My unglamorous life in an artist’s loft

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I lived here.

It was 1999, and I’d just gone to Burning Man for the first time. I was in the midst of what I now refer to as my “burner blossom,” where my mind had been blown wide open and the possibilities were ENDLESS! A few weeks after I returned from Nevada, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I were at a potluck hosted by one of his coworkers. The coworker and his boyfriend lived in an amazing industrial loft in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, filled with amazing nooks and crannies, home-made berths and bunk beds made from 2x4s and oversized pillows. One corner was filled with part of an old stage set from some theater production. It was like Burning Man — but indoors!

“I love this,” I proclaimed. “I want to live somewhere like this!” Andreas and I were sharing our first apartment together, a studio-plus that was sweet but small. The coworker responded by informing me that the somewhat unattractive gentleman who’d had a threesome with my friend at Burning Man was actually a property manager who ran several lofts in Seattle.

“You could totally ask him about a place,” he informed me, and with glitter in our eyes, Andreas and I called the dude up. VOILA! There was indeed a loft space open in a building in one of the dude’s other buildings. This one was in an industrial non-neighborhood south of Seattle’s International District, just east of the doomed but then-still-standing Kingdome.

We went to go check it out.

The unit was 1500 wide-open square feet, shaped like an L. There was a 40″ bank of windows, with only a few panes missing. It looked out on a double-decker freeway offramp, and was surrounded by empty lots and cracked asphalt. There was no kitchen, and the only bathroom was shared with 10 other people on the floor. There was no sink, but there was an industrial tub outside the bathroom. There was no heat, but the manager told us that if we bought an industrial heater we could take it out of our first month’s rent. Rent was about the same as what we’d been paying for our studio, which is to say affordable considering the square footage… but less so when you factor in the lack of kitchen, bathroom, and heat.

It was cavernous, freezing, and filthy. WE WERE IN. We would live the dream!

From the print vaultsThings were difficult right off the bat:
It took us a couple shivering months to get our heater, and then Andreas almost cut off two of his fingers fiddling with it one night. We learned not to touch the industrial heater.

We were broke and the furniture we’d had in our studio couldn’t come close to filling even half the space. It was like: enter loft, walk 20 feet. Couch. Go another 20 feet. Bed. Go another 20 feet. Bookshelf & armchair. While we had visions of all the cool shit we were going to build, the reality was that neither of us were handy at all, and our construction was limited to dividing the space with fabric hanging from the ceiling and dangling some twinkly lights.

I was a writer just starting out my career, and the amazing 40′ bank of windows mostly succeeded in creating a huge amount of glare on my computer screen. Andreas set up his turntables, but spent more time reading than spinning, as he was working at a bookstore full-time.

The walls between units, all of which had been built by the manager, were ridiculously thin. We could hear our neighbors’ blankets shuffling when they had sex six inches away. To be fair, all the neighbors were amazing — working artists, train engineers, performance art freaks, poets, gay DJs, storytellers. They were people who used their spaces to the fullest potentials — a fact that only rubbed it in even more that Dre mostly sat in his armchair reading, and I mostly squinted into my monitor. We were not artists. We just lived in a building with them.

We cooked tiny pathetic meals on our one hotplate, and kept tiny amounts of food in our little refrigerator. Our kitchen was essentially a bookshelf against one wall of our cavernous, cold, mostly empty loft.

And the neighborhood. We watched from the roof as gay crackheads traded blowjobs for drugs. Our decrepit Honda was broken into several times. The business that was on the ground floor of the building manufactured electrical products, and sometimes the fumes were so intense that we fled the building with our pet rats out of concern for our health.

Then there were the inspections. The building wasn’t zoned for residential living, so every six months or so, an inspector would come through to ensure that no one was living there. We always got a warning, but it meant packing up our bed and clothes and hiding them against a wall, behind a bunch of boxes. Not awesome.

