Made in Oakland: How one city turned into an art and maker mecca

I felt like I had walked into a scene out of Mad Max. Inside a fenced-in lot sat a broken-down beige Nissan hatchback. The ground was covered with a blanket of gravel that kicked up with every step. Shipping containers surrounded me on all sides and a row of retired buses formed a fortress of derelict industry. I looked up. On top of every bus was a torrent of activity, with people toiling away with hammers and saws and welding torches and power grinders.

After just staring for a bit, I walked over to one of the buses and thumped my fist against it. The rain of sparks pouring from above me stopped, and a shirtless man wearing a welding mask and bandoleer across his chest peered over the edge of the bus. I shouted, “Hey, this is NIMBY, right?”

The man popped up his mask and a white smile peered out just above his soot-covered neck. He shouted back: “Hell yeah, this is NIMBY!”

This is the maker and art collective scene in Oakland.

NIMBY is home to some very large art projects, like East Bay Burners First Home project.

Believe it or not, this was an ordinary day at NIMBY, one of Oakland's largest hackerspaces. Jason Wells, a relative newcomer to NIMBY, recalled a similar chaotic scene.

“It took me an hour to get my van 50 feet because there [were] three major art projects in progress," Jason explained. "There was an art car torn to pieces, one person was welding, somebody was using a miter saw right in the middle of the place where you drive. Everything was just pandemonium.”

Having visited a few hackerspaces and one community biolab in New York, stepping into NIMBY was like entering a new and strange maker country where projects were made for giants. The art projects are immense and inspiring. The work and passion that goes into them, even more so.

“A lot of the art gets built for the love and the challenge,” Michael Snook, the founder of this 65,000 square-foot maker space, told TechHive. And as it turns out, NIMBY is just a small part of a large and storied maker scene that dates back to the 1960s and, surprisingly, has managed to stay a well-kept secret.

Welcome to Oakland, a bastion for making

Maria del Camino by Bruce Tomb. The project was built using a 1959 El Camino chassis with 30,000 holes drilled into it in the shape of the false prophet Maria, and stuck on top of an old excavator bed. Bruce is currently working on making it remote-controllable with an iPhone app.

A confluence of factors have driven Oakland's maker renaissance. The city has plenty of large industrial spaces that are perfect for makers to erect so many of the massive projects found here. Oakland is also more affordable than San Francisco, its bigger, more glamorous sibling across the Bay, leading many artists and makers to relocate there. And Oakland has always had a bit of an independent, rebellious streak, which is an attraction of its own to some.

“I grew up here so we’ve always been known for doing things a little bit differently than anyone else whether it was music, art, food, or whatever,” said Ismael Plasencia, the Youth Program Associate at The Crucible and a life-long Oakland resident. “Oakland has always [added] its own flavor to a lot of stuff.”

Large-scale spaces like NIMBY, The Crucible, and American Steel Studios serve as the scene's cornerstones. Outside of these massive art spaces, Oakland is one giant web of smaller maker spaces, including Ace Monster Toys, The ACME Warehouse, Tech Liminal, Jon Sarriugarte’s Form and Reform, as well as John Lewis Glass and Jeremy Crandell's Saint Louise Studios—and these are just the ones I know about.

Then there’s First Friday, a monthly street festival that showcases the city's art, music, and creative culture.

It’s a community that's easy to get swept into—some in the Oakland maker scene even quit their day jobs to pursue full-time artistic careers. Crazy? Not so: In fact, the idea of making for a living has become an industry unto itself here.

Meet the makers

This space was once a vacant, empty industrial ghost equipped with 10-ton cranes that used to hoist up ships coming in from the Port of Oakland.

Nowhere is the idea of making for a living more evident than in the workspaces at American Steel Studios, a six-acre factory space in West Oakland. In 2005, American Steel Studios founder Karen Cusolito first took residence in the former factory the workshop calls home to create towering 30-foot-tall steel sculptures. Little did she know that she would lease the entire building a year later as it attracted other industrial artists bound for Burning Man.

The Universe Revolves Around is a massive art project currently undergoing a revamp at American Steel Studios. It’s basically a massive spinning platform that rotates boulders around you.
One of Lou Brocksen’s CNC Machined metal cubes.

Since then, this industrial ghost of a building has attracted a total of 170 other industrial artists. But amidst all the long alleys of heavy metal and steel girders, makers have also turned the old factory into a home for their artistic livelihoods.

Karen introduced me to a man named Lou Brocksen who quit his day job to bust out amazing metal art cut with a CNC machine. Aside from his own art, Lou has also taken on commissioned projects from other makers located at American Steel and elsewhere.

