Madamn Burnz founded dance studio and events space Skyhigh Odditorium in 2012. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
On November 1, a couple dozen artists, gallerists and nonprofit workers gathered to collaboratively envision an empty West Oakland building as a community art space.
There were speeches from property co-owner Shannon Jackson, a professor and the associate vice chancellor of arts and design at UC Berkeley, and employees of Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a nonprofit focused on the cultural sector. Attendees brainstormed in groups, responding to prompts such as, "What do you imagine being here?"
The event, hosted by CAST and Shannon and Jacqueline Jackson, was billed "Reimagining the Noodle Factory," a reference to the property’s 2000s incarnation as a live-work complex and underground events space. But pieces of paper taped to the entrance obscured a sign for its tenant of the past six years, Skyhigh Odditorium. All night, the dance studio went conspicuously unmentioned.
The omission troubled Thomas Dolan, a live-work architect and advocate who’d visited Skyhigh as a safety consultant early last year. During the event, he worried that he’d been asked to reimagine an art space built on the back of another’s displacement. So he approached Jackson to ask about Skyhigh.
"She just told me it didn’t work out," he recalled.
Skyhigh Odditorium had been displaced three months prior, after the Jacksons, who bought the building last year, declined to renew its lease. (Jacqueline Jackson, Shannon Jackson’s business partner, is a North Bay realtor.) Skyhigh founder Madamn Burnz said the Jacksons' property managers explained to her that the new owners planned to create an art space.
"I was extremely confused," Burnz said. "What did they think we’d been doing there for six years?"
Burnz and a handful of Skyhigh instructors offered classes such as aerial and pole dancing to more than 60 students weekly in addition to hosting public events. There were offices and prop and music studios as well as a performance space. Now Burnz teaches out of a shared studio nearby.
Lease termination after a property transaction isn’t unusual, especially with the intense demand for commercial space in Oakland. But Jackson doesn't have a real-estate speculator's credentials: she's an extensively published scholar of art and social change with close ties to culture funders such as the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which supports CAST.
CAST is known for developing property for arts uses. For example, the nonprofit offers subsidized rent with the option to buy to San Francisco organizations including Counterpulse and Luggage Store Gallery. CAST is also the City of Oakland’s partner in the grant initiative "Keeping Space," and is currently working with officials to acquire property in Oakland for a multi-tenant arts and culture hub.
Burnz could understand being evicted by a baldly profit-seeking landlord. Instead she’s left wondering why professional culture boosters deemed her business undeserving of its longtime home. The reimagining event, with its cultural stabilization pretense, struck Burnz as a case of buzzwords belied by actions: Skyhigh Odditorium’s displacement involved some of the very same people now claiming to work for artists in Oakland.
CAST toured Skyhigh the week Burnz learned her lease wouldn’t be renewed. But Owen Levin, the nonprofit’s director of finance and operations, said CAST wasn’t involved in Jackson’s decision to displace Skyhigh. "CAST is not interested in evicting any artist from any space, and we’re not interested in helping any artist get displaced," Levin said.
CAST's obligation to Jackson, he continued, was limited to the meeting, but Levin left open the possibility of helping her find new tenants going forward.
"It’s not clear to me that it’d be of greater benefit to anyone for us not to work with the landlord," he said.
Shannon Jackson declined multiple interview requests for this article. "We purchased the property with a specific mission about how we planned to use the space," she wrote in an email. "Our goals for the Noodle Factory partnerships are to support arts and culture in the neighborhood the region, while also adhering to codes for health, fire and safety."
Previous owners of the two-story building at 26th and Union streets harbored similar ambitions.
Dana Harrison, a financier-turned-Burning Man Project employee, bought the property in 1999, and it became a regular venue for underground parties as well as a residence to as many as 30 people. Daunted by the task of bringing the 19,000 square foot building to code, though, she bequeathed it to the Northern California Land Trust in 2005.
The land trust spent millions renovating the building, converting it into 11 live-work condos in addition to the 2,000 square foot performance space with a mezzanine and offices. Using an affordable housing stewardship model, the land trust marketed the units to low-income artists who would benefit from the onsite rehearsal and performance space.
But the development unraveled after the subprime mortgage crisis, and in 2010 the property went into foreclosure. The land trust filed for bankruptcy, and in 2011 it sold the building to San Francisco real-estate firm Urban Green Investments. When Burnz leased the performance and office unit for Skyhigh in 2012, it was a neglected storage area.
Burnz, 35, whose given name is Laiya Baraka, landed in the Bay Area after traveling with a fire-eating troupe, and launched Skyhigh to accommodate her business as an instructor in aerial dancing and other circus arts. Early on, she redid the dilapidated floors and discarded truckloads of garbage. Eventually she subleased workspace to other artists.
Burnz got along with Urban Green. After three years, she signed a new lease, and the landlord installed a new kitchen. After the Jacksons bought the property last January $3,730,000, Burnz was at first heartened to learn Shannon is a performing arts scholar. But the two of them never met. In a Mar. 1, 2018 email, a Lapham Company property manager told Burnz that the owners "are not interested in renewing your lease."
Burnz solicited dozens of letters of support for Skyhigh, but the owners weren’t persuaded. (The live-work tenants in other units weren’t affected by the transition.) She unsuccessfully tried to find a comparable, similarly affordable space for her business. As the end of her lease drew near, she sought an extension. Through a lawyer, Jackson offered an additional month—at twice the rent. Burnz declined, and moved out July 1.
CAST’s community engagement and real-estate development staff toured the building on Mar. 7, but Levin said they had misgivings about the situation, and told Jackson as well as Burnz that they weren’t going to be involved. "They needed to work it out," he said.
But once Skyhigh was gone, he continued, CAST agreed to "consult on the imagining."
Burnz only learned CAST was once again working with Jackson the night of the reimagining event in November, when she drove by and saw nonprofit staff talking to her former property managers outside the building. "I saw a balloon, and I was actually excited that someone had rented it for a party," she said. "And then my heart sunk."