Heading East: Artists in flux

One art collective joins a wave of San Franciscans who are moving to the East Bay

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Part of the Flux Foundation crew in its American Steel workspace.
PHOT BY CATIE MAGEE

San Francisco isn't an easy place to live for artists and others who choose to fill their souls at the expense of their bank accounts, particularly with the comparatively cheap and sunny East Bay so close. And with more of these creative types being lured eastward, Oakland and its surroundings are getting ever more hip and attractive — just as San Francisco is being gentrified by dot-com workaholics.

It's a trend I've been noticing in recent years, one that I saw embodied during regular trips to make Burning Man art with the Flux Foundation (see "Burners in Flux," 8/31/10) and hundreds of others who work out of the massive American Steel warehouse.

At least once a week, I would take BART to the West Oakland station and cycle up Mandela Parkway, a beautiful and inviting boulevard, riding in the wide bike lane past evocative public art projects in weather that was always warmer than my neighborhood in San Francisco.

Since then, I've watched waves of my Flux friends moving from San Francisco to the East Bay, pushed by the high cost of living and pulled by the allure of a better and more sustainable lifestyle, a migration of some of the most interesting and creative people I know, some of the very people that have made San Francisco so cool.

"I love San Francisco, but it's just not an affordable place anymore," said Jessica Hobbs, one of the Flux founders who last year moved with two other women from the crew into what they call the Flux Meow House in a neighborhood near the intersection of Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.

Hobbs has long worked in the East Bay and "I've never been one of those who has that bridge-phobia" — that resistance to cross over into other cities for social gatherings — "but the most interesting culture of San Francisco is starting to move to the East Bay."

In the last 10 years, workspaces for burners and other creative types have proliferated in the East Bay — including the Shipyard, the Crucible, NIMBY Warehouse, Xian, Warehouse 416, and American Steel — while the number in San Francisco has stayed static or even shrunk. That's partly a result of SF's dwindling number of light industrial spaces, but Hobbs said the influx of artists in the East Bay supported and populated these new workspaces and fed the trend.

"They were making space for that to happen, so we came over here," Hobbs said. "There's more willingness to experiment over here."

There have been code-compliance conflicts between these boundary-pushing art spaces and civic officials, including Berkeley's threats to shut down the Shipyard and Oakland's issues with NIMBY, but Hobbs said both were resolved in ways that legitimized the spaces. And then events such as Art Murmur, a monthly art walk in downtown Oakland, put these artists and their creations on proud display.

"Oakland and the East Bay have been very welcoming," Hobbs said. "They want us."

As we all talked on April 5, Karen Cusolito was throwing a party celebrating the third anniversary of American Steel, a massive workspace she formed for hundreds of artists and a gathering space for her extended community. Cusolito had working in the East Bay since 2005, commuting from Hunters Point before finally moving to Oakland in 2010.

"I moved here with such great trepidation because I thought I'd be bored," she said. "But I've found a more vibrant community than I could have imagined, along with an unexpected sense of calm."

Reflecting on the third anniversary of American Steel, Cusolito said, "On one hand, I'm astonished that it's been three years. On the other hand, I'm surprised that this hasn't always existed," she said. "I have an amazing community here. I'm very blessed."

Comments

Moving to the East Bay is cool!

We've seen far too many of the Bay Area's artists have to move to the East Coast!

It's sad for our little bay to lose some of our most talented people to cities like New York or even LA.

Check out Expose SF Art and our idea to promote SF Bay Area artists IN SAN FRANCISCO.

Posted by Expose SF Art on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 8:10 am

Thank you so very much Steve for this wonderful article about life after San Francisco. I am so relieved.

Ed Lee, former housing activist, is the ultimate trojan horse for the real estate industry and I have been getting the feeling lately that tenants are in for a very rough ride in SF.

My landlords are definitely wondering if now is the time to make their move and for the first time ever I think they may be right.

So thank you for relieving some of my anxiety about a potential future move away from a city that I have made my home for so many years. You have given me hope that I did not have.

I love this newspaper so much.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 9:17 am

That is the sweetest blog comment I've gotten in a long time, thank you so much!

Posted by steven on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 10:15 am

Don't come to Oakland. We don't want you.

