Most news stories about "hipsterization" in Oakland's Uptown frame it as a bad landlord story: The artists move in, turn a dicey area into a nascent entertainment district, pave the way for landlords to raise their rents, and ultimately get pushed out. But it might actually be a good landlord story. The much-vaunted 23rd Street corridor bloomed several years before Art Murmur, when Tim Martinez (a painter-turned-businessman), Kevin Slagle (formerly of Ego Park Gallery), and printmaker Nat Swope all moved into the area. To a large extent, their ideas came to fruition with the help of a few cool landlords who kept the rent low and encouraged creative use of space.
"I always bristle when I hear that whole 'evil landlord/gentrification' conversation happening," said Swope, who runs Bloom Screen Printing on Telegraph Avenue. "It's always very simplistic."
In 1998, Uptown was a warren of dark narrow streets with many empty storefronts. The building at 480 23rd Street — which would eventually become Esteban Sabar Gallery, then Chandra Cerrito — belonged to an electrical contractor who had been there for about forty years. The venue that now houses Mama Buzz Cafe and Gallery was a Mexican restaurant. At a glance, the whole neighborhood looked like an eyesore. Only a few people saw its potential. One of them was Haig Mardikian, an art collector who owned several buildings in the area. Another was his property manager, Roderick Kiracofe, who said that, architecturally, the storefronts on 23rd Street reminded him of his Midwestern hometown: long and narrow, with big front windows — an ideal setup for an art gallery. Another was Tim Martinez.
Martinez moved to Oakland from a live-work space in Hunters Point. His arrival roughly coincided with that of Swope and Lee Hemingway, who started a gallery called Bing. Darren Jenkins and Sarah Lockhart launched 21 Grand around that time; Slagle and Rock Paper Scissors Collective arrived shortly thereafter. "It was a between-the-cracks type of space," said Swope. "There used to be this chain-link security apparatus that sort of wrapped around my whole building. It was really ugly. It was super unsightly. It reminded you that there was still a bogeyman out there."
Kiracofe's first move was to dismantle the chain-link fence. Swope had reservations at first ("I was like, 'Why don't you just open the door and give all my stuff away?'"), but admits that once the fence was gone, the whole neighborhood seemed to open up. Then the Mexican restaurant shuttered and Martinez decided to replace it with Papa Buzz Cafe — which later became Mama Buzz Cafe. "Rod was all for it," Martinez recalled. "He was pretty open to any ideas I had." When the electrical contractor moved on, Kiracofe brought in Esteban Sabar, whose decidedly "upscale" gallery became the anchor of a new, burgeoning scene. By mid-2003, the whole block of 23rd Street and Telegraph was dotted with Mardikian-owned buildings, all operated by the most inventive curators in Oakland. It became the nucleus of Art Murmur and, by extension, the whole Uptown district.
Both Mardikian and Kiracofe kept the rent below market rate, courted artsy tenants almost exclusively, and created a veritable subculture. Within that niche, they're revered. "He rented those spaces at half what he could have gotten," said Slagle. "The one thing he didn't do — which we all expected him to do — was jack up the rent the second he could. Even the new people coming in are getting pretty good rates, considering that's a hot block."
Some landlords followed suit. John Mervin, who owns the building that houses Rock Paper Scissors, kept his rents cheap so that low-budget enterprises could stay there. He also renovated his apartments with hardwood floors and steam heating without increasing the rent, said Slaper. "My theory is to keep the building full. I would rather have them occupied at a lower rent than have them unoccupied for months at a time," said Mervin. "And I like keeping the commercial spaces down below filled with interesting businesses."
It's fair to assume that any landlord in that area would feel pressure to keep 23rd Street awash in art gallery infrastructure. The big titans — Mardikian, Mervin, and, most recently, Matt and Diane Iglehart — clearly have a combined sense of purpose. "This all wouldn't be possible without some kind of interest in fostering the art scene," said gallery operator Chandra Cerrito, who launched her enterprise in 2007.
Over the course of a decade, art begat more art. The Art Murmur started around 2005, at which point everyone was suddenly all agog about the area. Galleries moved around, changed hands, and fizzled out. The Art Murmur spread to Jingletown, Jack London Square, and the Golden Gate District on San Pablo Avenue (whose flagship, Blankspace, will soon close so that owner Kerri Johnson can move to Branch Gallery on 17th Street). The original founders of the arts district went on to other business ventures. Martinez now co-owns the Layover Bar on Franklin Street. Slagle opened a construction company on 13th Street. The Grand Avenue newbies also have street cred: Alfonso Dominguez, who curates the art at Era, founded Fiveten Studio in Old Oakland. He also owns Tamarindo and La Calle restaurants.
But most of the art scene's tangible weight still lies in the Uptown. The Igleharts recently inherited nine buildings on 24th and 25th streets that once belonged to their grandfather's business, the United Glass Company. With the help of local developer Drew Mickel, they redid the facades, renovated the properties, and installed a ten-foot wide paseo between the blocks. Mercury 20 and Vessel moved into the space at 471 25th Street, while some artists from Berkeley's Firehouse collective resettled a couple doors down. In the meantime, old scenesters are redoubling their efforts. Cerrito said she still gets a crowd of four hundred people on First Fridays.
Yet not all landlords have been so altruistic. Former tenants of Shahla Davoudi, who owns a building on Grand Avenue (which once housed 33 Grand, Front Gallery, Franklin Wine Bar, and Industrielle, and is now home to Era Art Bar and Farley's Coffeehouse, but also a lot of empty storefronts), says she always weighed the needs of artists against her own financial interests. Front Gallery owner Bob Jew faults her for offering short-term, affordable leases to artists, having them fix up the place, and then raising the rent beyond what they can afford. Mercury 20 co-operator Maya Kabat agreed that Davoudi kept her financial interests a priority, but said it would be naive to villainize her for what, in essence, is typical landlord behavior. Kabat hastened to add that Mercury 20 moved out of its space to make room for electrical upgrades, not because Davoudi had pushed the gallery out.
Rick Mitchell, Davoudi's former tenant who owned the now-defunct Franklin Wine Bar, thinks the city should assess any landlord with street-level retail space in downtown that sits vacant for more than twelve months. In general, rents aren't increasing in that area, and, as Mitchell pointed out, empty storefronts mean fewer tax dollars for the city.
Madrikian, Kiracofe, and Mervin all took that into account. As a result, all three get revered as do-gooders. But, in their case, the benefits were also reciprocal, said Swope. "Rod is a benefactor ... for sure," the printmaker explained. "I also think he wanted the property to improve. And who's more willing to move into a funky neighborhood and clean it up than artists?" He added that property owners — the good ones, at least — did the best thing possible for Uptown: They opened the door and got out of the way.