It only took me about six months to realize I was not meant to live in an industrial loft. What had seemed so romantic to me when the Burning Man dust was still in my eyes, was revealed to be a terrible, terrible idea. I imagined myself an ARTEEST, and sure: maybe I am a creative. But even in my mid-20s, I was a creative who needed basic comforts like a small kitchen and a bathroom.

It was hard, in a way, admitting to myself that this dream life wasn’t actually at all what I wanted. I wanted to be a freewheeling artist living in my amazing industrial loft, but the reality was that I was an unhandy aspiring writer who just needed a desk and a bathroom to myself. The romanticized industrial artist loft dream was someone else’s vision that simply didn’t fit with my actual values. I’d bought into a dream that wasn’t actually mine.

We moved out in 2000, and a friend moved in and made the loft amazing, proving that the problem wasn’t the space — it was the me.

Have you ever realized you were living someone else’s dream?

Comments on My unglamorous life in an artist’s loft

  1. In 2000-ish, lived in a converted shuttle bus traveling across the country for a summer. It wasn’t my first time traveling across the country, or even my first time summering in a vehicle with people… but it was just a mistake for me that year.

    Instead of feeling like everyone I met and each experience was a short story waiting to happen, everyone I met either scared or annoyed the crap out of me. I just felt skeeved out by the lifestyle. I realized I had outgrown my idealism about living place to place, and that it was totally okay if I preferred to go re-enter society.

    When September came, I moved in with a gal in LA. I still live out here and it’s over 10 years later.

    I’m glad that, once upon a time, I dared to try living out my romanticized, adolescent dreams of utopian artist society… even if it turned out that instead, I really REALLY prefer creature comforts and personal space.

    (And yeah, I’m also glad that I went to Burning Man …once. It was the absolute perfect experience that I’ve never tried to recreate since.)

  2. I can see how you’d be seduced by that space. Those windows! Also I love how it looks like Andreas is doing a ‘my girl’s breasts are so awesome’ boob hold/hand gesture in that picture. So adorable.

  3. In some ways, this is where I’m at. My partner and I have a neat warehouse space in Oakland, even though we’re both country people at heart. Our lives are all about experiencing different things and embracing those experiences, knowing that none of them will last forever.

    I often can’t listen to my own music because of the punk music blaring through the wall at any given hour. There are gunshots at night nearby. Our front door frame leaks a little when it rains, and I lament the lack of soil outside. But we have an amazing community of neighbors, we’re saving for a house with our (relatively) cheap rent, we’ve got space on our giant walls for all of our art and raised beds in the parking lot. Isn’t great that there’s time in our lives to try something, enjoy it for what it is while ultimately rejecting it, and move on to something that speaks to us more?

  4. We lived in a warehouse (with 8 other people!) up until a couple of months ago. There were lots of awesome things about it, but man was it a lot of work.

    The house was a full time project, but we were all distracted with jobs and life and going to burning man and art projects and whatever, so it was a constant struggle to just keep up with maintenance. A lot of “make the house cooler” projects got replaced with things like “fix the leaking plumbing” and “retile the gross bathroom floor before it caves in”. Combined with the constant threat of having to pack up for inspections, and it was really easy to get burned out.

    Also, the basement was full of nematodes.

    I’m actually fairly handy and enjoy recreational bathroom remodeling, so I look forward to doing crazy renovations in a house that I own someday. But for now I’m really done putting in lots of time and money to repair plumbing that someone else owns.

  5. In 2007 my husband (then-boyfriend) got a chunk of money from his grandmother after she died, and we decided we were going to take this huge road trip. We were going to take to the road with only a vague idea of where we were going for three weeks, going in a huge semi-circle from Kansas, up the west coast, and through to Wisconsin. (That we thought we could do this in three weeks was part of the problem, omfg.)