This article is a delusional feel-good gentrification rationalization. Deal with your own stuff on your side of the Bridge.

Posted by Resentful Oaklander on Apr. 17, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

The article chides SF for its drop in diversity, yet everybody in that pic is white. Stirring up fake controversies should be your tagline.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

They're not all white, actually.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 7:39 pm
Posted by Guest on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 7:06 am

A plug for the Flux Foundation: we're building a new sculpture and desperately need *tax deductable* donations for our new project. If you like what we do and want to support the arts, please donate to: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fluxfoundation/flux-presents-zoa-a-m...

Posted by JJ on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

notice in the pic how they shove all the women to the front. with the BM community, anytime a woman picks up a hammer, it's time to take a picture and celebrate. oh god look - a woman is doing something productive! quick, let's all celebrate her empowerment.

only proves the rule that the vast majority of woman on the playa do NOTHING.

Posted by Tee on Apr. 15, 2012 @ 6:16 am

4 of the 5 founding directors of the Flux Foundation are women. Perhaps you had it wrong, and they just shoved all the dudes in the back?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 16, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

notice in the pic how they shove all the women to the front. with the BM community, anytime a woman picks up a hammer, it's time to take a picture and celebrate. oh god look - a woman is doing something productive! quick, let's all celebrate her empowerment.

only proves the rule that the vast majority of woman on the playa do NOTHING.

Posted by Tee on Apr. 15, 2012 @ 6:24 am

from people who've obviously never been on the playa.

I'm guessing that they put the women in the front (along with the shorter guys) because they're... well, shorter. If they put them in the back you wouldn't see their faces. Duh.

But hey, don't let a little thing like common sense get in the way of an opportunity to trash Burning Man.

Posted by Greg on Apr. 15, 2012 @ 8:04 am

How many sculpters and poets does a city of 700,000 need?

I think we can spare a few to send to Oakland, especially since they are probably the least successful ones.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 15, 2012 @ 8:19 am

gotta love the burner mindset. everyone else is ignorant because they haven't seen what they have seen - like they gone to the top of the mountain and can report back that, yes - in fact, burners are better than everyone else.

and burners wonder why they're despised.

BTW - the women were put out in front because they're women. end of story.

Posted by Tee on Apr. 15, 2012 @ 10:20 am

The people who mouth off about something they know nothing about ARE ignorant, almost by definition. Case in point:

"BTW - the women were put out in front because they're women. end of story. "

I'm guessing you weren't there, so you really have no clue, but you're quick to pull opinions out of your ass anyway. Of course it doesn't explain why there's a short guy in the front row, and a tall woman in the back, but ignorant people like yourself never let facts that contradict their opinions get in the way of spouting them.

Posted by Greg on Apr. 15, 2012 @ 11:58 am

You, Tee, are sexist, end of story. And it's a particularly kind of regressive and overt sexism that I don't see much anymore. Was your mom too hard on you, or did a girlfriend dump you for being such an asshole? Did they make fun of you? Whatever it was, it seems to run deep and it's got nothing to do with the amazing women who started Flux Foundation or the Flaming Lotus Girls, or even the many random women I've met on the playa who are strong and capable and don't need the approval of ignorant jerks like you.

Posted by steven on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 10:33 am

oh yes, steven. your special brand of sexism is allowed to stand, while you sensor contrary opinion. yay for you!

if it's not feminism it's crap, eh? what it must feel like to surrender your balls. kind a makes me sick to even think about it.

Posted by Tee on Apr. 20, 2012 @ 3:27 am

Thats a lot of flaming -- can't you do something more with all that anger?

Posted by Ruby laser on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

I don't see why this is a big deal. It's just Oakland, not Montreal. BART will get you to downtown SF faster than if you're coming from the avenues or the bayview. At under half of San Francisco's urban density, Oakland is a roomier city that has better spaces for something like sculpting. It also has Pixar. Should the city establish a fund for affordable studio space amidst some of the most coveted real estate in the world, while they have vacant warehouses right across the bay?

