The Bell Foundry, Baltimore's arts scene and the issue of safe, affordable housing

Says one resident of the now-shuttered Bell Foundry, "It saved my life."

In recent years, Dan Deacon — one of Baltimore's best-known musicians — has toured with Grammy nominees Arcade Fire and Miley Cyrus, at times playing arenas with capacities above 20,000 people.

That success and exposure would never have been possible, Deacon said, without "underground" spaces like the Bell Foundry, the converted North Baltimore industrial space that city officials condemned Monday. Artists worked, lived and held concerts there despite a lack of permits.

Without these unsanctioned spaces and the creativity inside them, Deacon said Baltimore's reputation for music — known around the world, even dubbed "Best Scene" by Rolling Stone in 2008 — would not exist.

"It's impossible to imagine the mainstream focus ... without these sorts of spaces," said Deacon, 35, a native of Long Island, N.Y. "That was the main reason I moved to Baltimore. I wanted to live in a space where I could also have my studio, live very cheap and have performances where people would come into the space."

A warehouse fire that killed at least 36 people this month in a multiuse arts space in Oakland, Calif., and the shuttering of the Bell Foundry have thrust Baltimore's existing-in-the-shadows, do-it-yourself (DIY) music scene into the light.

Artists, their supporters and city officials agree that the debate around such spaces is complicated, with issues involving public safety, affordable housing, the value of artists and the appeal these facilities have, despite a sometimes-questionable legal status.

While safety is at the forefront of the news in Oakland, artists like Bell Foundry tenant and events organizer Nkemakolam Nwaigwe, better known as Que Pequeno, said the Bell Foundry was home to marginalized artists who, ironically, felt safest there.

"I was sharing a room with maybe four or five people, but even with that, I was able to harness and cultivate a lot of skills that I wouldn't have been able to do anywhere else in Baltimore," said Nwaigwe, a 25-year-old Nigerian-American who was homeless in March before moving into the Bell Foundry. "It saved my life physically, and it saved my creative spirit."

The Oakland deaths and abrupt eviction of dozens of artists at the Bell Foundry, where a top city housing official described conditions as "a tragedy waiting to happen," lead to questions. Can the DIY arts community sustain itself fully within legal boundaries? How does the city address potentially life-or-death safety concerns while still allowing the scene to exist?

Elissa Blount Moorhead, executive director of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, said she hoped new Mayor Catherine E. Pugh would find a solution that works for city agencies and artists. Safety is an obvious priority, but Moorhead believes the city must address the economic issues artists regularly face.

"We know that often there's spaces that artists are occupying that are not up to code or not safe for them to live in," Moorhead said. "You can't call yourself an arts district or a city that cares about the arts if you only have spaces that people are trying to cobble together. There have to be spaces where people can live in community."

These are, essentially, secret spaces hiding in plain view. On any given week, local music fans can find a handful of shows at these DIY venues.

These makeshift venues exist in nearly every American city. On the outside, they appear as old warehouses and rowhomes. Inside, they are hubs of activity for artists of all disciplines. Artists, who pay cheap rent, use the same space to display their work, from art galleries and fashion shows to theater performances and concerts.

And they are often born out of creativity and necessity, because artists — often making little money from their crafts — can't afford much else. Renting both housing and a separate studio is out of the question for many, so they seek out cheaper options like the Bell Foundry, even though its spaces aren't permitted for residential living.

Yet many say these spaces are vital because they foster creativity for artists operating on the fringes. The environment of creative types living and working together often leads to great results, said Carly Ptak, 42, who co-ran a now-defunct DIY space in West Baltimore called Tarantula Hill for years.

The allure of that kind of atmosphere can sometimes overshadow safety concerns, even if people are careful, she said.

In March 2006, a fire nearly destroyed Tarantula Hill. Ptak said she and her partner did their best to ensure they complied with housing codes; she believes the fire started when a cat knocked a lamp onto a bag of packing peanuts.

"It's every day living it, and every day assessing what your ideals are and how you are interacting with society and whether it conforms to your personal ideals," Ptak said. "Sometimes it's worth being unsafe rather than living in what passes for safe but is really dead inside."

These spaces can promote relaxation and meditation, and other times, attract sweat-drenched audiences and raucous mosh pits.

Shows are open to the public, and usually advertised via social media with promotional fliers that lack addresses because too much publicity can lead to intervention from city bureaucrats.

Baltimore's venues — from tiny living rooms and basements to converted warehouse spaces, with names like Soft House, Lucky Day and Bahamas — have come and gone, while others like the Holy Underground, Floristree and the Fifth Dimension continue to hold shows.

Depending on their uses, there are different permitting requirements for residences, performance venues or artist-craftsmen workshops.

City officials typically investigate these spaces when they receive a citizen complaint, as was the case with the Bell Foundry, said Katy Byrne, deputy assistant commissioner for litigation in the city housing department's permits and code enforcement division.

Byrne attributed the Bell Foundry's condemnation to a long list of fire hazards. According to city records, most of the complaints received against these venues in recent years were for minor exterior issues such as trash.

But Byrne said the city is not actively looking to shut down these spaces.

"We're not targeting the art community," Byrne said. "There are legitimate spaces in the city that have use and occupancies for artist space as well as a residential component."