For our next stop, Karen and I marched across the equivalent of two city blocks to get to the other end of the building. We stopped just short of the factory’s back wall, and right in front of us was a complete furniture store. I raised an eyebrow: Nothing was arranged in typical retail-showroom fashion, as a whole row of chairs sat seven feet above our heads on top of a shipping container.

Sylvia Ortiz and the team behind Brown Dirt Cowboys has found a new, bigger home for their furniture business.

Sylvia Ortiz, one of the store’s proprietors, stepped out to greet us. Sylvia, along with her husband and an assistant, has operated Brown Dirt Cowboys for 15 years. Brown Dirt Cowboys specializes in creating custom furniture out of reclaimed materials, putting it all back together in an entirely new way. They might stain a metal cabinet to make it look like wood, for example, or create a table with a completely new metal back.

Before coming to American Steel Studios, Brown Dirt Cowboys originally had two shops—one in San Francisco's South of Market Street (SoMa) neighborhood and another in San Francisco’s design district—along with a production facility.

“The rent [in San Francisco] was astronomical, and the dot-com [boom] took over our area and so we had to get out, and that’s how we ended up here,” Sylvia recalled. “It just became a good fit; we’ve gotten more space and we coexist really well with our neighbors. I think it’s been a good thing.”

Sylvia continued: “We literally don’t have to turn any work down because we have the space and the freedom to do what we want to do here.”

American Steel is just full of surprises, like this old-fashioned letterpress service.

In addition to the regular factory spaces, American Steel Studios also rents out studio spaces that surround its public gallery space. From one of these spaces, Rebecca Peters has created a surprisingly fully furnished office space for her letterpress printing business, Reb Peters Printing. Using a combination of old-fashioned machinery and Adobe InDesign, Rebecca can turn your digital design into a photopolymer plate—basically, a photosensitive plate that becomes a textured stamp. After that, she places the plate inside a hand-cranked machine that prints an inked impression on a piece of paper.

This is the first studio space Rebecca has ever rented. Previously, she ran a nomadic etching business for five years that travelled from one place to the next, using the printing presses of whomever she was working for at the time.

“I had lived in San Francisco for 10 years and part of the reason I never thought of having a studio was because over there it was just too expensive,” Rebecca, remembered. “Over here [at American Steel], it’s a lot more affordable. There’s also a general contractor that has helped me a lot. Like, bolt down my paper cutter and figure out some broken bolt issues that I was having. It’s just nice having creative people around too.”

Rebecca also has a wide supply of stationery to give it that old carnival look and a bunch of rolling paper cutters to make it a really nice product.

After hearing the same story from a number of the tenants at American Steel, it became abundantly clear how maker spaces like this give people a lower-cost alternative to opening up their own stores. Expenses aside, it's a conducive community that bands together: Everyone adds their expertise and skills to the mix, whether it's welding or cross-stitching a dress.

“There’s an importance of community because when you know there are other people on these wild, crazy hair-brained ideas, chasing down something that’s never going to work and then you meet that person who knows how to get that switch to make the car go up and down,” Karen gushed. “All these pieces come together and you begin to realize, 'I can do this!'”

Just some of the massive metallic sculptures that Karen and other industrial artists make at American Steel Studios.

Just a few blocks away from American Steel is one of West Oakland’s most well-known industrial art centers, The Crucible. Here at this 56,000-square-foot factory—which used to make paper tubes—a new, younger generation is forging itself into makers.

The Crucible is mainly an educational institution: Beyond its classes for adults, The Crucible teaches kids ages 8 to 18 all sorts of making skills. Students here can learn about MIG welding, ARC welding, blacksmithing, ceramics, woodworking, jewelry, and silversmithing. The Crucible also has a neon glass program and a motorized electronics class for creating robots—and the list goes on. This place really is a hackerspace department store.

The Crucible and maker spaces like it are instrumental for creating large-scale art. (Click to zoom in.)
Bernt Rostad/Flickr (CC by 2.0)
The Chicago Cloud Gate—also known as The Bean—is another famous art project that started in Oakland.

While it might seem like the maker community is popping off each day with new and bigger projects, this sort of art is largely unknown to the world—and even to other Oakland residents. Meanwhile, a battle is brewing as new development expands and rents in the Bay Area creep ever higher.

Enter the Oakland Makers initiative

For years, city planners have looked for ways to revitalize Oakland's fading industrial areas: One such plan calls for residential zoning to replace a large part of the industrial districts that so many of these maker spaces call home.

