It takes a creative mind to love the dingy brick building at Third Avenue South and Jackson Street. In winter, the cold slips easily between cracks in the single-paned windows, and there's rarely heat inside. There's no oven, no kitchen sink. To keep the electrical circuits from blowing, the residents let their rooms go dim after nightfall. And since there's only one bathroom per floor, it gets a lot of traffic, which leads to the very grossest failures.
The building abandoned by the U.S. Rubber Company (a brand that vanished in 1967) has more recently operated like Warhol's factory: It is occupied by young artists who come to practice some unconventional talents and live among their own kind. Rent is around $1,000 per month, but the more artists who squeeze into one space, the cheaper it gets.
Their former property manager reportedly didn't do some repairs or circulate bills to tenants ("Eviction Depiction," Amy Jenniges, Aug 7, 2003). Max Karst, the current property manager, has been a bit more professional—but he's also been more discriminating. He is evicting a group of about 10 artists who are the building's most-tenured residents.
In the past, the managers appeared content to let the artists live in their workspaces—in violation of its zoning—as long as they paid rent. But as has happened with other artist lofts, changes in the neighborhood's office market meant it made more sense to follow the building's commercial code and rent to businesses. It didn't help that in this case, the artists' productions have occasionally attracted crowds of unruly revelers and the curiosity of police cruisers. Vertebrae Theater, a space on the second floor, has been the site of these "events," which to the untrained eye look like mere theme parties.
While the residents are not exactly model tenants, they're highly original artists who spread their ideas across a wide range of endeavors. Two are members of the Infernal Noise Brigade, a marching band that's ultra-loud, garishly uniformed, and politically radical. Three are part of an experimental theater group called Implied Violence. One evictee, Sam Mickens, is a composer, a singer with the band Dead Science, and curator of the Meme Concert Series. Ryan Mitchell co-chairs the Villainaire Academy, which created a buzz last fall for a series of performance art called "Greasy Demon Heat."
The building, for all its warts, is perfectly suited to the artists' work. There are roughly 20 separate spaces in the three-story building. The group says Karst wants them out so he can split up the second floor they occupy, along with the theater. They also say that Karst, the manager, let them believe they could stay indefinitely under the same arrangement they'd always had.
Of course an unspoken contract won't hold up in court. In this case, since the building was zoned commercial, they couldn't have felt completely secure.
"We're willing to live without these amenities—like heat, or a sink—in order to do what we want," says Ryan Mitchell, who has lived in the building for three years. "It was this unspoken agreement where we'll pay you to live in a place that isn't up to basic living standards, as long as we can work and have shows. Now he's harassing us, and we're still paying, so what's that for? The unspoken contract is broken."
Karst's position is simple: "It's a commercial space, so it's not kosher for them to be [living] there," he says. Karst refused, however, to say what led him to enforce this rule now, when over the last two years he's managed the building he has collected rent from residents.
The owner, Samis Land Company, did not return calls seeking comment, but an e-mail correspondence forwarded by one tenant suggests they're taking Karst's side: "Please do not make us spend energy and money trying to convince you that the U.S. Rubber building is not an apartment," writes Adam Hasson, property manager for Samis.
The building will be renovated to make space for more-traditional artistic studios, such as for photography, painting, or yoga. There seems to be no place left for the experimental breed.
"I think [building management] wanted easy, 9-to-5 artists; but these guys, their life is art," says Gjording. "You can't get people like that to conform. They're too passionate to be defined or put in a box."
The Seattle Office of Housing says there are 189 city-funded units available for artists; but the U.S. Rubber evictees don't think those kinds of spaces—which may be smaller and more strictly managed—are options.