December 29, 2006

Lifestyle Lofting

Yes, I live in a loft. Very passe. But I need the high ceilings and the undivided space for my photo studio and business, and I can (mostly) put up with the noise (it's jammed between a freeway and a major local road, and contains a bunch of extremely loud bands and other 24 hour noise-makers), the pollution (it's in Industrial East Oakland, and also in the middle of the cement-making capital of the Bay Area, and the steady stream of container trucks on the surrounding roads heading for the Port doesn't help, either), the isolation (you can't just walk anywhere — you have to plan things like shopping or visits to friends well ahead of time), and the inevitable taunts about living a cliche.

The loft's in an old box factory down by the Estuary. It's one of the first loft conversions in the area (late 1980's, I think), and unlike the later purpose-built lofts that have started to infest the area, it's got a certain style, and is aimed squarely at people like me who need a live / work space rather than just a trendy home (most of the units around me are inhabited by people who also run businesses or art studios in those units). The flavour of the place comes through in the commercial lease I have for my unit: among the other standard lease items, it prohibits me from having more than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel in my unit without the owner's written approval, and no lathes, milling machines, or other heavy equipment are to be permanently installed without similar approval; on the other hand, it explictly allows me to do whatever I like to the interior, including installing new rooms, floors, etc, without notice. I've been here for years now, long enough to be considered almost an old-timer by the other tenants, and I have one of the larger spaces — not quite the sun-splashed red brick and redwood beams of the California Cliche, but near enough to be bearable.

More importantly, the location tends to discourage the inevitable lifestyle lofters — that well-intentioned plague that started in the mid-nineties and nearly ruined lofts for the rest of us by pricing us out of the market. Sometime around then people started to see lofts depicted as huge hip bright sunny spaces on TV or in movies, and simultaneously large developers started converting derelict factories or building new purpose-built buildings (a.k.a "loftominiums" and / or "instant tenements") in rougher neighbourhoods to house the hordes of people who convinced themselves that loft living is a lifestyle choice, an accessory to a certain sub-yuppie or wannabe-artist life (i.e. often enough, the sort of people who think art is a lifestyle or choice rather than a calling or compulsion...).

The lifestyle lofters we see typically can't afford to live in San Francisco (no one can), so they end up here in Oaktown, which is now Loft Central thanks to Mayor Jerry Brown (Our Beloved Leader) and people like me (but see this East Bay Express story for some of the pitfalls). The ones we get in our building typically last exactly the length of their initial lease and move out the next day (or even break their leases after a month or two), vowing never to live in a loft again, or moving on to one of the purpose-built luxury lifestyle lofts closer to Downtown or the Warehouse District, a district now almost devoid of real warehouses (or small businesses and artists, for that matter), most of them having been converted into expensive lifestyle lofts over the past few years). They move in here with little appreciation for just how difficult it can be to live in a real loft, little appreciation of just how drafty, leaky, noisy, cold, hot, dirty, and crime-ridden lofts like this are in real life, little appreciation for just how much work you have to do to make something like this a livable space (it took me nearly two years to get this place comfortable; it's still a work in progress).

The guys who moved in across the corridor from me late last year lasted less than three months, leaving in a bemused rush for a quieter, nicer, less-polluted lifestyle loft up the Embarcadero. I guess the sense of space and the high airy ceilings here just weren't enough. Especially after having had your car broken into several times during that time, or having been woken up for the fourth time the previous night by the assault stereos or mini-sideshows on the street outside, or having one of your tires punctured yet again by the industrial debris left behind by an overloaded junk truck, or having had to negotiate your way past the homeless encampment next to the garbage piled up against the freeway overcrossing every other day or so. That's (the) life, I guess.

(For me, there are two fairly reliable indicators of whether a loft is a lifestyle loft or not: firstly, the amount of unused or unusable vertical space, and secondly, whether your lease prohibits the total or large-scale rearrangement of the loft's internal layout and setup. Clearly you need vertical space (at least 4 metres) for a working loft — for lighting, for studio backdrops, for those large pieces you're working on, for storage, etc. — but if the loft is more like an atrium, with lots of vertical space you can't conceivably use or that's just sitting there with no intention of being used, then it's probably a lifestyle loft, more concerned with light and "space" than with working space. Similarly, if you can't just decide one day to rip up the existing internal walls, or put in some new walls, or take down that awful-looking long wide ledge the previous tennants built half-way up the side wall (what were they thinking?), then it's a lifestyle loft. Ideally, you start with a loft that's just an undivided and unadorned space, and make it into what you want it to be, with explicit permission in the lease to do whatever you want — lifestyle lofts, on the other hand, usually come pre-arranged with nice domestic layouts (rooms, stairways, alcoves, etc.), and any attempt to change the layout non-trivially brings the landlord (or community association) down on you like a ton of bricks. Another very telling sign is the flooring: like many working lofts around here, my floor is just a huge grey-painted deep flat concrete slab that extends under the entire factory; you can do whatever the hell you like with it, including bolting heavy equipment to it or moving gear around on it, without fear of damaging the floor or causing structural problems (and the slab in my place tends to moderate temperatures in both summer and winter, which is a plus). Lifestyle lofts, on the other hand, typically have nicely-polished hardwood floors that you can't do anything with or on without worrying about scratches or having that heavy lighting stand buckle the floor).

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At 12/29/2006 3:32 pm, Blogger Phil said...

your loft sounds great. my space is completely different - a little 50s weatherboard home in a beach / suburban area with lots of tress and views to the illawarra escarpment. have a great new year.

At 12/30/2006 2:33 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Phil -- thanks! You have no idea how good your place down the Illawarra sounds compared to the noisy dirty industrial space surrounding me right now :-).

At 1/07/2007 11:50 pm, Blogger Spike said...

Yeah sounds nice, Phil. If I didn't live in Woy Woy I'd envy you.

Jimmy, do you get on your desk chair and whizz down the loft going wheeeee! or does that wear off after a bit?

At 1/08/2007 8:50 am, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Don't tell anyone, but yeah, I used to do that sort of thing. At least until my loft started filling up with so much scary-looking junk it became dangerous :-)


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