel for its own mobility and for fire and produces organic charcoal fertilizer as a by-product,” said Mason. “It’s a carbon-negative system for producing energy that integrates agriculture into the energy cycle. It’s just the kind of thing you’d think the city would want in Berkeley.” 

Michael Michael, a Shipyard alumnus and one of the organizers of the Burning Man festival, said The Shipyard has produced an amazing collection of artworks and is one of five major hubs for creative work in the Bay area, with the others being Hunters Point and the Box Shop in San Francisco, and the Crucible, NIMBY and Headless Point East in Oakland. 

“Berkeley has been losing a lot of valuable artists’ resources,” Michael said. 

Peter Luka, who has been working at The Shipyard for three years, was gathering up his gear Monday and helping other artists as they worked to clear out their accumulated works and tools. 

An engineering graduate of MIT, Luka said he’s moving the lot into the garage of his home for the time being. 

“I came here because I really wanted to do art work in this community, a place where a lot of weird, smart people are producing a lot of crazy ideas,” he said.  

He dubs his works “structural/mechanical/robotic art.” 

“I was supposed to be at the Maker Faire this weekend; instead, I’m moving out,” said Kimric Smythe, referring to an event dubbed by the techno-blog as “end-all be-all event for DIY (i.e., do-it-yourself) hacks, homebrew gadgets, and other oddities.” 

Smythe is one of the creators of the steam car and proudly showed a reporter a cloud-belching compressor he’d fabricated for the machine. 

“Welcome to the shipwreck,” said Shannon O’Hare, who had also helped with the car and on the unique clock tower Shipyard artists built for the 2005 Burning Man festival. 

O’Hare said he found it particularly ironic that the city had ordered the immediate disconnection of the solar panels that provided some of The Shipyard’s power. 

“You wouldn’t think they’d do that here in Berkeley, would you?”