The DIY arts studio and performance space Bell Foundry was shut down this afternoon, as artists were locked out from the building and left wondering if they would be able to retrieve their art and belongings.
Chief Roman Clark, a spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department, said the department and Baltimore Housing inspected the building this afternoon after receiving a complaint. Numerous violations were found, and Housing condemned the building.
"We have to think about the safety of people, especially when we receive a complaint," he said. "We have to act on it. That's what we did."
About 5 p.m., when City Paper arrived on the scene, there was a large board screwed to the front door 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. Several of the artists who occupied the Bell Foundry were told by city officials they had an hour to clear out but said they were given less time than that.
Qué Pequeño, who has over the last couple months started to organize more shows at the Bell Foundry, was one of several artists to note that the building had shifted from a punk space to a place for queer people and people of color.
"This place saved my life," he said. "Literally."
"I would hope that whatever we've started doesn't just die from this situation," added Fredo Quintaros, a musician who kept a space there.
In a Facebook live stream of the eviction by one of its tenants, a Baltimore police officer is shown arguing with residents after they tell them that there is still a cat inside the building and they'd like to 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 said back. "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 yells back. "You didn't have the opportunity to get it because apparently you didn't care about it enough."
Artists were told they could return tomorrow at 10 a.m. to get more of their things, but it was not clear who would be there to let them in.
The Baltimore Rock Opera Society, which maintains a practice space in the Bell Foundry, may be able to return if they get the proper occupancy permits, said Aran Keating, the artistic director for the troupe. (Disclosure: My girlfriend has performed with the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.) But the uncertainty of the situation and possibility that they may be out of a home base could have devastating results.
"It's entirely possible this could sink us," he said.
Rumors had spread online that the Copycat building, just around the corner from the Bell Foundry, had also been shut down, but Clark said he was only aware of the Bell Foundry being closed.
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 East Lanvale Street and to redevelop nearby Penn Station and possibly build on the train station's parking lot.
On Twitter, Pequeño shared a GoFundMe page to "help the relocation of studios and artists of the Bell Foundry & any legal fees they must attend to in their fight for justice."
The shuttering of the Bell Foundry comes days after a fire at a DIY venue in Oakland killed at least 33 people. Clark however, would not connect the two incidents.
"The only thing I can say is we acted on a complaint we received," he said.
UPDATE: Tania Baker, director of communication for Baltimore Housing, sent the following response to City Paper's questions: "The property located at 1539 N. Calvert was vacated by Baltimore Housing's Code Enforcement inspectors and a vacant building notice is being issued. 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. Occupants are not allowed to use the building until the proper use and occupancy permit is received and the building is up to code."