December 29, 2006

Lifestyle Lofting

Yes, I live in a loft. Very passe. But I need the high ceilings and the undivided space for my photo studio and business, and I can (mostly) put up with the noise (it's jammed between a freeway and a major local road, and contains a bunch of extremely loud bands and other 24 hour noise-makers), the pollution (it's in Industrial East Oakland, and also in the middle of the cement-making capital of the Bay Area, and the steady stream of container trucks on the surrounding roads heading for the Port doesn't help, either), the isolation (you can't just walk anywhere — you have to plan things like shopping or visits to friends well ahead of time), and the inevitable taunts about living a cliche.

The loft's in an old box factory down by the Estuary. It's one of the first loft conversions in the area (late 1980's, I think), and unlike the later purpose-built lofts that have started to infest the area, it's got a certain style, and is aimed squarely at people like me who need a live / work space rather than just a trendy home (most of the units around me are inhabited by people who also run businesses or art studios in those units). The flavour of the place comes through in the commercial lease I have for my unit: among the other standard lease items, it prohibits me from having more than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel in my unit without the owner's written approval, and no lathes, milling machines, or other heavy equipment are to be permanently installed without similar approval; on the other hand, it explictly allows me to do whatever I like to the interior, including installing new rooms, floors, etc, without notice. I've been here for years now, long enough to be considered almost an old-timer by the other tenants, and I have one of the larger spaces — not quite the sun-splashed red brick and redwood beams of the California Cliche, but near enough to be bearable.

More importantly, the location tends to discourage the inevitable lifestyle lofters — that well-intentioned plague that started in the mid-nineties and nearly ruined lofts for the rest of us by pricing us out of the market. Sometime around then people started to see lofts depicted as huge hip bright sunny spaces on TV or in movies, and simultaneously large developers started converting derelict factories or building new purpose-built buildings (a.k.a "loftominiums" and / or "instant tenements") in rougher neighbourhoods to house the hordes of people who convinced themselves that loft living is a lifestyle choice, an accessory to a certain sub-yuppie or wannabe-artist life (i.e. often enough, the sort of people who think art is a lifestyle or choice rather than a calling or compulsion...).

The lifestyle lofters we see typically can't afford to live in San Francisco (no one can), so they end up here in Oaktown, which is now Loft Central thanks to Mayor Jerry Brown (Our Beloved Leader) and people like me (but see this East Bay Express story for some of the pitfalls). The ones we get in our building typically last exactly the length of their initial lease and move out the next day (or even break their leases after a month or two), vowing never to live in a loft again, or moving on to one of the purpose-built luxury lifestyle lofts closer to Downtown or the Warehouse District, a district now almost devoid of real warehouses (or small businesses and artists, for that matter), most of them having been converted into expensive lifestyle lofts over the past few years). They move in here with little appreciation for just how difficult it can be to live in a real loft, little appreciation of just how drafty, leaky, noisy, cold, hot, dirty, and crime-ridden lofts like this are in real life, little appreciation for just how much work you have to do to make something like this a livable space (it took me nearly two years to get this place comfortable; it's still a work in progress).

The guys who moved in across the corridor from me late last year lasted less than three months, leaving in a bemused rush for a quieter, nicer, less-polluted lifestyle loft up the Embarcadero. I guess the sense of space and the high airy ceilings here just weren't enough. Especially after having had your car broken into several times during that time, or having been woken up for the fourth time the previous night by the assault stereos or mini-sideshows on the street outside, or having one of your tires punctured yet again by the industrial debris left behind by an overloaded junk truck, or having had to negotiate your way past the homeless encampment next to the garbage piled up against the freeway overcrossing every other day or so. That's (the) life, I guess.

(For me, there are two fairly reliable indicators of whether a loft is a lifestyle loft or not: firstly, the amount of unused or unusable vertical space, and secondly, whether your lease prohibits the total or large-scale rearrangement of the loft's internal layout and setup. Clearly you need vertical space (at least 4 metres) for a working loft — for lighting, for studio backdrops, for those large pieces you're working on, for storage, etc. — but if the loft is more like an atrium, with lots of vertical space you can't conceivably use or that's just sitting there with no intention of being used, then it's probably a lifestyle loft, more concerned with light and "space" than with working space. Similarly, if you can't just decide one day to rip up the existing internal walls, or put in some new walls, or take down that awful-looking long wide ledge the previous tennants built half-way up the side wall (what were they thinking?), then it's a lifestyle loft. Ideally, you start with a loft that's just an undivided and unadorned space, and make it into what you want it to be, with explicit permission in the lease to do whatever you want — lifestyle lofts, on the other hand, usually come pre-arranged with nice domestic layouts (rooms, stairways, alcoves, etc.), and any attempt to change the layout non-trivially brings the landlord (or community association) down on you like a ton of bricks. Another very telling sign is the flooring: like many working lofts around here, my floor is just a huge grey-painted deep flat concrete slab that extends under the entire factory; you can do whatever the hell you like with it, including bolting heavy equipment to it or moving gear around on it, without fear of damaging the floor or causing structural problems (and the slab in my place tends to moderate temperatures in both summer and winter, which is a plus). Lifestyle lofts, on the other hand, typically have nicely-polished hardwood floors that you can't do anything with or on without worrying about scratches or having that heavy lighting stand buckle the floor).

