Pugh promises investigation into Bell Foundry closure, support for displaced artists

Baltimore's new mayor has promised support for artists displaced by Bell Foundry closure

Baltimore's new mayor said Wednesday that she was not aware of the forced evictions of dozens of artists from the Bell Foundry building in the Station North Arts District as it was occurring earlier this week, but intends to launch an investigation into the circumstances and seek ways to support those who were displaced.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, in her first full day on the job, praised the city's arts community, but also said the city must work to prevent a tragedy like the one that occurred last week in Oakland, Calif., where a fire in an arts space killed at least 36 people.

That building, known as the Ghost Ship, was similar to the Bell Foundry: both are old warehouses converted into studio space for artists.

The Bell Foundry, home to the nonprofit Baltimore Rock Opera Society and 10 smaller artist studios, was condemned by the city's fire and housing departments on Monday after the city received a complaint about conditions there, officials said. Tenants suspected the evictions were prompted by the Oakland tragedy.

Officials said they uncovered various safety violations in the building, including holes in second-story flooring, a large heating system without proper ventilation, and missing beams in the ceiling. They also found evidence that people were living in the building, a violation of its commercial zoning and the tenants' leases, according to city officials and one of the building's landlords.

The evictions further stoked a national debate, started by the Oakland fire, about the affordability and safety of housing for artists — particularly in old, repurposed industrial buildings.

Asked about that debate in Baltimore, Pugh said her administration is "going to be working with the arts community" to address needs.

"We value artists living in the city. We have a great arts community. What we don't want to happen is what we just saw happen in California. We don't want that same type of condition to happen here," Pugh said. "We want to make sure wherever they reside, they're safe and they're able to continue to contribute to our arts community and our art environment."

Pugh said the city will conduct "a full investigation" into the Bell Foundry's closure, and concerns among some in the local arts community that the evictions targeted people of color and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who made up a significant portion of the building's tenants.

"This will be an inclusive and diverse city, and we will take into consideration every individual," Pugh said. "We will not leave them out there hanging. I will reach out to the arts community and make sure we find some accommodations."

krector@baltsun.com

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