    We loved Denver for two days, hit the road again, and all the way down to Albuquerque. I got lost for two hours trying to find my friend’s house — I had an address, but no cell phone or anything. We checked into our hotel and I felt like I was doing it wrong. I hated how much money we were spending on food & board as we traveled. I know now that those, “We traveled the country,” stories I envy so much are usually sleeping-in-the-car stories — but the very idea squicked us out. We were just driving all the time

    I felt like a failure when I admitted to my husband that I hated this road trip. (He said he was too, but I think he might’ve been exaggerating how much fun we wasn’t having.) We ended up turning around, driving through Texas, and paling around with my family and friends in Wisconsin for 9 days.

    We have a kid now and are poor as hell, so travel is out of the immediate future — and I still feel like I failed to live the dream, even if I wasn’t having fun.

      • This sounds a lot like a road trip my wife and I made to celebrate our first anniversary. Just about everything that could have gone wrong did, and thanks to car troubles we made it to 40 miles away from the Grand Canyon rather than to the canyon itself. (Which was made all the worse the nexwt day, when we discovered the problem could be fixed in 2 minutes with a can of pop.)

        • Oh no, that’s the worst! D:

          My grandmother was incredibly disappointed that we didn’t make it to the Grand Canyon. It’s apparently gorgeous, but I was so burnt out travelling.

  6. Though less dramatic, this is my feelings about living in an old house. When I moved to my current university town (an old city in Ontario with houses built by the British when Canada was still Britain) and needed a place to live, my roommates and I chose a lovely old place with high ceilings, a gas fireplace, a clawfoot bathtub with a tree branch holding up the shower curtains, a third floor with attic bedrooms with slopey ceilings, and an unfinished basement which seemed great for storage! It fulfilled my Anne of Green Gables dreams!

    3 basement floods, one ceiling collapse, one bat attack, countless falls down from my third floor bedroom (and the disaster that was trying to move up the steep, narrow painted steps), an endless struggle with the shower curtian attacking from all directions when one tried to do something as simple as wash one’s hair, about 365 bonks on the head from the ceiling, the war against the seemingly undefeatable drafts to heat these giant rooms which ended in a gas bill that matched the high ceilings, and a constant struggle for storage meant that I realized perhaps there was a reason my parents liked well-maintained square houses, not old romantic brick houses with attic bedrooms. While I may revisit my dreams to live like an old Victorian spinster someday, that day will be when repairs and maintenance are my responsibility and in my budget!

    • When I was looking at buying a condo in the city, I really like the ones that are over 100 years old, or the converted mansions. Then I realized that they need so much work, and are expensive to heat etc. I ended up buying a semi boring 1960’s condo, wich is energy efficient, and cheaper to maintain. It’s actually really cute, and we have a nice garden in front.

    • This x10. My then-boyfriend-now-husband and I fell in love with our first apartment, an old building built around 1900. It had ceilings about 12-feet high, original hardwood floors, a lovely art-deco fireplace (non-usable, but pretty), a huge kitchen, faux columns in the bedroom, and beautifully carved double-doors dividing the living space from the dining room and another set separating the office/second bedroom. It was in the city near a nice neighborhood, but not in it so cheaper. My husband could walk across the street to work a lot of the time, and while interning I just walked a few blocks to get there.

      Buuut the lack of insulation in the walls, poorly installed windows, and tall ceilings meant a winter of RIDONKULOUS energy bills. I had my bike chained to the “porch” (really just a stoop) and someone cut the lock to steal it. Dudes would go through our garbage on a fairly regular basis. Our landlord even made us sign an extra statement saying we would neither use nor sell drugs, as apparently that had been an issue before. Plus the way the roof over the stoop was, the water drained on the stairs, which then iced over, creating a major neck-breaking hazard. We had a revolving door of neighbors, including a couple who verbally abused each other (we could hear it regularly) and at one time sounded like they may have struck their child. Even though we were not dirty people, we got mice. As lovely as it was and as convenient to where we needed to be, it wasn’t worth it.

