A Place Away From the Bullshit: The end of DIY arts space the Bell Foundry

Musician, DJ, videographer, and writer Qué Pequeño first came to the Bell Foundry back in 2011.

"I know the exact date—it was April 30, 2011," he said, a few days after he and a dozen or so other artists were evicted from the Station North arts studio and performance space. "My friend Tariq—who records as Infinity Knives—we have been friends for 10 years now—we both identify as punks—and our first punk show together was at the Bell Foundry."

The lineup was Dee and the Warlocks, Weekends, Pansori, and Wren Lloyd, he added.

"That was the best punk show I've ever been to—even though Tariq said it was very pretentious and it had nothing to be pretentious about," he said. "Five years later [the Bell Foundry] would be my creative space—the show was even upstairs, which is where I'd later be staying."

Evicted and condemned

On Monday, Dec. 5, around 10 a.m., officials from the Baltimore Fire Department and, later, the Housing Authority Of Baltimore City, and eventually Baltimore police, entered the Bell Foundry and began ticking off violations. They inspected the building after receiving a complaint over email, they told Pequeño and other artists. After noting these numerous violations, the housing department condemned the building.

"There were holes in the floor on the second level, electrical issues, and evidence that individuals were living in the property without a proper use and occupancy permit," Tania Baker, director of communication for the Housing Authority, told City Paper in an email.

That morning and the day before, the Bell Foundry's residents who used the second floor of the building (the Baltimore Rock Opera Society use the first floor as a studio) had already been chatting about what to do to clean up the space in light of the tragic fire that killed 36 people at Ghost Ship, an arts space in Oakland similar to the Bell Foundry.

"Let's be real, I was looking at pictures of Ghost Ship on Tumblr and it was like I was staring at the Bell Foundry," Pequeño said. "So we were already in talks to clean up the spot."

He first assumed the scattered footsteps moving through the Bell were fellow residents getting an early morning jump on their plans.

Chief Roman Clark, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Fire Department, would not connect the Bell Foundry closing with the Oakland incident. "The only thing I can say is we acted on a complaint we received," he said.

Out in the cold

At about 5 p.m. on the day of the eviction when City Paper arrived on the scene, there was a large board screwed to the front door of the Bell Foundry and a crowd of more than a dozen people outside, including artists who maintained a space there and other members of the city's arts scene who were offering people from the Bell Foundry places to stay or store their stuff.

Pequeño and several of the artists who occupied the Bell Foundry said that it wasn't until 2 p.m., nearly four hours after the fire department and the housing department arrived, that they were told they had to go, and then were given about an hour to leave. They were told they could come back the next day to get the rest of their things.

"They said we were gonna be OK, because we weren't living there," Pequeño said.

Kicking out the dozen or so artists, even if they only worked in the place, so quickly presents a fundamental misunderstanding of these spaces by the city: Artists house materials, music gear, and heavy and expensive equipment in these buildings—their work and livelihood was inside.

In a Facebook live stream of the eviction aired by Person Abide, one of the Bell Foundry's tenants, a Baltimore police officer callously argues with residents after they tell the officer that there is still a cat inside the building and they'd like to go in and get it.

"You guys were in there looking for a whole bunch of stuff but you guys weren't concerned about a cat until you guys got outside and the doors were being boarded up," the officer said.

"Don't talk to me like that," a Bell Foundry resident said. "We're trying to make sure there's not a cat locked up overnight by itself in a building that you say is unsafe—and you're going to turn it around."

"I'm pretty sure you guys were in there for a pretty good amount of time looking for 17,000 different things," the officer responded. "But you guys didn't want to get the cat that was supposedly in there."

"You're a piece of shit," the Bell Foundry resident said angrily. "These people are trying to take care of it now and it's not worth it to you, so you can rub it in our faces."

"I love cats. But if there was a cat up there, you would have had an opportunity to get it, would you not?" the officer yelled back. "You didn't have the opportunity to get it because apparently you didn't care about it enough."

Another part of a stream shows a police officer inside the building telling them they have 20 minutes to get their things.

None of the artists at the Bell Foundry were offered access to resources for finding a new space or residence. Newly elected Mayor Catherine Pugh said that she would reach out. "We will not leave them out there hanging," she said. "I will reach out to the arts community and make sure we find some accommodations." But as of press time, this has not happened—and Pequeño doesn't hold out much hope.

"Show and prove, you know what I mean?" he said. "We'll get ignored. We have been ignored, this is why we have places like Bell Foundry—because we're ignored. That's the importance of space like this."

For now, he is staying with friends in a room at the nearby Copycat building.

The Baltimore Rock Opera Society may be able to return if they get the proper occupancy permits, Aran Keating, artistic director for the troupe, said on the day of the eviction. But the uncertainty of the situation and the possibility that they may be out of a home base could have devastating results: "It's entirely possible this could sink us."