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December 26, 2006

Why I Love Berkeley, Part 47

Owl Drugs

Owl Drugs. An anachronistically folksy small-town pharmacy and drug store (whatever that means nowadays) right on Telegraph.

But maybe not for long. There's signs of a Walgreens chain store pharmacy moving in literally next door in the old Gap place….

December 23, 2006


We've just had our third short sharp shock tremor in five days, all of them centred just under Berkeley, a couple of miles up the road. It's hard to be too cavalier about them when they happen — there's no getting away from how scary the suddenness is, how thoroughly shaky the illusion of solid ground is — but you just have to keep going on about your business. There's not much you can really do to be totally safe other than move out of the area….

December 18, 2006

Calatrava Dreaming

Sundial Bridge, Redding CA

Calatrava's Sundial Bridge, a rushed stop for me on a pilgrimage of sorts (I've pored over his bridges in print many times over the last few months). This is a bridge about lightplays and drawn tension, and (like the Golden Gate Bridge), it's an example of unabashed technology that should look strident in such a natural context, but that works because it's so strikingly unlike anything around it, because it's so strange and alien (in some ways it struck me that it looks like it's been there forever).

(I'm working up a full gallery of edited shots from this visit which should be available in a week or two if I can get around to it…).

December 17, 2006


Mt Shasta city: a small town with a couple of good independent bookshops and one or two decent restauraunts (including Zen Sushi) in amongst the bad bars and small local bad food barns, a town now almost overrun by crystal shops and bad new age art galleries because of its proximity to the sacred spiritual heart of Mt Shasta. Even the good bookshop (Village Books on North Mt Shasta Blvd), a place otherwise relatively sober and rather Northern Californian in its political sensibilities, has a whole separate section and alcove devoted to newage books and art. But sometimes you just can't miss the signs of the real life Out There beyond the secret government underground flying saucer hangars, the chakra healers, and the shops selling personalized Native American totems….

December 16, 2006

Anonymous Landscapes

In this most remarkable of landscapes — a very characteristic collection of classic snow-covered volcanoes rising sheer off the valley floor 10,000' or more above you, of volcanic debris strewn across thousands of square miles, of high desert plains and deep mountain valleys, of cold boulder-strewn rivers, a place photographed and painted endlessly over the years — in these southern reaches of the great State of Jefferson, so many of the local hotels and restaurants have generic bad landscape art on the walls (fishermen in anonymous rivers, anonymous generic mountains behind them). The hotel I'm staying in — directly in the lee of Mt Shasta — has a few nods to what's outside, but in the rooms, and on the walls of the local Burger King, it's all about what's presumably inside….

December 10, 2006


Tediocraty: the word that sprang to mind when I first heard the Grateful Dead. All these years later, it's still the word….

December 06, 2006

Attractive Nuisances

In a recent op ed piece in the SF Chron, Terry Tamminen gives a really pretty cogent argument for why California — with a bunch of other US states — is "suing auto manufacturers on behalf of the public, seeking compensation for global warming pollution that is known to aggravate heat waves, wildfires, and coastal flooding." ("Why we sue over soot", San Francisco Chronicle, 29 November, page B11).

So far, so good. But let's go global on this, and take this logic only a little bit further: why not have Tamminen help, say, several countries in UnAmerica sue California and its people(s) for the same thing? It's not as though the population of California is an innocent bystander in all this, naive dupes of the evil auto manufacturers and such. In my experience the majority of the population here has for years actively wanted, often even demanded, a lifestyle that's been a public nuisance (Tamminen's phrase) to the rest of the world.

So Go, Terry, Go! But don't forget the followup, the targeting of the great Californian (and US) publics and their insatiable desires — they're (we're!) the real public nuisance here.

December 02, 2006

Just Visiting

The parallels are striking, at least to this UnAmerican who's lived in America longer than many Americans: just as large parts of this country tend to think of the Vietnam war (if they think of that war at all) as a catastrophe visited upon an innocent United States, more and more people here seem to be seeing the US as some sort of innocent victim of the Iraq war. We're even starting to hear breathtakingly cynical calls for Iraqis to stop spongeing on the US and start taking responsibility for the catastrophe that somehow befell them.

Hence the debate here in the US over pulling out, so often entirely couched in terms of what's best for the US, with Iraq and the Iraqis as an afterthought or side effect, if mentioned at all. But even more so than with Vietnam, the US should think of itself as more than just visiting; the US, after all, isn't exactly a guest of the Iraqi people, it didn't just happen to drop by to help while the house was burning….

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