Margot Prado, Senior Economic Development Specialist for the City of Oakland, has a different plan that will help preserve these areas for makers. Prado, along with Hiroko Kurihara, a seasoned urban planner and founder of the 25th Street Collective artist group, have created a new initiative called Oakland Makers.

In short, Oakland Makers is the Avengers-style initiative that's assembling an all-star team of industrial artists, creative fabricators, architectural designers, and “maker-force” (short for "maker workforce") institutions that will train the next generation of makers.

Rather than turn the entire area into residential neighborhoods, the Oakland Makers plan would save industrial buildings that already provide the space for artisan manufacturing. The plan's backers also hope to attract the attention of advanced manufacturers by setting aside additional industrial zoning to accommodate both existing and future maker spaces.

The seeds of a high-tech future

The plan isn’t just to preserve these industrial zones but also to give the City of Oakland a future in the advanced, high-tech manufacturing world as envisioned by President Obama.

“Industrial artists are [the] sort of key inventive crowd that often creates just one-off single-production-line items that are often very related to what we need to do to inspire and attract advanced manufacturing to Oakland,” Prado explained, supporting Oakland's industrial artist community.

Prado and the maker community believe that this rich environment will attract more high-tech companies to Oakland. Companies like Emerging Objects, which researches new 3D-printable materials for room-sized structures, give just a glimpse of what such a future might look like.

: Ronald Rael stands behind a three-foot-tall salt wall at Emerging Objects' offices in West Oakland.

While looking over Emerging Objects' vast array of 3D-printed creations, co-founder Ronald Rael explained his rationale for setting up shop in Oakland.

“When we were looking for a places to stay, obviously West Oakland was for us very affordable, and two, we just realized that there’s a wood craftsman there, there’s a book binder here, there’s a reproduction house there, there’s all these maker spaces there," Ronald said, pointing out other nearby businesses. "So this is the perfect place to be because there’s this ecosystem of creative people that we really can be a part of.”

Meanwhile, across town near Oakland’s Fruitvale District sits Walter Craven's 21st-century factory, which opened in 2009. At Blank and Cables, Walter and his international team of workers—who hail from locales as far-flung as Iran and Hawaii—manufacture furniture using heavy machinery shipped in from all around the United States.

Blank and Cables brought a lot of heavy machinery to East Oakland, including a 40,000-pound CNC bender that can apply 250 tons of pressure.

Walter says he moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts roughly 20 years ago with an almost prophetic vision of what Oakland and the Bay Area would become.

“We left San Francisco because we ran out of space and it was too expensive, and frankly, I don't think SF wanted a company like this to grow and grow,” Walter said. “They really like little small companies that don't make too much noise and too many sparks. We want to be big and make a lot of sparks and a lot of noise.”

Making Oakland

Jesse Richmond/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The Oakland skyline as seen from Joaquin Miller Park with San Francisco in the distance.

Of course, Bay Area residents are no strangers to sweeping changes in their neighborhoods—the ongoing tech boom and rising housing costs have changed the face of numerous cities in the region. Oakland Makers, however, wants to preserve Oakland's unique culture by presenting the East Bay with another future that’s truer to its roots.

This isn't the first time this particular land use issue has come up for the City of Oakland or for Prado. “It’s very important because I was a land use planner writing all the industrial zoning 10 years ago, which was really under threat then, and it could come up again with housing prices going up,” Prado explained.

Hiroko agreed, explaining that makers should have a say in what happens to the neighborhoods they call home. “Right now, from a land use perspective, the trend in cities is to create more housing and reduce their light industrial and industrial zones spaces, and so it is imperative we [makers] have some input in policy.”

For now, the city is focused on redeveloping an area near the West Oakland BART station. This new development won’t just bring a new look to the neighborhood, but it could also radically affect the rent in the area’s residential and industrial buildings.

25th Street Art Collective’s 25,000-square-foot soft-sewn maker scene is definitely a different beast.

But that could be just the beginning.

Hiroko says that all of Oakland's neighborhoods have so-called "opportunity sites" like the area adjacent to West Oakland BART. A new plan called the Hollis Works Project would affect the area around Hiroko’s 25th Street Art Collective workshop, which sits just a few blocks north of Downtown Oakland.

To illustrate how things would change, Hiroko showed me a map of the current project on a table covered with a few loose blankets and shoes that makers handcrafted at her space.