Bell Foundry tenants and other artists believe, though, the city condemned the Station North building as a response to the Oakland fire. If safety were the city's true concern, they said, then it wouldn't have evicted tenants without warning or temporary housing options in the middle of winter.

Through social media and word of mouth, rumors flew that the city also planned to evict artists living at the Copycat Building, a converted warehouse around the corner from the Bell Foundry.

But city officials said that's not true, and building owner Charles Lankford said in an interview that he has spent millions over the past 12 years to bring his artists' spaces up to code.

After the Bell Foundry evictions, he sent a letter to Copycat tenants.

"We are not any longer an original warehouse operating illicitly. Rather we are a converted warehouse fully legally compliant for residential use," states Lankford's letter, provided to The Baltimore Sun. "So, you needn't worry about effects on us and can continue counting on residency in our buildings."

These underground scenes are resilient and fluid, which means the shuttering of the Bell Foundry will not mean the end of Baltimore's DIY scene, artists said.

"There's never not going to be a class of people that need to create and will. There's never going to be a lack of unused space," said Deacon, who spent the early half of his career playing such spaces. "These spots are going to continue to pop up and flourish and grow, and like anything beautiful, authority will see it as a weed and try to cut it."

Deacon and five friends, along with other Baltimore artists, would later be known as the Wham City arts collective. They moved in 2004 from New York to the Copycat Building, where they started holding music and comedy events.

Wham City inspired friends like North Carolina's Future Islands and Ed Schrader to relocate to Baltimore to pursue art. At one of the first parties he attended at Wham City's space, Schrader saw 200 people dancing without any cares in the world. He finally found a community that accepted him, he said.

"I didn't even think a space like this was possible," said Schrader, a New Hartford, N.Y., native who now tours the world as Ed Schrader's Music Beat. "Where I come from, if you set up two P.A. speakers in someone's basement, in 10 minutes you're going to get a call from an angry parent. It was just an electric, exciting time."

The legend of Wham City, combined with the talents of other independent-minded acts like Beach House and Wye Oak, spread beyond the city. The mainstream caught wind, and in 2008, Rolling Stone named Baltimore the country's "Best Scene."

Looking back, Schrader acknowledges safety wasn't as high a concern as it should have been.

While on tour, "there would definitely be times I'd walk into a DIY space and I'd think to myself, 'Man, if I was a fire inspector, I'd shut this place down,'" he said. "The 37-year-old adult in me is also like, 'Well you shouldn't be plugging that toaster into the same wall as the that P.A. system. No, no, no.'"

The Wham City era was defined by a feeling that "the parents were away," Schrader said.

That sort of freedom, though, wasn't afforded to all artists, according to artists of color in the city. At that time, DIY was a buzzword that largely meant white artists making variations of indie-rock, noise and punk music.

The closing of the Bell Foundry has been distressing to many in the community because they believe the venue was a leading force in promoting the inclusion of female and minority artists.

Nwaigwe said he took over programming duties at the Bell Foundry in September to ensure "a spot for black and brown artists to perform and get paid." He concentrated on booking hip-hop, R&B and electronic artists, and the autonomy he experienced bred confidence in his abilities as an artist, he said.

For some artists, though, the appeal of DIY spaces isn't because of the romanticism attached to these venues. Instead, it's about economics.

That's the case for Shawn Smallwood, 35, a Baltimore DJ who has played DIY venues for the past four years.

"When you deal with legitimate venues, there are fees involved, whether they're venue fees, you have to pay for a doorman, a soundman. There's no guarantee with money," Smallwood said, adding that a basement show attended by 15 people spending $10 each yields $150.

Money is a constant factor when discussing the workings of a DIY arts scene. On the 400 block of N. Howard St., a group of performance artists is converting three buildings into an "artist-owned, artist-run" performance space called Le Mondo.

In March, they hope to open the first building, said Evan Moritz of Annex Theater. The goal of the project is to subsidize areas for art by renting out other parts of the buildings to profit-driven businesses and market-price apartments, he said.

"We've had to learn to become greater and greater champions for a greater cause: giving people live/work space that's legal, that's not going to be taken away and that's not going to spike in rent," Moritz said.

On her first full day in office, Pugh said the city would conduct an investigation into the Bell Foundry's closure.

"We value artists living in the city. … We want to make sure wherever they reside, they're safe and they're able to contribute to our arts community and our art environment," Pugh said. "We will not leave them out there hanging."

While many artists would love to live and work in properly zoned and permitted spaces, some simply can't afford it. Nwaigwe said he paid just under $300 a month to rent space at the Bell Foundry. Lankford said the cheapest studio rental at the Copycat is around $800.

Nwaigwe, who is still trying to find permanent housing, said he believes the shuttering of the Bell Foundry is the city's latest step toward gentrification. He wants a personal apology from former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and for the city to pay him and his fellow tenants costs for displacement.

"I feel like me and my friends are being attacked for illegally taking up space in a warehouse, but the question they're not asking is why would we need to do that in the first place." Nwaigwe said. "How can we live up to code when people are ignoring us? … I'm a big believer of when your own community does not accept you, you create your own.

"That's what the Bell Foundry served for a lot of us."

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