Besides, this supposed exodus isn't exactly confirmed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rather, your account seems based on loose observations from your own personal experience. That may be valid, but my limited experience has taught me a different lesson. San Francisco's "art scene" may be disappearing, but actual artists are rarely found on the scene. They're more likely to be at home, producing. In my experience, "the scene" is primarily for poseurs.

Oh, and what's wrong with "dot com workaholics"?

Posted by myklValentine on Apr. 17, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

Oakland in attracting business, retail and tax dollars.

It's a total myth about Oakland being gentrified. In fact, it's been losing population especially the crucial white middle class. While in most parts of the city you can find abandoned houses and blight. Crime is thru the roof, of course, and you can buy a run down house in West Oakland for under 100K, but who would want to?

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 5:38 am

Crucial White Middle Class? WTF?

Posted by marcos on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 7:09 am

I was playing a little fast and loose with my geography. My point, however, is essentially intact, since it's far easier to commute to Emeryville from Oaktown than from SF. Image is also located in Berkeley, and I'm sure artists, like the rest of us, like to live close to work.

Posted by myklValentine on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

Jesus, yet another article singing the praises of how hip and affordable Oakland is.

I've lived here since 1994; rents have skyrocketed in the last couple years, especially in West Oakland. This is no longer an "affordable" place to live, not in an objective sense.

Please Frisco-dwellers, for the love of god, stay on your side of the Bridge. You've sneered at the East Bay for years, and now that your precious ivory tower is beyond your budget, you wanna come over here and gentrify our hoods. The irony is absolutely lost on you narcissists.

All this talk of "community" from these Frisco expats is ridiculous. Trust me, true Oakland community locals don't want you here. Never did. Never will.

Posted by Resentful Oaklander on Apr. 17, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

the artists are the problem. whenever they start amassing in any location, you know they locals are going to get the boot. gathering artists are the first wave of the gentrification process.

this hipsters follow the artists, and the yupsters roll in after everything has been painted pretty colors.

and then the damn artists have the NERVE to complain when the yupsters move in, saying they're gentrifying their neighborhoods. FFS.

and burning man drives the demand for all these art spaces - it's corporate demand for bigger and bigger 'art' so burning man can sell its event to tourists. so people who were born in oakland can no longer afford to live there. great work! pat yourselves on the back.

Posted by Lee on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 5:46 am

the variety of art that SF appears to specialize in, i.e. bad (sorry, experimental) art.

How many freaking artists do we need? Why does the SFBG value some grubby young wench who sculpts more than someone with a real job who creates prosperity and tax revenues?

The idea that having artists is "good" is a myth. they are essentially self-absorbed and usually talentless wasters for the most part. If they are leaving SF for Oakland, then good riddance to them. I feel sure we'll manage just fine without a few fire eaters and performance poets.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 5:55 am

Pretty sure that most of these special hipster narcissistic artists grew up in the burbs (many from back East) and are now looking for specialness and kicks and fulfillment in West Oak...give em a few years and they'll be off looking for the next special place until finally they reach middle age and are trying to get by in Marin driving a German car to their therapist appointments ....

Did that woman really say "I have an amazing community here. I'm very blessed"...? or is that a misquote..if not wow....

Posted by Guest on Jun. 04, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

Did not most of these special hipster narcissistic artists grew up in the burbs (many from back East) and are now looking for specialness and kicks and fulfillment in West Oak after making the Sf scene...give em a few years and they'll be off looking for the next special place (after the place gets to cool and the rents get too high - which forced the "regular" folk out) until finally they reach middle age and are trying to get by in Marin driving a German car to their therapist appointments ....

Did that woman really say "I have an amazing community here. I'm very blessed"...? or is that a misquote..if not wow....

Posted by Danny on Jun. 04, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

Did not most of these special hipster narcissistic artists grew up in the burbs (many from back East) and are now looking for specialness and kicks and fulfillment in West Oak after making the Sf scene...give em a few years and they'll be off looking for the next special place (after the place gets to cool and the rents get too high - which forced the "regular" folk out) until finally they reach middle age and are trying to get by in Marin driving a German car to their therapist appointments ....

Did that woman really say "I have an amazing community here. I'm very blessed"...? or is that a misquote..if not wow....

Posted by Danny on Jun. 04, 2012 @ 9:31 pm