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.”
Hobbs’ roommate, Rebecca Frisch, lost her apartment in Hayes Valley last year and decided to seek some specific things that she felt her soul seeking. “I wanted more light and space and a garden. I had a long wish list and nearly all of it came true,” she said. “I cast my net as far north as Petaluma and even Sebastapol. It’s really about a home and setting that felt good and suited my wish list.”
The space they found was spacious and airy, almost suburban but in a neighborhood that is lively and being steadily populated with other groups of their friends who have also been moving from San Francisco, gathered into three nearby homes.
“It was a great space with this huge yard. It’s got sun all day long, fruit trees everywhere, and we now have an art fireplace. You don’t find that in San Francisco,” Hobbs said.
As much as Hobbs and Frisch have been pleased with East Bay living, they each felt finally pressured to leave San Francisco, which makes them wonder what the future holds for the city.
“It’s made me sad because it’s apparent there’s no room for quirky, creative individuals. It’s only for the super rich,” Frisch said. “I feel horrible for families and people with fewer options that I have. I wondered if I would mourn the city I loved, and it’s been just the opposite. I really love it here.”
There have been a few challenges and tradeoffs to living in the East Bay, Hobbs said, including a lack of late-night food offerings and after hours clubs. “With anything, there will be a balance between positives and convenience,” she said.
Not everyone from Flux is flowing east — that balance tips in different ways for different people at different times. Monica Barney recently moved to San Francisco from Oakland and she’s enjoying the more dense urban living.
“I got sick of living in the East Bay,” she said. “I didn’t like that you have to drive everywhere. It changes the tone of the neighborhood when you can get around without a car.”
Yet for most of the couple hundred artsy people in the Flux Foundation’s orbit, the East Bay is drawing more and more people. Jonny Poynton moved to West Oakland three years ago after living in San Francisco for nine. He appreciates the sense of community he’s found in Oakland, and he doesn’t feel like he’s given up much to attain it.
“One of the things I like about West Oakland is how close it is to the city,” he said.
Flux’s latest transplant is Jason DeCook, who works in the building trades and moved from San Francisco to just down the street from Poynton on April 7.
“I moved because of the usual reasons that most have, larger space for the same rent, but also the sunshine and proximity. I’ve been hella reluctant to do this for the past few years but thought about it a couple of times. Now the issue has been forced with all the art this year,” DeCook said.
In addition to working on art at American Steel, DeCook says he’s excited to have a yard and storage areas to work on his own projects.
“I’m a blue collar, hands-on kind of guy and it’s easy for me to feel connected to a lot of the people that live around me or are beginning to visit the area. It’s exciting to be in a place that has been ignored for so long by money, because a group of us can come up with a project or I can on my own and get to doing it with little red tape and it will be appreciated by the neighbors for making the place a little bit better,” DeCook said.
In many ways, he thinks that West Oakland and other East Bay pockets are on a similar trajectory as many of San Francisco’s coolest neighborhoods decades ago, many of which are now getting too expensive for the artists to live.
“Earlier today I was considering how, in the past, like the early ’60s when so many artists and musicians were drawn to the Haight and other places, they did so because it was cheap and close to opportunity,” he said. “I think West Oakland is seeing that happen to it. It is a furnace of creativity, and I am helping however I can to stoke that.