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Artists struggling with cannabis-industry landlords share work, solidarity at FESTAC

on September 10, 2018

When the colorful canopies over center stage were hung and 16 borrowed couches arranged around the periphery, Alistair Monroe could finally relax. FESTAC, the Festival for Arts and Culture he’d been planning for months, was as ready as it could be for musicians, artists, friends and neighbors to arrive.

That Labor Day weekend afternoon, without any sign of the weariness one might expect of a festival organizer, Monroe visited with artists, checked equipment, pointed people toward the performance schedule posted around the small VIP section, and eagerly showed off the custom-labelled Lagunitas bottles the brewery had made to support the event. As Monroe described it, FESTAC was a demonstration that—despite the economic forces working against them—artists are still living and working in Oakland.

For Monroe and his neighbors at the Oakland Cannery warehouse in East Oakland, this cause was personal: Their building, which has housed artists for more than 40 years, was purchased in 2017 by a Colorado real estate firm that intends to develop the building for use by large cannabis businesses. The purchase raised eviction fears among residents, who have spent much of this year pushing against their new landlord by advocating for city policies to protect artists and doing ongoing public outreach to share their fears—and their hopes—for Oakland’s warehouse tenants.

“Oakland is very vulnerable right now,” Monroe had said at his studio the day before the event. He wanted the festival to be a chance for artists—especially artists of color—to connect with each other, show their worth, and “carry the torch” passed along by generations of artists before them. “We’re on a path to preserve the arts,” he said.

High rents have driven many residents—especially artists and people of color—from Oakland. In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in 2016, artists in unpermitted or not-up-to-code live/work warehouses across the city became even more vulnerable to eviction and displacement as landlords and the city sought to mitigate the risks that led to that tragedy. Also beginning in 2016, artists began facing a major competitor for the warehouse spaces in which they live and work: the cannabis industry. That May, the city defined the areas where cannabis businesses would be allowed. Now commonly referred to as the “Green Zone,” this area covers the industrial areas of North, West, and East Oakland, including most of the land between the waterfront and the I-80, plus much of the 880 corridor.

The Oakland Cannery warehouse—where Monroe lives with his father, painter Arthur Monroe—is in that zone. In late 2017, this building and another next door were purchased by Green Sage, a Denver-based cannabis real estate investor and developer. According to the firm’s website, Green Sage intends to develop the building for various cannabis-related uses, calling the Cannery “a state-of-the-art multi-tenant facility built-out for cannabis cultivation, research & testing, and manufacturing & production for some of California’s largest and most established cannabis companies.” Along with this description, the website implies that the entire square footage of the building is available for this use.

But artists live in much of that square footage. They cook dinner there. They make art there. They sleep, write, paint, and run small businesses there. Some have been living at the Cannery since at least 1975, thanks in part to Monroe’s father. The elder Monroe—an abstract expressionist painter active in San Francisco’s beat movement, a former professor of African American Studies and former registrar at the Oakland Museum of California—is now in his 80s. When he first arrived at the Cannery after being evicted from a San Francisco warehouse, he said there were still Del Monte cans all over the first floor. He’d previously seen that live/work use was possible during his time living and studying in New York City, so he set out to work with the Cannery’s then-owner and the city to establish what he says were Oakland’s first live/work permits.

The space, which has undergone many upgrades over the decades to make the building more comfortable, is, according to the Cannery website, an “unusual symbiotic phenomenon” between Oakland arts and industry. Upstairs, some 30 artists live and work in 20 units permitted as live/work residences. Downstairs, commercial units have housed a variety of small businesses: electricians, furniture companies, tropical plant companies, artist’s studios, and more, said the younger Monroe.

When Green Sage bought the building, tenants were worried. Artist, musician, and clothing reseller Michael Dandradi, who has been living in the building for 10 years, said that he and his partner were “living in fear” when they learned who their new landlord was. Assuming an eviction was coming, they started to consider a move to another, more affordable city.

Earlier in 2017, before Green Sage bought the building, Harborside—one of the nation’s largest cannabis dispensaries—briefly took over the master lease of the building, resulting in the eviction of half a dozen commercial businesses on the first floor, according to Monroe and several other residents. Just a few months later, Monroe said, Harborside moved out.

Representatives from Harborside did not respond to a request for comment.

When Green Sage came along later that year, tenants feared more evictions. While no tenants received formal eviction notices at that time, some reported receiving verbal threats of eviction, Monroe said. In a May 21 letter to Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (at large), former building manager James Dawson alleged that after raising concerns about the Green Sage agents’ alleged behavior (entering units without notice, failing to meet maintenance requirements), he was threatened with eviction. “They have threatened me personally with eviction simply for pointing out the law on this matter,” Dawson wrote. After listing all the actions or failures he alleges, Dawson wrote, “it is clear that Green Sage is not acting in good faith.”

Responding to an email request for comment on the dispute and his company’s plans for the building, Green Sage director Ken Greer wrote only that “we continue to work with all our tenants in the Cannery, not only our new cannabis tenants but the work/live residents as well.”

