This is the third of five articles about the 130 year old Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, an artist loft building demolished in January 2019 after a fire in November 2018
Burned at the Stake – Holders
The Burned Citizens Warehouse, November 9, 2018, with Firefighter outside The Art Dock
The Citizens Warehouse went up in flames two weeks after it was saved. “Why did it burn?” the fire chief was asked, “Was it arson?” “Not likely,” the chief replied. “Homeless people have been setting fires inside for a long time. The blaze was probably caused by them trying to cook within and heat their squat against the cold.” I was suspicious. If fire wasn’t caused deliberately, it certainly fit the description of a purposeful calculation. Could it have been arson by neglect? I thought about my previous visit to the boarded-up artist studios.
My belief that the building was vacant when it was locked up in un-openable steel barriers was erroneous. I let the impression of an empty building buttoned up in forbidding grillwork, and further marked with warning signs that any trespass or even parking on the street would be prosecuted, led me to a visual conclusion that the pull down was intended and purposeful. I didn’t acknowledge what I had seen and hadn’t accounted for. The Potemkin-like prison presented to the public street obscured a breach that hid behind. The fire chief’s assessment of a random blaze, not arson, caused me to reconsider an alternative conclusion.
After the release of the DEIR for public comment, I made a final visit to say goodbye to the home of the Art Dock, which had a pivotal role in my life as an artist. The demolition of the barricaded structure seemed inevitable. The formidable steel coverings over every window, door, and loading dock along Center Street screamed the warehouse’s planned elimination, but I overlooked a jarring visible piece of evidence.
Going around the end of the structure to the rear façade, I saw a flimsy chain link fence with no gate or lock. A filthy green sheet and worn paisley coverlet were draped over the barbed wire on the fence top. Hesitating for a moment to see if a down-and-out inhabitant might confront me, I stepped inside the barrier. Along the façade I could see that no provision had been made to seal up the openings. The width of the space between the wall and a second chain link fence that defined the existing rail lines was narrow, perhaps just ten feet wide. The area was strewn with mattresses, soiled clothes, abandoned shoes, boxes, and assorted wrecked possessions. I was within a sizable but linear homeless encampment. There was no one in the camp. It was creepy. I backed out. Peering across the empty space, which once was the south end of the Citizens Warehouse, I could clearly see a guardhouse at the primary access to Metro’s existing yards and shops beyond the First Street Bridge. Situated in the shade of the overhead structure, the guardhouse was occupied. The occupant could see anyone enter this homeless zone. He looked at me; I looked at him. He stood and started to emerge from the hut. I scurried away and forgot about what I had seen.
Homeless Encampment Behind the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse, 2018
24 hours a day, a security guard can watch people meandering along the street, and their comings and goings into the encampment behind the building. Anyone entering could be reported and driven away. They obviously weren’t. Putting together what was revealed on the site, what the approved plan described, and the timing of the destructive blaze that turned the historic context to ash, I came to the opinion that what had transpired was a brilliant solution to the trouble that would soon appear. The homeless residents provided a convenient scapegoat for the demolition of the envisioned preservation project, which I thought was doomed to failure from the first demolition event in 2007. The fire could be attributed to their careless inhabitation. Arson need not investigated. No conspiracy is provable; however, the blaze provides Metro with what it really desired.
My assessment is based on these factors. Allowing the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse to be accessible from behind made the site vulnerable to occupation by homeless people. These uprooted often mentally ill people can be relied upon to create havoc in an inadequately policed building. The approved plan called for preservation of a very diminished structure. The extent of demolition would leave only a small remnant of the once long and large warehouse. Finding a funder willing to undertake the many improvements needed to make a viable project of the segment remaining would be very difficult. Efforts to locate a developer or institutional buyer were unsuccessful before, when there was more building available. After Metro sawed off the south end of the building, the project’s financial viability became nearly nil. For this preservation project to be profitable was a long shot at best. In the revised environmental impact plan Metro committed itself to protect and preserve the materials that defined the vernacular construction, if an appropriate developer or institutional owner could be found. The fire destroyed that possibility and most of the historic material. The wood column, beams, and flooring were incinerated. All that remained was the masonry shell that enclosed the interior. The masonry, contrary to claims of its importance, was pretty ordinary stuff. In my opinion, the fire cleared the site giving the Metro planners what they originally wanted, a large rail storage yard. In January 2019, Metro began total demolition of the structure. As of January 21, most of the structure was demolished. The Art Dock was gone. The bricks and the charred interior wood were being shoveled into a trash hauling trailer.
Demolition of The Citizens Warehouse as of January 22, 2019
I am not surprised by what took place. A restoration/preservation project could never be built profitably on the ruins, but I didn’t take into consideration the tenacity of the local arts community. They had an agreement with the city and Metro to utilize the part of the site that they had agreed to relinquish in the revised DEIR for community use. They propose holding the stakeholders to their commitment. The properties across the street from demolished building are for sale. If these properties are combined with the area of the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse slated for reuse, a large site for artist space can be assembled. This site, including air rights over the ruins, might make a profitable development, that could include affordable artist housing and community uses. Evidence that the affected parties are considering the deal is reflected in stockpiled bricks and salvaged wood beams in the hole in the ground where the vats once were. The concept is not a done deal. Attempts to create affordable artist spaces have been proposed in the past, to not avail, but a new Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse provides hope that Arts District will actually include artists in the future.
What I find interesting at this point is how the fire was reported, and how that reporting speaks to the demise of the downtown art community as it was and how it reflects what it is today and will become in the future. This is the subject of the next article, “Making Myth of the Pickle Works/Citizens Warehouse and the Art Dock.”