The area immediately surrounding the Bell Foundry has seen a flurry of development in recent years. A tall brick office building now towers over the space, and plans are in the works to construct a $25 million apartment building on nearby E. Lanvale Street. Also, for years now there has been talk about redeveloping Penn Station and possibly building on the train station's parking lot. Rumors that the building was slated for a new apartment complex, that it was only a matter of time before redevelopment consumed the space have bounced around for years.

In a statement from "the Bell Foundry Family" on Facebook, the artists acknowledged that the Bell Foundry's days were numbered: "Renewal was not an impossibility, but was doubtful from both the property owners, and lease holders' perspectives. We remained in the space for quite some time, through multiple lease terms, and strove for the highest level of autonomy throughout."

A GoFundMe set up by filmmaker Emily Eaglin has so far raised more than $20,000 dollars for the Bell Foundry's evictees (full disclosure: I donated to the GoFundMe).

The owners of the Bell Foundry property are Jeremy Landsman, a Baltimore real estate developer who pled guilty in the Sonar weed conspiracy case (admitting to laundering money and possessing with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of pot; several of the properties he owned in the city, though not the Bell Foundry, figured into the case); Joe McNeely, formerly of Central Baltimore Partnership and a major cheerleader for the ongoing establishment of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District; and Patricia Massey, formerly of the Baltimore Housing Partnership and McNeely's wife, who has been recovering from a traumatic brain injury since last year.

Whose safety?

The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland has led municipalities around the country to reexamine or inspect artists spaces—often resulting in shut-downs or evictions. While city officials consistently assert that they are driven by a concern for artists' safety, many artists don't buy it.

Former residents of Oakland's LoBot Gallery, which was shuttered in July 2016, published an open letter in the East Bay Express after Ghost Ship that said, "please do not call the police, who put our bodies at risk. Please listen to this community before you try to protect us." The artists described unintended consequences—especially in areas ripe for development and gentrification: "At LoBot, a fire inspector visited following an anonymous 'concerned citizen' complaint. Even though we prioritized fire safety, and were not cited for any violations, our landlord told us to leave, and refused to negotiate. The art space we spent thirteen years cultivating was crushed in a matter of weeks, our home destroyed, our ability to create pushed further into the margins."

The East Bay Express and other media have since reported that the Ghost Ship was not on any of the city's fire safety inspections lists even though it should have been. The Bay Area's Mercury News noted that "the Ghost Ship was just yards from a city fire station."

How the eviction was handled and the focus on DIY spots and safety all raise larger questions about housing in Baltimore and how the city enables negligent landlords and has little concern for tenants: Earlier this year, a vacant building collapsed and fell on a man who was sitting in his car, one of many deaths or injuries sustained from collapsed buildings here over the years. Although the story made news, few changes were implemented to prevent this from happening again. The incidents continue to pile up. Just two days after the Bell Foundry eviction, a fire in East Baltimore killed two children, though this has yet to lead to a rush of housing inspections. Then, Lawrence Alexander, a homeless man, died over the weekend, apparently freezing to death. And there is the quality of Baltimore's housing stock, older buildings often coated in lead paint. According to Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown, "65,446 children have been lead poisoned in Baltimore since 1993 at the 10mg/dL level," and "over 100,000 children could have been poisoned if we included the levels below 10mg/dL."

On the heels of the Bell Foundry evictions, Person Abide has stated that the residents' troubles are part of the larger right-to-housing issues which effect more than just artists and disproportionately affects black women and children—they stressed this on "The Marc Steiner Show" last week and in interviews with other publications covering the evictions. In a piece published in the zine "If I Ruled The World" earlier this year, Abide wrote "Most arts funding is for making real-estate development visible." And elsewhere in the piece: "Fuck the labeling of arts districts, the annual festival thrown so the people don't riot, the whiteness of DIY spaces and implied supremacy of highly visible consumerists producers."

Given the number of people of color and queer people at the Bell Foundry, concerns for their safety come off as insincere. As the Department Of Justice report released in August revealed, ongoing police practices in the city disproportionately impact people of color and the LGBTQ community—this is a city that cares little for the safety of the kinds of people that used the Bell Foundry. City police and the Justice Department are still hammering out a consent decree with little sense of urgency.

Offering up a hedged double negative, Pugh said, "I would not say the consent decree is not needed," at a press conference last week.

The Bell's legacy

Since 2010, the Bell Foundry had been a place for artists to work, experiment, and skill-share and a comprehensive look at all the art that has come out of the space would take pages and pages, but Pequeño proudly ran through an incomplete list of close friends and collaborators who made music at the Bell Foundry in the past year or so, all of whom are at the center of the city's black avant-garde: Alienood, Black Zheep, Butch Dawson, Dylijens (now Toyomansi), :3lon, Freaky, Greydolf, Infinity Knives, Joy Postell, JPEGMAFIA, Modern Refugees, Tek.Lun, and more.