In the early months of 2018, Cannery residents, led by Monroe and others, began a media campaign to raise awareness about what they perceived as a threat to their homes and livelihoods. After TV station KPIX picked up their story, city officials responded. On March 8, during a special meeting, the city council passed an amendment to the city’s cannabis ordinances to prohibit permits for any cannabis business that would displace tenants of live/work, work/live, and residential units. The amendment, which was brought forth by Kaplan, was backed by Cannery residents as well as the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

In his report to city council at that meeting, Greg Minor, assistant to the city administrator, recommended “resolving the competing demands for space between the cannabis industry and Work/Live uses, and avoiding the loss of much needed, existing affordable space for small businesses and housing for Oakland residents, by removing the prospect of City approvals for a cannabis business in spaces used for Work/Live or residential.”

The amendment passed 6-0, protecting residents in the Green Zone—including Cannery tenants—from being evicted to make way for cannabis businesses. Notably, protections were extended to tenants in unpermitted units that as of March 6, 2018, are being leased as residences.

But whether those residents—who are especially vulnerable due to the illegal nature of their units—will actually benefit from this amendment is unknown. Steve King, director of Oakland Community Land Trust, which has worked to preserve as affordable a number of mixed-use, single family, and live/work residences in Oakland, said he thinks “the spirit of the ordinance is positive,” but adds that “monitoring and enforcement may prove tricky, particularly where tenants are in existing live/work uses that aren’t permitted or up to code.”

At the Cannery, tenants felt the amendment was a win. “I’m very grateful,” said Brett Amory, a Cannery resident who said he was evicted from his additional ground-floor commercial space when Harborside moved in. “That’s not something I expected to happen, local government working on your behalf.”

Amory remains in his live/work unit upstairs, but said he was forced by the commercial space eviction to relocate his studio to another building in the neighborhood.

In a letter to Cannery live/work artists in April, Green Sage management officials wrote: “We are sensitive to the artist community in Oakland. Several of our principals have artists in their families and we support the arts. It is our intention to embrace the active work/live artist spaces as part of our business model moving forward. … Establishing a safe and secure environment for all cannabis tenants and work/live artists alike will require a number of changes and accommodations on your part.”

Though the amendment to the city ordinance protected Cannery residents’ apartments, trouble was brewing over the building’s garage. On July 10, Green Sage issued a “notice of change in terms of tenancy,” alerting residents that their tenancy would no longer include use of the parking garage or storage units. Residents were concerned about the loss of this space, where they do laundry, assemble art and store equipment, according to a letter from residents to Green Sage. In that letter, they wrote: “It is clear that Green Sage’s attempt to remove parking, storage, and access to laundry facilities, without providing equivalent substitute housing services, is an attempt to harass tenants and prompt relocation.” Cannery residents also notified the city and staged an Occupy-style protest in the garage on the date the terms formally changed.

In a letter dated August 15, the Oakland City Administrator’s Office notified Green Sage that city staff had visited the site and determined the garage and storage space “falls under the live/work and residential use protections” and therefore no cannabis permit or approval could be issued for this space. “Thank you in advance for taking this information into consideration as you evaluate where to conduct cannabis operations in the Cannery,” the letter reads. As of September 7, Monroe said tenants have been notified by email that Green Sage plans to enforce the removal of artists’ items from the garage and storage units.

For now, their homes seem protected, but Cannery residents still feel on edge. Dandradi said it feels like a “chess match,” in which their landlord has the next move.

Seeking to continue raising awareness and strengthen the arts community, Monroe organized FESTAC, held in Old Oakland. The festival drew inspiration from a much older FESTAC that his father helped produce in the 1970s. A poster for FESTAC ’75 in Lagos, Nigeria, hangs on the wall of the studio the Monroe men share. Several years of these festivals in Nigeria aimed to bring African-descended artists from around the world together to understand their shared—though in many cases erased—history and culture, and to draw global attention to the cultural contributions of black people.

Arthur Monroe remembers the ‘70s FESTAC as the largest-ever gathering of African-descended people. For him, it was a rediscovery of identity, seeing how much he shared with others despite the centuries of colonization, slavery, and oppression that separated them. “We were an African people with the same rhythm, the same sense of beauty and significance,” he said of that festival, and that “the world saw more than they had ever expected” of people like him.

FESTAC 2018 was produced almost entirely by black artists, and its mission to bring attention to—and solidarity among—Oakland artists’ echoes that vision of FESTACs past. “It’s not a general street fair,” Monroe said. “It’s about preserving culture.”

At this year’s event, Monroe sat to talk with wire sculptor Kristine Mays and her mother while Douglas “Voudux” Stewart—an artist, teacher, cannabis entrepreneur, and Cannery resident— spoke about “Sankofa,” a West African concept he translated for the small crowd as “go back and fetch it.” It means, he said from the stage, “We have to go back to our roots, back to the past to understand who we are and where we come from.”

Further up 9th Street, San Francisco artist Tanya Herrera burned typography into the side of a single leather shoe—“Never Not Chilling”—while Arthur Monroe took a nap in the sun surrounded by old friends in town for the festival. Oakland’s DJ Leydis spun beats from her booth behind the stage, facing the artists of FR33FORM who had set up a giant metal swing—really a pendulum with a ring of wooden seats—and two “matrahedrons,” metal sculptures that resembled giant 20-sided dice. On each side of the sculptures, a mantra had been punched out of the metal: “I See Beauty.” “I Am Love.” And, most fitting for Monroe’s vision of the event, which he aims to expand and produce again: “I Am Here.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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