A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Landlord 

Marco Cochran founded the Creamery as a place for artists like himself to share a home. But city officials didn't share the same vision.

Along with about ten thousand other things, the parable of St. Francis of Assisi weighs heavily on Marco Cochran's mind. Born to middle-class parents in the Italian township of Assisi, Francis basically spent his youth partying with buddies before a series of epiphanies led him to abandon all material possessions and marry himself to poverty. Sometime thereafter, he encountered a leper while crossing a river. Initially repulsed, Francis' magnanimous instincts ultimately led him to embrace the diseased man and bestow all his money upon him. This he did, thus beginning his commitment to asceticism.

"During this whole process, I'm doing a sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi having an epiphany while helping a leper," recalls Cochran, who is standing outside the Creamery, his community of live-work artists studios on a seedy stretch of San Pablo Avenue near downtown Oakland. "The whole time I'm sitting here going, 'What am I? Which am I? The leper?'

"I feel like the leper. But the intent of this place is to be a St. Francis."

The process to which Cochran refers is the gradual disintegration of his lifelong dream: creating and maintaining a progressive arts community that would live, work, and play together under the same roof, sharing ideas, supporting one another, and bringing art and arts events to the surrounding community.

Located since 1999 in a neighborhood plagued by crack houses, prostitution, and violence, Cochran's project has been one of the few beacons of hope on an otherwise dowdy thoroughfare. Providing housing for two dozen artists, in addition to communal studios, a library, gallery, performance space, and dance studio, the Creamery offers affordable living and working spaces for artists of all disciplines.

From an urban renewal perspective, it has been a grand success. Before Cochran bought it, the building was just another abandoned warehouse. Afterward, it housed a group of professional artists who were taking the first steps toward turning an otherwise neglected neighborhood into something the city could be proud of.

Accepting Mayor Jerry Brown's invitation to artists to choose Oakland as an alternative to San Francisco's skyrocketing rents, Cochran founded the Creamery thinking he would be safe from the rising rental prices that chased so many artists out of their spaces during the dot-com boom. He had vision and guts, but he lacked a certain legalistic savvy. When he bought the old brick building, he knew it needed a seismic retrofit to be considered safe for occupancy. Nevertheless, he moved forward, building 22 studios within the Creamery's 18,000 square feet, gambling that the city of Oakland would remain unaware of his actions until he could afford the costs of permits and additional construction that would meet the requirements of city code.

For three years he stayed below the radar and established one of the most successful artists' communities in the city. But when an angry tenant reported his activities to the Building Department, it all came crashing down.

Cochran's situation is far from unique. All across Oakland, illegal yet affordable live-work spaces have sprouted in neighborhoods from Fruitvale to West Oakland. Just a few blocks away from the Creamery is a space that sponsors monthly art exhibits. Up the street is a warehouse that hosts weekly concerts by bands from around the world. A short drive away is a warehouse colony of filmmakers who use their space as a soundstage.

All these places are distinct from what architect Thomas Dolan derides as "lifestyle lofts" -- those faux-industrial buildings mainly designed for people who are neither artists nor plan to work at home. "My synonym for lifestyle lofts, particularly as they were done in San Francisco, is Substandard Luxury Housing," says Dolan, a designer of Bay Area live-work buildings who has worked with the city of Oakland to pave the way for more such compounds. "Substandard as in they were built to reduced codes, Luxury in that it seems pretty darn expensive, and it's Housing as distinct from live-work."

True live-work spaces, on the other hand, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While some house more than fifty occupants, they seem to average about ten to fifteen each. Some are surprisingly palatial, housing an array of working artists who pay competitive rents for comfortable surroundings and amenities including high-speed Internet access, gated parking, laundry rooms, skylights, and even Jacuzzis. Others are veritable rats' nests, congregations of drunks, dropouts, and drifters paying as little as $50 to $200 a month for rickety shoeboxes in degraded industrial surroundings. It is these latter buildings that give the term "illegal warehouse" a bad name.

But while the Creamery may be illegal, it nevertheless is the jewel of the genre. Located in the old Willowbrook Creamery, the facade is two austere stories of brick, inlaid with cream-colored masonry complete with carefully etched vines. Step through the iron doors and you're in the Live Culture art gallery. With its library, communal kitchen, recording studio, Cochran's giant sculpture workshop, and a recreation room complete with dance floor, trampoline, and entertainment center, the Creamery has undeniable charm.

But the building now exists mostly in a state of suspended animation. Once home to regular art exhibits, the gallery contains mere reminders: a sculpture lying on the floor, and an old brochure hanging on the wall. When the city showed up here a year ago, officials swiftly put a stop to Cochran's never-ending list of improvements. Consequently, some walls remain unfinished and debris clutters some of the hallways -- most of it stuff left behind by tenants who have moved out as a result of the uncertain times.


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