Made in Oakland: How one city turned into an art and maker mecca

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I felt like I had walked into a scene out of Mad Max. Inside a fenced-in lot sat a broken-down beige Nissan hatchback. The ground was covered with a blanket of gravel that kicked up with every step. Shipping containers surrounded me on all sides and a row of retired buses formed a fortress of derelict industry. I looked up. On top of every bus was a torrent of activity, with people toiling away with hammers and saws and welding torches and power grinders.

After just staring for a bit, I walked over to one of the buses and thumped my fist against it. The rain of sparks pouring from above me stopped, and a shirtless man wearing a welding mask and bandoleer across his chest peered over the edge of the bus. I shouted, “Hey, this is NIMBY, right?”

The man popped up his mask and a white smile peered out just above his soot-covered neck. He shouted back: “Hell yeah, this is NIMBY!”

This is the maker and art collective scene in Oakland.

NIMBY is home to some very large art projects, like East Bay Burners First Home project.

Believe it or not, this was an ordinary day at NIMBY, one of Oakland's largest hackerspaces. Jason Wells, a relative newcomer to NIMBY, recalled a similar chaotic scene.

“It took me an hour to get my van 50 feet because there [were] three major art projects in progress," Jason explained. "There was an art car torn to pieces, one person was welding, somebody was using a miter saw right in the middle of the place where you drive. Everything was just pandemonium.”

Having visited a few hackerspaces and one community biolab in New York, stepping into NIMBY was like entering a new and strange maker country where projects were made for giants. The art projects are immense and inspiring. The work and passion that goes into them, even more so.

“A lot of the art gets built for the love and the challenge,” Michael Snook, the founder of this 65,000 square-foot maker space, told TechHive. And as it turns out, NIMBY is just a small part of a large and storied maker scene that dates back to the 1960s and, surprisingly, has managed to stay a well-kept secret.

Welcome to Oakland, a bastion for making

Maria del Camino by Bruce Tomb. The project was built using a 1959 El Camino chassis with 30,000 holes drilled into it in the shape of the false prophet Maria, and stuck on top of an old excavator bed. Bruce is currently working on making it remote-controllable with an iPhone app.

A confluence of factors have driven Oakland's maker renaissance. The city has plenty of large industrial spaces that are perfect for makers to erect so many of the massive projects found here. Oakland is also more affordable than San Francisco, its bigger, more glamorous sibling across the Bay, leading many artists and makers to relocate there. And Oakland has always had a bit of an independent, rebellious streak, which is an attraction of its own to some.

“I grew up here so we’ve always been known for doing things a little bit differently than anyone else whether it was music, art, food, or whatever,” said Ismael Plasencia, the Youth Program Associate at The Crucible and a life-long Oakland resident. “Oakland has always [added] its own flavor to a lot of stuff.”

Large-scale spaces like NIMBY, The Crucible, and American Steel Studios serve as the scene's cornerstones. Outside of these massive art spaces, Oakland is one giant web of smaller maker spaces, including Ace Monster Toys, The ACME Warehouse, Tech Liminal, Jon Sarriugarte’s Form and Reform, as well as John Lewis Glass and Jeremy Crandell's Saint Louise Studios—and these are just the ones I know about.

Then there’s First Friday, a monthly street festival that showcases the city's art, music, and creative culture.

It’s a community that's easy to get swept into—some in the Oakland maker scene even quit their day jobs to pursue full-time artistic careers. Crazy? Not so: In fact, the idea of making for a living has become an industry unto itself here.

Meet the makers

This space was once a vacant, empty industrial ghost equipped with 10-ton cranes that used to hoist up ships coming in from the Port of Oakland.

Nowhere is the idea of making for a living more evident than in the workspaces at American Steel Studios, a six-acre factory space in West Oakland. In 2005, American Steel Studios founder Karen Cusolito first took residence in the former factory the workshop calls home to create towering 30-foot-tall steel sculptures. Little did she know that she would lease the entire building a year later as it attracted other industrial artists bound for Burning Man.

The Universe Revolves Around is a massive art project currently undergoing a revamp at American Steel Studios. It’s basically a massive spinning platform that rotates boulders around you.
One of Lou Brocksen’s CNC Machined metal cubes.

Since then, this industrial ghost of a building has attracted a total of 170 other industrial artists. But amidst all the long alleys of heavy metal and steel girders, makers have also turned the old factory into a home for their artistic livelihoods.

Karen introduced me to a man named Lou Brocksen who quit his day job to bust out amazing metal art cut with a CNC machine. Aside from his own art, Lou has also taken on commissioned projects from other makers located at American Steel and elsewhere.

For our next stop, Karen and I marched across the equivalent of two city blocks to get to the other end of the building. We stopped just short of the factory’s back wall, and right in front of us was a complete furniture store. I raised an eyebrow: Nothing was arranged in typical retail-showroom fashion, as a whole row of chairs sat seven feet above our heads on top of a shipping container.

Sylvia Ortiz and the team behind Brown Dirt Cowboys has found a new, bigger home for their furniture business.

Sylvia Ortiz, one of the store’s proprietors, stepped out to greet us. Sylvia, along with her husband and an assistant, has operated Brown Dirt Cowboys for 15 years. Brown Dirt Cowboys specializes in creating custom furniture out of reclaimed materials, putting it all back together in an entirely new way. They might stain a metal cabinet to make it look like wood, for example, or create a table with a completely new metal back.

