It’s a common refrain heard throughout the country: Americans don’t manufacture anymore. But all over Oakland, warehouses and factories are buzzing with activity. Entrepreneurs are flocking to the city and revitalizing fallow industrial space with an array of creative manufacturing.
Now as the city brainstorms an economic vision for Oakland, this new breed of manufacturers is asserting itself, asking for the city’s support, and worrying that their creative community won’t get the backing it needs.
To press their case, manufacturers are banding together, in a newly-formed initiative called “Oakland Makers.” The group represents more than 400 industrial artists and enterprises with diverse products. By organizing under one umbrella, they hope to gain visibility and influence city government to support their small businesses.
“Once a face, a name and a purpose has been put on something, the city has no choice but to recognize it,” says Walter Craven, founder of Blank and Cables, a high-tech design and manufacturing company in East Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. He says he would like the city to promote micro businesses with tax breaks, to preserve industrial zoning, and to help makers advertise their products. The city has already pledged seed money to help Oakland Makers with the initial costs of creating a website and getting on its feet.
“These are the brave people who go into spaces that nobody else wants. They put money and time into it, they put their souls into it and they change it.” he said. “It’s a very powerful force for the city and it should be recognized.”
Craven’s story is emblematic of the maker movement. For years, he says he bounced around San Francisco’s Mission District, searching for space as his business grew. But as the dot com sector boomed, businesses like his were forced out and replaced with office space for information technology firms.
After operating out of a factory in North Oakland since 2002, Craven four years ago bought his current space, a 25,000 square-foot factory on East 10th Street, on an abandoned industrial block. Six months later, he bought up the surrounding buildings, envisioning a vibrant artisanal community.
Now, in the onetime bucket factory from the last century, Craven and his 16-member team are designing and manufacturing furniture that he exports around the world. Brewing company Ale Industries is setting up shop as well and dozens of artists are working in studio spaces.
“I wanted to repurpose the original structures so that it’s historically correct and to plug into what Oakland was and making it what it can be as well,” Craven said. “So we’re not just tearing down and scorching the earth.”
Across town in West Oakland, another magnet for makers is thriving. The largest operation is at American Steel Studios, along Mandela Parkway, where 170 artists and entrepreneurs work.
Industrial artist Karen Cusolito runs the workspace and was the original tenant in 2006, when the titanic warehouse was little more than a bus depot. With ceiling cranes, truck access and fire-spewing “gargoyles” at the entrance, American Steel is a hub for artists who work on an industrial scale.
But contained within American Steel is much more than a Burning Man supplier.
Sharing the workspace are: Hammer and Heels, a furniture design company founded by a neuroscientist cum construction worker; bikeparking.com, a maker of metal racks used by cities worldwide; and CORE Foods, an organic protein bar company whose products are now found in Whole Foods in 40 states. These are just a few of the businesses that call American Steel home.
“Nothing seems impossible in a space like this,” says Anne Olivia Eldred, outreach director at American Steel Studios. “This is where you take an idea that came out of your basement and you figure out how to make it happen.”
Despite the buzz of the nascent movement, members are uneasy about an economic plan being developed for West Oakland to be made public next month, which will serve as a recommendation for future development and zoning.
Margot Prado, who works on industrial business attraction and retention for the City of Oakland, has been encouraging makers to organize. She says that at this stage the plan is “pretty supportive” of the creative economy and that city planners are “listening to the maker movement.” As the document isn’t yet public, Prado wouldn’t comment on specifics. Ulla-Britt Jonsson, a city planner working on the West Oakland project, echoed her assurances that the makers are not under threat.
Jon Sarriugarte, a blacksmith and founder of Form and Reform, is a veteran industrial artist and manufacturer and as a member of the West Oakland Commerce Association has been involved in planning battles for years. He expressed concern over the direction of initial proposals. According to Sarriugarte, a plan he saw earlier this year for 26th and Mandela, along a major industrial corridor, was a total transformation.
“There’s two and three story glass structures,” he said, adding the plan was devoid of industrial equipment. “A Honda Civic is the biggest vehicle in the picture.”
“I asked, ‘Where’s the industrial?’ and they’re like ‘the what?’”
Currently, much of West Oakland is zoned for “light industrial” uses, which imposes minimal restrictions on manufacturers. Sarriugarte said he is concerned that cracking down on zoning in the area will shackle industrially intensive operations.
The other threat to makers, says Sarriugarte, is the “land banking” of industrial space, particularly in West Oakland. Already, according to Prado, just 3 percent of Oakland’s land is zoned for industrial and many landlords are allowing industrial land to go unused as they wait for the right conditions to transform it into residential developments.
Just down the street from Form and Reform is a crumbling former sausage factory on 28th Street that has been abandoned for more than a decade. Like many other parcels in the neighborhood, it lies empty.
Prado says that landlords need to embrace the potential revenues that could be realized by opening up spaces for makers or larger businesses. Sarriugarte would like to see the city put pressure on landlords who leave their properties vacant.
Makers point to San Francisco as a cautionary tale. Across the bay, many of the artists were forced out by skyrocketing prices and residential development and moved eastward, where they now are thriving in Oakland.
Leslie Pritchett, an arts advocate working with Oakland Makers, urges Oakland to consider the economic stakes .
“Change and development is going to happen,” she said. “But if the city can’t understand how much benefit they can gain by embracing the creative economy, then it’s squashing what is a very rich component of what Oakland is.”