Machinery, old, rusted and abundant, circles my new compound. A half moon hangs over the ghostly shipyard here on the Bay in east San Francisco. I live in a warehouse. The Bayshore bus line just passed. I think it's the last route of this late night. All is too quiet. There aren't even homeless people around.
Ten people live and work in this laboratory on Third Street and I was let in, I suppose, because I am a writer struggling to finish a hitchhiking memoir. The quiet setting here helps anyone looking to get work done.
In our common area there are over two dozen bicycles, scooters and trailers. Everyone rides bicycles, builds bicycles and takes spills on bicycles.
Chad builds bicycles and sells bicycle things. I first met him on a boiling hot ride to LA in the back of a covered pick-up truck. We had stripped down to our underwear and taken to beat-boxing into a megaphone.
"Being able to work on my bicycle and leave it out over night is great. That's hard to do in the city. I can work on that or build a chicken coop on the roof," he smirks. That's right, we have chickens pecking away at this very moment on the roof. A child's purple hippo sandbox is now a small garden. And the way to the roof is great. It involves climbing through an old heat duct and up a small ladder.
Chad's been living in the warehouse for 5 months and most recently worked on the chicken coop. Before that I watched him turn open space into an enclosed super-loft complete with a round little Hobbit door. He and his friend Clayton live in there. I see them working on bicycles late at night, usually over a case of beer.
We all do our best to be off the radar here as well, which is why I'd never give up our address to this place. "You keep low key and try not to make a scene. Then you can go back to having parties. You have to pay more attention to who you tell about the place, because it isn't a standard living situation," Chad adds.
There was a wild New Years party here involving metal bands and a ruckus that attracted the police. However, everything maintained.
Warehouses serve as studio space for musicians, like Jimmy James, a blues man who has lived here for 2 years. He sees this whole area in the Bayview being turned over quickly.
"The Bayview is what developers are foaming at the fucking mouths about, this whole area. Ever been up on the hill? The view is beautiful."
Jimmy's a cool guy. He's always bumping along on his upright bass or playing a gig somewhere I've never heard of. He values our warehouse as a great place to practice music. "Man, I can just raise hell whenever I want. Practice is more important than anything as a musician and I can practice whenever I want."
He spends a lot of time organizing the rooftop chicken operation and hanging dozens of plants all around the warehouse, creating a little indoor jungle. "That's why it's good to have people doing shit around here. It makes you want to do something and reminds you of how lazy you are when you don't," he tells between tuning an acoustic guitar and heading out for a gig.
We all have our reasons for being here – by choice, convenience or a mixture of both. Many industrial artists have been pushed to Oakland over the years, and to work as an artist in this expensive city can be difficult.
There have been few people I've met in my travels who stand out as larger-than-life. Brad Watkins‚ "known for riding bicycles on the 405 freeway, smashing audio equipment, cycling from LA to New York with band gear in tow, dancing in pizza costumes and producing contagiously fun music with his band Funderstorm," is one.
I know him as B-Rad. He's obsessed with conspiracy documentaries, cheese and audio equipment. After living in LA for two years he moved to San Francisco with his girlfriend Cat, a seamstress and fashion designer, to work on his music from this citadel.
I usually walk into his room to see him encased in cigarette smoke, chanting and bouncing up and down in his chair over a track. For the past 8 months B-Rad has been working psychotically on the debut Funderstorm album, citing the isolation of our home base as helpful.
"I think that because SF is only seven by seven miles, people get so concentrated in certain areas. And this place is out of the way. It's easy to zone out. People leave you alone cuz they really don't want to come down here," he says on a rather cold afternoon.
I hear him screaming lyrics, spelling out "F.U.N." over and over before I walked in. He lets me roll a cigarette and takes a break from recording to do the same.
Since moving here, B-Rad has written and worked on short stories, an album and is currently working on several short films. One of them is a dark and bizarre sci-fi short.
Moving here with his girlfriend Cat has been a time of collaboration and constructive projects.
"Also, the fact that Cat has a studio here next to me. I'm able to get so much work done here when I see other people producing work around me. I'm growing. I feel like I have hit a point with music in which I feel that I can power-house it and get it all out."
On the flipside of their built out loft is another room where Cat is snipping and sowing away wearing pink headphones.
"It's interesting living in a large community of essentially strangers, living away from the more inhabited San Francisco. Most people don't even know where this place is," Cat says.
With space being an issue for most DIY (do it yourself) artists, a warehouse is the best refuge for people like us. Cat can live and work for the same price, without having to pay for two different spaces. She can spend as much time working on projects for her self-run company A.Able that makes custom clothing, bandanas and bags with a colorfully loud fresh and functional appeal.
"It's incredible to have space. We have a swing, for Christ's sake. When I visited here I stayed in the Mission. I knew I wanted to work out of the house. It was important to have affordable studio space and housing and not have to worry about paying rent past your means."
Back in B-Rad's, he's taken to watching a documentary on how the government faked the moon landing.
"San Francisco's real estate is a big political power. It's political warfare. Why would the city allow artists live economically? Spaces that are cheap on the peninsula are constantly threatened to be shut down for being illegal," he grumbles.
He's right. This place can be shut down at any time. There are no guarantees that we have any rights as regular tenants. Everything has to do with zoning, taxes and other things hardly any of us worry about on a daily basis.
How can you when a building is full of all sorts of odd activity, not to mention a rotating door of drifters and travelers stopping by? There is always something weird going on, and I'm always wondering who the six people in the living room are. One day they're from England, the next Wisconsin. People are always coming through.
I guess that's what makes this place so great. It's not the sticky kitchen or the shower room in the small closet, or even the fact that I freeze in my sleep regularly. It is the eclectic current that powers this place. Despite the fact that I did hear gunshots about five blocks south of here back in the fall, it is a quiet and empty area after dark.
People may say "hood" when referring to this area, but I say home. Home for now, with a group of young people all trying to do something within the seven by seven, trying to feed or maybe fuel the reputation of this city of arts.
"Where else in the city can you wake up, play with some chickens, go check out the bay bridge in one morning. You don't have to deal with the homeless, cops or anyone. You can do wheelies all day, break shit, build shit. It's a constant movement, a motion, new people new rules," Cat bursts, all while continuing to work.
I found my warehouse by word of mouth, but it is possible to find a posting for warehouse space on Craigslist. My best advice for moving into a warehouse is to simply have an interest in doing so, and connect with artists you're drawn to who are living and working in such a space. Finding my roommates at large is easy. If you like homemade goods in the form of rad t-shirts and bags you can snatch up one from Cat at A.Able. Looking for a dose of F.U.N.? B-Rad's got it going on. Jimmy James teaches lessons folks.
Photos by Jesse Szymanski and Beau Trincia