Before coming to American Steel Studios, Brown Dirt Cowboys originally had two shops—one in San Francisco's South of Market Street (SoMa) neighborhood and another in San Francisco’s design district—along with a production facility.

“The rent [in San Francisco] was astronomical, and the dot-com [boom] took over our area and so we had to get out, and that’s how we ended up here,” Sylvia recalled. “It just became a good fit; we’ve gotten more space and we coexist really well with our neighbors. I think it’s been a good thing.”

Sylvia continued: “We literally don’t have to turn any work down because we have the space and the freedom to do what we want to do here.”

American Steel is just full of surprises, like this old-fashioned letterpress service.

In addition to the regular factory spaces, American Steel Studios also rents out studio spaces that surround its public gallery space. From one of these spaces, Rebecca Peters has created a surprisingly fully furnished office space for her letterpress printing business, Reb Peters Printing. Using a combination of old-fashioned machinery and Adobe InDesign, Rebecca can turn your digital design into a photopolymer plate—basically, a photosensitive plate that becomes a textured stamp. After that, she places the plate inside a hand-cranked machine that prints an inked impression on a piece of paper.

This is the first studio space Rebecca has ever rented. Previously, she ran a nomadic etching business for five years that travelled from one place to the next, using the printing presses of whomever she was working for at the time.

“I had lived in San Francisco for 10 years and part of the reason I never thought of having a studio was because over there it was just too expensive,” Rebecca, remembered. “Over here [at American Steel], it’s a lot more affordable. There’s also a general contractor that has helped me a lot. Like, bolt down my paper cutter and figure out some broken bolt issues that I was having. It’s just nice having creative people around too.”

Rebecca also has a wide supply of stationery to give it that old carnival look and a bunch of rolling paper cutters to make it a really nice product.

After hearing the same story from a number of the tenants at American Steel, it became abundantly clear how maker spaces like this give people a lower-cost alternative to opening up their own stores. Expenses aside, it's a conducive community that bands together: Everyone adds their expertise and skills to the mix, whether it's welding or cross-stitching a dress.

“There’s an importance of community because when you know there are other people on these wild, crazy hair-brained ideas, chasing down something that’s never going to work and then you meet that person who knows how to get that switch to make the car go up and down,” Karen gushed. “All these pieces come together and you begin to realize, 'I can do this!'”

Just some of the massive metallic sculptures that Karen and other industrial artists make at American Steel Studios.

Just a few blocks away from American Steel is one of West Oakland’s most well-known industrial art centers, The Crucible. Here at this 56,000-square-foot factory—which used to make paper tubes—a new, younger generation is forging itself into makers.

The Crucible is mainly an educational institution: Beyond its classes for adults, The Crucible teaches kids ages 8 to 18 all sorts of making skills. Students here can learn about MIG welding, ARC welding, blacksmithing, ceramics, woodworking, jewelry, and silversmithing. The Crucible also has a neon glass program and a motorized electronics class for creating robots—and the list goes on. This place really is a hackerspace department store.

The Crucible and maker spaces like it are instrumental for creating large-scale art. (Click to zoom in.)
Bernt Rostad/Flickr (CC by 2.0)
The Chicago Cloud Gate—also known as The Bean—is another famous art project that started in Oakland.

While it might seem like the maker community is popping off each day with new and bigger projects, this sort of art is largely unknown to the world—and even to other Oakland residents. Meanwhile, a battle is brewing as new development expands and rents in the Bay Area creep ever higher.

Enter the Oakland Makers initiative

For years, city planners have looked for ways to revitalize Oakland's fading industrial areas: One such plan calls for residential zoning to replace a large part of the industrial districts that so many of these maker spaces call home.

Margot Prado, Senior Economic Development Specialist for the City of Oakland, has a different plan that will help preserve these areas for makers. Prado, along with Hiroko Kurihara, a seasoned urban planner and founder of the 25th Street Collective artist group, have created a new initiative called Oakland Makers.

In short, Oakland Makers is the Avengers-style initiative that's assembling an all-star team of industrial artists, creative fabricators, architectural designers, and “maker-force” (short for "maker workforce") institutions that will train the next generation of makers.

Rather than turn the entire area into residential neighborhoods, the Oakland Makers plan would save industrial buildings that already provide the space for artisan manufacturing. The plan's backers also hope to attract the attention of advanced manufacturers by setting aside additional industrial zoning to accommodate both existing and future maker spaces.

The seeds of a high-tech future

The plan isn’t just to preserve these industrial zones but also to give the City of Oakland a future in the advanced, high-tech manufacturing world as envisioned by President Obama.

“Industrial artists are [the] sort of key inventive crowd that often creates just one-off single-production-line items that are often very related to what we need to do to inspire and attract advanced manufacturing to Oakland,” Prado explained, supporting Oakland's industrial artist community.

Prado and the maker community believe that this rich environment will attract more high-tech companies to Oakland. Companies like Emerging Objects, which researches new 3D-printable materials for room-sized structures, give just a glimpse of what such a future might look like.

: Ronald Rael stands behind a three-foot-tall salt wall at Emerging Objects' offices in West Oakland.

While looking over Emerging Objects' vast array of 3D-printed creations, co-founder Ronald Rael explained his rationale for setting up shop in Oakland.

“When we were looking for a places to stay, obviously West Oakland was for us very affordable, and two, we just realized that there’s a wood craftsman there, there’s a book binder here, there’s a reproduction house there, there’s all these maker spaces there," Ronald said, pointing out other nearby businesses. "So this is the perfect place to be because there’s this ecosystem of creative people that we really can be a part of.”

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