    • I’ve *just* bought and moved into a house that fits a lot of this description, though it’s only about 80 years old. I’m really hoping it will turn out to be romantic and not a nightmare!

  7. I give it to you for trying. I lived in a small travel trailer in Florida for about 6 months. I had this dream of hanging out with surfer guys and beach parties. Instead I was In a park eith mainly elderly people. Although all were very nice, I was in college so not my crowd lol. Every time the smallest wind came up the whole thing shook. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. I would not trade the experience but I would not do it again.

  8. It wasn’t a living space for us, but letting people move in with us. We love our friends and we love to be hospitable, so we thought, “we’re young and awesome, sure we’re a couple in a small house but we can totally rock it!”.

    No. We could not rock it. It was stressful and annoying and just bad having someone else in our space all the time. We still love hospitality, but we also love it when people go home again.

    Of course, if a friend was in trouble and needed somewhere to stay I know we’d work something out (except for the whole not having a spare room or bed atm), but we don’t offer up our house quite so freely anymore!

    • We had a similar situation in our first apartment — we totally tried to rock the open door policy in our apartment. We quickly learned that we hated it.

      It ended up with friends who would come in thinking we weren’t home because we didn’t answer. It got very awkward very quickly.

  9. I’m about to embark on the “new husband has job in another country let’s move two months after the wedding” thing and while exciting, there’s always the slight worry that it’s not going to end up being me, i’ll end up somehow hating living in a huge city or a tiny apartment even though right now i’m pretty sure that sounds awesome and i will be this dreamy hipster housewife who bakes and cleans but also creates things. instead of the shut-in neurotic i’ll probably become.
    but hey, won’t know til i try right? plus a chance to decorate an apartment rather than a big dusty cold house…

  10. Two things came to mind: Living in a dining room with only handmade partitions (which were tres awesome and I wish I still had) and pursuing a career in law. The first experience taught me I wasn’t as boho and easy-going as I thought yet the second reminded me I’m still offbeat.

  11. Absolutely! I bought a nearly 100-year-old-house with “good bones” figuring I’d be able to flex my home improvement muscles and recite the magic incantation (HGTV! THIS OLD HOUSE! ALAKAZAM!) and this house would become my home. That was three years ago and I’ve painted two rooms and replaced a toilet. All the other projects have gotten put on hold as I’ve moved on with the rest of my life, the parts of my life that I cared about before buying a house that I didn’t suddenly stop caring about (huh, who woulda thought that?).

  12. I loved reading this – if I had ever fulfilled my dream of living in a loft, it probably would have ended up much like this, if not worse. When my wife and I were searching for a house last summer, she wanted someplace with a yard in the burbs and I was pushing for something funky and bohemian. We ended up splitting the difference, getting a one-owner house in one of the original post-WW2 suburbs, very near the city but just outside. Given my lack of skill with parallel parking and my propensity to have cars stolen, it’s probably better that we ended up here. Plus, now we have room in the back yard to garden (which I’d never tried before, and am managing to keep 3 tomato plants alive so far) and I have a garage to putter around in.

  13. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of my small town and live in THE CITY! Lights! Ethnic restaurants on every street corner! Diversity! Cool art galleries and museums and events! Here’s the thing….I miss my small town desperately. I love going home and walking down our tiny main street, running into people I know all the time. I want our kids to go to school in a city where public education is still pretty good because the community is supportive and able to run supplemental fundraisers to make up for budget cuts. I’d gladly give up my favorite Thai place to move back, now that we’re thinking about starting a family. However, the job situation won’t allow us to do that quite yet. I always thought I was a city girl, and I’m totally, utterly not!

  14. Ha! I have some friends who live in industrial lofts in that area. Let me tell you, holding BDSM play parties in giant lofts with exposed beams and weight-bearing pipes? A-MAZING. Definitely requires some crafty decorating skillz though!

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