According to the plan, Oakland Makers would repurpose a former factory in West Oakland's industrial core and convert it into an aluminum-recycling center. The plan would also call for a next-generation maker space that would feature a 6000-square-foot machine shop. Hiroko says the shared workspace would be mostly for makers who use computer-aided design (CAD) with CNC machines to work on projects involving robotics, but it would also allow for undertakings that require light welding.

Beyond these sewn goods like this dress made by Ghetto Goldilocks, Oakland Makers member Oakland Sewn wants to get into medical technology and high-tech fibers that can detect body temperature and scan your body's mineral content.

The Hollis Works Project is still in the planning phase: The next step is to conduct a feasibility study with a San Francisco-based development group to make it all happen.

Keeping in touch with the real Oakland

Despite these proposed changes to the neighborhood around the Hollis Works Project, Oakland Makers wants to make sure it stays in tune with the surrounding community. “Oakland Makers is an organization committed to diversity to create opportunities and spaces that remain accessible," Hiroko explained, "And we do specific outreach to stay in touch with the real Oakland.”

Hiroko detailed that a large part Oakland Makers' education and outreach efforts focus on creating “diversity and the sustainability component of the makership."

Students at The Crucible learn all the lost fabrication arts.

"We are really focused on developing a new 'maker force' as opposed to [a] workforce, and [we're] really trying to tap into a new generation of makers," Hiroko continued.

Oakland Makers member groups have started to take on interns, and the organization is working to develop a curriculum with Laney College, a local community college—and a founding member of Oakland Makers—that offers a machine shop program. In this program, students become versed in the necessary mathematics and work skills, and learn to use industrial-grade CNC machines.

Making it national 

On a much larger scale, Prado says that Oakland Makers came together to represent the city's maker community on a national level.

In May, Oakland Makers held a launch event that included a panel discussion featuring Dale Dougherty of Maker Media and Chris Anderson, former Wired editor and author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. This October, the Oakland maker scene hopes to make a bigger splash on the national level when the city will host the second annual Urban Manufacturing Alliance Conference.

Meanwhile, Hiroko is working to advance an educational program that she hopes will become a model for other states to follow as they introduce making into their public school systems.

Kids made these ARC welded metal sculptures at The Crucible. Yes, kids.

“We are looking at this as a national educational innovations hub for looking at how do we bring manufacturing into a national educational curriculum," Hiroko expounded. “So we have Oakland Unified School District, Laney College, UC Berkeley, MIT, and Cal Poly really looking at how do we integrate what we are trying to do here into the school system, even starting in middle school to high school.

Closer to home, part of Oakland Makers' plan is to unite individual maker spaces through an official makers’ congress. For the most part, the general public rarely sees maker communities and their work outside of build competitions and Maker Faires—including one taking place in the East Bay this October. Oakland Makers, however, wants to raise the community's profile amongst both the general public and the city government.

“Our artists are known internationally but often not known at home, and we often find that amazing how few people really do know that the world class art and invention has been created in Oakland,” Prado said.

Making the future of Oakland—in Oakland

Hiroko (right) with a customer who just purchased a hand-crafted bag.

The Oakland Makers are a rambunctious bunch. Each is creatively brilliant in his or her own right, but no one is quite sure what, exactly, will come out of this new maker-led initiative. What they all share in common, however, is a belief that this is the right direction for Oakland.

“West Oakland deserves something much more innovative and also relevant for the community, which is [made of] all these young kids of color who don’t see very many options for middle class jobs in their future,” Prado stated emphatically.

Ismael stands inside his office, which happens to be a train caboose.

Many outsiders see Oakland as little more than one giant crime statistic: Forbes, for instance, rates it as the third most dangerous city in the United States. While the city is not without its problems, there's more to Oakland than its bad rap.

Before I visited Oakland, I honestly didn’t know about all the large industrial art that existed here, or about its huge community of maker spaces. In fact, like much of the world, I thought Oakland was only a dangerous place—a place my friends and family called me crazy to go to.

But Between the places I’ve been, the art I’ve seen, and the people I’ve talked to—and after feeling the energy and pizazz that so many of these maker spaces generate—I realize that Oakland really is an incredible place.

Michael Snook tells me, while we stand in NIMBY’s machine shop, that it’s the artists who “give [the city] life and we in a sense are the fertilizer that keeps everything going.”

Just before I left NIMBY, I found myself among a group of gearheads talking about motorcycles—as I often do—and after a long discussion, a member of the group named Poll Brown said something that resonated with me:

“I cannot explain how happy I am to be in Oakland for real, and also how pissed I am that it took me so f***ing long to shake my ass and travel 8 miles across that bridge.”

I tend to agree. Oakland is hella cool.

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