Local artists gathered their belongings from the Bell Foundry arts building as it is condemned by the city. (Baltimore Sun video)
Dozens of local artists were abruptly evicted Monday from their work spaces at the Bell Foundry building in the city's Station North Arts District after city officials said they discovered a variety of safety violations in the two-story hub of theater, art and recording studios.
The move — which left the North Calvert Street property condemned and boarded up — came days after a fire in an Oakland, Calif., warehouse used for art studios killed at least 36 people, a reality not lost on many tenants and supporters of the community workspace.
"This is how cities show solidarity. They crash down on people," said Jacob Kenna, a tenant. "This might just be what everyone thinks they need to do for everybody's good."
Kenna called the evictions "a spectacle," while others described a hectic and emotional scene in which tenants were told to leave the building immediately without their possessions.
"It felt like we got raided or something. It felt violent," said musician Fredo Quinteros, another tenant. "They came in yelling, just telling us to get out. They didn't explain nothing."
City officials said the closing of the building stemmed not from the Oakland fire but from a complaint Monday morning about conditions in the building, which prompted city housing and fire inspectors to pay a visit to the property about 1 p.m.
Once there, inspectors encountered "numerous safety violations as well as deplorable conditions," said Roman Clark, a Fire Department spokesman.
Clark said inspectors found four violations: no valid permit, unsafe conditions, use of flammables and combustibles, and unlawful removal of beams from the ceiling.
Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for the city housing department, said the property at 1539 N. Calvert St. was "vacated" by code enforcement inspectors because there were "holes in the floor on the second level, electrical issues, and evidence that individuals were living in the property without a proper use and occupancy permit."
The Fire Department immediately issued a cease-and-desist order barring tenants from using the building, while housing officials boarded up the building as condemned.
Clark said he could not elaborate on the complaint that prompted the inspection.
Baker said the building's occupants "are not allowed to use the building until the proper use and occupancy permit is received and the building is up to code."
The Bell Foundry is just east of Penn Station in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which was designated in 2002 as an area for artist work spaces, galleries and studios.
Clark said he did not know how many people and businesses were affected by its closure, but tenants said there were about a dozen leaseholders and many more artists and volunteers who routinely use the building to share their art and support the work of their friends.
The building is owned by JBL Calvert LLC and Calvert Lofts LLC, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation; the resident agents for those companies are Jeremy Landsman and Patricia Massey, respectively, who originally developed the arts center after acquiring the building in 2006.
Neither Landsman nor Massey could be reached for comment Monday.
The building, which once housed a bell foundry, has been a site for music, comedy, theater and skateboarding, and has hosted prominent local acts, such as the arts collective Wham City and the Acme Corp. theater group.
Aran Keating, artistic director of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, the building's first-floor tenant, said the condemnation of the building came as a surprise — and one that threatens the nonprofit's future in the city.
"Stuff like this could sink us. We've been an anchor in Station North for four years, and it feels like this is the thanks we get," he said.
The organization, which uses the building as its production headquarters for rehearsals, its costume workshop and other operations, has a small New Year's show at the Ottobar, and is also preparing for a large-scale show in the spring. If operations are halted for too long, it could mean the end, Keating said — even though the group has worked for years to make sure that its operations are all in compliance with the law.
"So many times, we've put in time and effort in trying to comply and be as aboveboard as we can so we can keep doing this," he said.
Keating said he is optimistic that his organization will be able to talk with city officials and address any violations related to the first-floor space, in order to restart operations there. He was less certain about the future of the 10 or so artists who he said have work spaces on the second floor, with whom he said his organization has had a "really positive partnership" over the years.
Around 20 artists stood outside the Bell Foundry on Monday night. Friends arrived at different points to find out what happened and to offer sympathy and support.
Ava Pipitone of Charles Village said the Bell Foundry was a place of acceptance for some people living outside the mainstream.
"How quickly a safe space for queer [and] trans identities and other marginalized identities was devalued by the city is incredibly disturbing to me as a trans woman," Pipitone said. "On a very flimsy argument, it was erased and devalued with no notice."
Many tenants described the city's handling of the situation as "aggressive" and lacking empathy.
"All they seemed to want to prove was that they had power and ability to be abusive," Koala Largess said. "They had no concern that a lot of folks have nowhere to take their stuff."
Officials in Oakland on Monday were still working to remove bodies and debris from an arts space there known as the "Ghost Ship," which was hosting an electronic dance music concert just before 11:30 p.m. Friday when a large fire broke out, officials said.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
Officials said the building was being used as an illegal living space, in addition to work space for artists, and was already under investigation by the city for possible code violations before the fire erupted.
This article has been updated. A previous version incorrectly quoted Pipitone's reference to her gender.