Ideas could come together quickly in a close, collaborative space like the Bell Foundry, which enables low-stakes, all-day or late-night recording that might be taking place down the hall from, say, a printmaking session. The album "White Noise Boys" from Melanin-Free, a collaboration between Pequeño and musician Jenghis Pettit made "to mock the lack of black representation in Station North" took "10 hours to make" and was "released on the same day," they recorded it—just two days after the idea for the group was formed, Pequeño said.

This is how the arts scene works in Baltimore: Places like the Bell Foundry and other quasi-legal DIY spaces function as the tributaries for the above ground arts scene the city intends to monetize. "Without diy we wouldn't exist," Future Islands, one of the city's biggest success stories, tellingly tweeted in solidarity with the Bell Foundry (Future Islands vocalist Sam Herring has collaborated with Bell-based musicians under his rap moniker Hemlock Ernst).

Eva Moolchan of Sneaks, currently signed to big-deal indie label Merge, wrote this of the Bell Foundry in City Paper's 2015 story, "Race and Music In Baltimore": "I distinctly remember walking in [the Bell Foundry for the first time] and just being overwhelmed by the general camaraderie coming from everyone. These creative individuals were far more open and accepting than I ever anticipated. It felt like a huge family."

Artists connected to the Bell Foundry have contributed art to city-sponsored arts events. Earlier this year, the (now defunct) Llamadon Collective, of which Pequeño was a member, brought their freestyling event and beatmaker spotlight Beet Trip, which began at the Bell Foundry, to BOPA-supported Light City, putting on a Beet Trip event at Mondawmin Mall. Jose Andres Rosero-Curet, a live video projectionist loosely connected to the Bell Foundry, was recently chosen as one of the eight artists to design an installation as part of Light City 2017. The Baltimore Rock Opera Society was also part of Light City last year as well as 2015's Artscape.

The Bell Foundry, meanwhile, became more actively inclusive after Pequeño, staring down homelessness earlier in the year, was invited to the Bell Foundry—"This place saved my life—literally," he told City Paper on the day of the eviction. Along with :3Lon and others, he said, the Bell Foundry strongly asserted itself as a safe space.

"Many people that have been deemed irrelevant to society we had over to our space. The space became more safe for black people—not just black artists but black people," Pequeño said. "They came to get away from the bullshit."

In September, Pequeño took over booking more shows in the Bell Foundry's basement venue, which he referred to on fliers and social media as You Know T.F. Where.

"I decided I was gonna start booking shows for the venue and for reasons that people know about I didn't put the title of the place online—so I nicknamed the space 'You Know T.F. Where,' for 'you know the fuck where'—and I had this policy that we do not turn away people due to lack of funds because you know, we're all broke and depressed. I was trying to create a safer space. I wasn't going to tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and harassment, otherwise that would lead to permanent expulsion from the space. A rule I have enforced three times."

Weekday shows were intimate, minimally attended affairs while weekend shows were larger and often funneled into energetic after-parties. Pequeño was paying black artists, too. Without many of the aboveground clubs' added costs—those paid for sound, bartending, security and so on—money could go right to the artists. It offered up a space for black Baltimore's underground especially, and offered a model for a more mindful DIY community—vital in post-uprising Baltimore where the mostly white arts scene, like the rest of the city, reckoned with the realities of a profoundly segregated and racist city.

"But all of that got taken away," Pequeño said. "I wouldn't consider myself the creative spirit I am now if it wasn't for Bell Foundry. I learned how to do so many things there."

Moving Out

The day after the eviction, the Bell Foundry's artists were allowed to return and move their things. Fellow artists and fans of Bell Foundry events came from all over the city to do whatever was needed—the same ingenuity and collaborative spirit that defined the arts scene manifested itself. Touring vans, trucks, and trailers crowded the streets outside while, inside the building, well-organized fire lines moved materials from the second floor and into boxes and then to back seats and truck beds.

Briefly, the city ticketed vehicles that were double-parked—one final indignity from the city—until some officials told the ticket-givers to ease up.

Inside, the power had been turned off, so everyone relied on the light from a few windows, iPhones, or flashlights. The tenants made quick decisions about what to take and what to leave, plowing through years of materials, gear, and stuff that people brought into the space years ago and then left, which then got adopted by someone else. The large trailer that rested in the corner of the adjacent skate park was lifted by a dozen or so and moved out. You Know T.F. Where was cleared as well as it could be.

Toward the top of the vertigo-inducing steps that went down to You Know T.F. Where, written on the wall: "If love is a danger would you avoid it?"

Brandon Weigel contributed to this report.

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