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Baltimore Evicts Artists From Warehouse Over Safety Concerns

The Bell Foundry building is located in Baltimore's Station North neighborhood. Andrew Limbong/NPR hide caption

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Andrew Limbong/NPR

The Bell Foundry building is located in Baltimore's Station North neighborhood.

Andrew Limbong/NPR

The Bell Foundry in Baltimore was a studio and a home to dozens of artists — until Monday, when tenants were told they had an hour to get their stuff out. This is just a few days after a fire in an Oakland, Calif., artists' warehouse killed at least 36 people.

Katy Byrne, with Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, says the fire department "responded to a complaint about individuals living there in deplorable conditions."

She says inspectors found a long list of safety issues, like people living illegally upstairs, and a number of electrical violations.

"The main electrical source had illegal, dangerous connections, there were extension cords used to feed multiple fixtures, none of the electrical systems was grounded," she says.

The day after eviction, occupants were given a few more hours to get their things. Now they'll need permission from the city to get back in.

Spaces like this exist in a lot of major cities, and they offer a cheap — if precarious — place where poor artists can afford to live and work.

While some artists used the Bell Foundry building illegally, other groups had secured permission for the space. Andrew Limbong/NPR hide caption

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Andrew Limbong/NPR

While some artists used the Bell Foundry building illegally, other groups had secured permission for the space.

Andrew Limbong/NPR

Aran Keating is the artistic director for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. It's a group that puts on elaborate shows with music and theater. He says his group did have permission to use the first floor studio space legally, but now, because of the other violations, they can't.

"We're booted for the time being," he says. "We're basically in limbo."

Keating is frustrated. It's taken nearly a decade to build the BROS from being scrappy and unknown into a city institution with nonprofit status. And having a studio made it easier.

"We've managed to finally afford to continue to have a production home where we can build and make our art and perform off site and give the art to other people," he says. "And it feels like we're just back where we started."

The people who were living in the Bell Foundry illegally now have to find new housing. Former tenant Person Abide says the city needs to change how it deals with evictions in general — not just for artists.

"We need to see a human approach to giving people the support that they need, especially when in crisis."

The Bell Foundry was a place for outsiders and artists. As city rents get more expensive, it's still unclear where exactly people like them can fit in, safely.