When Dana Harrison bought the Noodle Factory warehouse in 1999, it was a dump. The roof leaked. One downstairs bedroom was landlocked in a back interior corner, leaving no possible escape hatch if a fire broke out. And she inherited a big stack of what must have been two decades' worth of tenant complaints. "It was an absentee landlord from Hong Kong who obviously bought the place as an investment," she said, adding that the old warehouse — which had indeed served as a noodle factory during the 1940s — had become "a serious slum hole."
Harrison and several dancer friends had designs on turning the 19,500-square-foot piece of real estate into a habitable live-work space for artists, with common areas that could serve for live performances, exhibitions, and film screenings. They came up with the idea while having an extended moment of clarity on the Burning Man playa. At the time, Harrison was a refugee from the corporate world with tons of vision and not much pragmatism. She had worked at Charles Schwab before the market crashed, and thought she actually had a nest egg from the dot-com boom, which she said turned out not to be true. Like most heady, well-intentioned, but perhaps-a-little-unrealistic visionaries, she loved the idea of creating an artists' haven in the middle of West Oakland and running it collectively. She just didn't know an effective way of doing it.
Nor did she realize that the whole project would be launched on her dime. "I thought that we were all going into this holding hands," she said. When it turned out that her friends were more interested in pursuing their own creative work than sustaining the collective, Harrison was left high and dry. It would take nine years of financial missteps and wrong choices to come up with a viable plan for the Noodle Factory that more or less resembled their original idea.
Harrison is a tall 48-year-old, with long multicolored braids and sparkly blue toenail polish. She spent eighteen years being what she called "schizophrenic," working as a corporate manager by day and a dancer by night. Then on August 5, 1997, she got hit by a car running a red light on Ashby Avenue. She walked away from the accident with a torn rotator cuff, a bruised ribcage, and lots of soft-tissue damage. It was one of those near-death experiences that lead a person to completely rethink everything.
Harrison decided to leave the corporate world for good. She formed a nonprofit, Planet Care, which does humanitarian work for children in Burma. In 1998 she became an organizer for Burning Man — a post she would hold for seven years. In 1999, she and several other dancers — members of a group called Body Cartography — had the Burning Man-inspired epiphany that would eventually birth the Noodle Factory collective. "On the way home we stopped off in the woods and had this total brainstorming experience," Harrison said, explaining that all the dancers put their heads together and tried to think of a way to collaborate "without limitations of time and space," even outside the magical world of Burning Man.
Back in the Bay Area, they found a real estate agent who specializes in live-work spaces. Of all the places they considered, the Noodle Factory seemed particularly attractive, because it had been used for food production, making it a lot cleaner than other industrial buildings in West Oakland, Harrison said. Yet its location — right next to the railroad tracks on 26th and Union streets, in an area that's still a long ways away from being residential — would allow the tenants to throw late-night events and make as much noise as they needed to. Harrison paid $650,000 for the building, a price so cheap that the owner in Hong Kong later tried to renege, resulting in a court battle that would take much of the following year to resolve. When the deal finally closed, Harrison was left with an illegally converted warehouse that had served as a residential space for about two decades, even though it was barely habitable.
The transition was amicable, she said. "We met with everybody, sent a letter out, and said we're trying to make this thing livable." Several people moved out, a couple stayed, and Harrison compensated the couple who were living in the landlocked unit downstairs, where there was only about nine inches of clearance between the Noodle Factory and the buildings to the south and west of it. Still under the illusion that she had money to spare, Harrison fixed the roof, replaced several windows, and installed working heaters in several units. She went through a long process of city inspections and permits to render the Noodle Factory a viable arts and performance space. Having seen other artsy warehouses spring up in West Oakland and then shut down once city officials got wind of them, Harrison decided she didn't want her space to become another statistic.
Yet, despite honorable intentions, Harrison still was an artist and not a deep-pocket investor. She bankrolled everything herself but still tried running the Noodle Factory as a collective. "We were completely open book about the expenses," she said, referring to "we" as the group of dancers who'd dreamed up the idea at Burning Man. They came up with rent prices by multiplying the square footage of each unit by how much it cost to maintain the building and pay expenses. They even tried revenue-sharing when Noodle Factory residents put on events. Not surprisingly, that financial model didn't work. "That whole way of doing it with initial dancers wasn't enough to remain solvent," Harrison said. "Nobody there had experience as promoters putting on events. Either they made their own art or they were part of someone else's company." Pretty soon, the Noodle Factory had hit hard times.
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