Live Work Create

In 2015, a visionary young developer heeded the call to create an urban sanctuary for local artists to live, work and create all under one roof. Five years later, the Warehouse Artist Lofts is a kaleidoscope of creatives—from fashion designers to fire dancers—with one common truth among them: Home is where the art is.

Left: Artist-archivist Chris Lango in his live/work loft at the Warehouse Artist Lofts on March 13 (Photos by Max Whittaker)

 

You know the dream: You’re wandering the halls of a looming, mysterious building looking for unlocked doors, portals that hold the promise of what, you don’t exactly know. Nevertheless, you’re compelled to search them out anyway. That’s how I feel at First Friday, the February 2020 edition of the monthly open studios event at the Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL) on the R Street Corridor. A map marking the thresholds of each participating artist is provided at the lobby door, but for the directionally challenged, reading a two-dimensional printout of this massive structure—part old warehouse, part new build, all live/work spaces for creatives—is futile, and I only seem to happen upon the dozen or so open studios by accident. I had heard that fire dancers have been known to light up the courtyard and full-scale musical productions have been mounted within the confines of a single apartment, but my experience at First Friday is quieter, which seems fitting for the middle of winter (in the summertime, when the livin’ is less focused on hibernation, up to 40 artists participate each month). The portals I find lead me to view new cosmic and earthly frontiers rendered in paint; meet artists of varying levels of outgoingness (despite the open doors, some seem to be still emerging from the cocoon of a solitary artist’s life); and realize that Sacramento’s deep bench of creative talent is largely localized in this groundbreaking building, celebrating its five-year anniversary in April.

WAL is the signature project of the forward-thinking developer Ali Youssefi, who passed away in March 2018 at the age of 35 from stomach cancer. Sacramento’s first mixed-income complex for artists was once the Lawrence Warehouse, built in 1915. Ali commissioned local journalist-archivist Chris Lango to dig into the background of the property and provide more historical depth and meaning to the future project. At first, the building was a fireproof storage facility where the railroad wealthy would stash their jalopies. Later, in 1945, it became the California State Archives warehouse, serving as storage for records and discarded pieces of office furniture; after the archives were transferred to their permanent home at 1020 O Street in 1956, the structure housed odds and ends for nearly six decades until WAL began construction in 2013. “I had no idea at the time I was doing my research that I’d be living there,” says Lango, 56, who serendipitously occupies the exact space that was once the California Secretary of State’s central records repository.

The Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL) celebrated its grand opening in April 2015. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

“If you knew Ali, you knew that he fundamentally understood that artists are hugely important for a healthy community,” says Todd Leon, development director at Capitol Area Development Authority (CADA), which had been trying to develop the forlorn warehouse and its acre or so of land since 1997. The agency, which works on urban improvements ranging from affordable housing to street landscaping, entertained many projects proposed for the site, from market-rate condos to a market-rate apartment complex to a market-rate apartment building with an attached hotel. But considering the prime R Street location, a “former warehouse zone rebranded as an arts district,” according to The Sacramento Bee, the market-rate model would have excluded, ironically, the proverbially cash-strapped creative class.

The “arts district” label is still earning its keep, even though WAL has brought hundreds of creatives into the neighborhood— murals line the corridor, some commissioned for Sacramento’s Wide Open Walls festival; Arthouse and Sparrow galleries mount regular exhibitions of area artists; and musical headliners, from renowned E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg to Sacramento poet-rapper Hobo Johnson, have taken the stage at the Ace of Spades. In fact, when Lango was creating a documentary called Replacing the Past: Sacramento’s Redevelopment History in 2016, which included such population-uprooting misfires as Capitol Mall, Interstate 5, K Street Mall and Downtown Plaza, he ended the piece on an optimistic note. “I showed scenes of WAL and R Street as examples of what many cities want in their urban cores these days—lively, diverse, fully integrated, mixed-use, mixed-income development,” he says.

The late Ali Youssefi (left) with his father and WAL co-developer Cyrus Youssefi during the project’s construction phase in February 2014 (Photo by Nicholas Wray courtesy of CFY Development)

In 2009, when WAL was but a whisper in Ali’s mind, the need for affordable housing for artists was formally determined by For Art’s Sake, a task force of approximately 150 local stakeholders in the arts—from museum curators to arts administrators to, of course, the creatives themselves—that then Mayor Kevin Johnson rallied to help the arts community through the Great Recession.

Shelly Willis, former director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission (now known as the Sacramento Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Commission), chaired a For Art’s Sake subcommittee to peg housing and studio needs for regional artists across all disciplines. A 35-question survey, sent via email to 750 artists, confirmed in concrete numbers what had already been presumed.

“It was clear from the survey that we were going to lose our artists because they couldn’t find an affordable place to live and work,” says Willis. “Sacramento was going to be like other cities in the country that artists were fleeing from. Ali’s plan was something our community had never seen before. He found out about the survey and said, ‘I need this, please give it to me.’ And I told him, ‘Absolutely.’ He was a curious person and came to me consistently to learn about the arts community and artists’ needs so he could get it right.”

An early mission statement for WAL, penned by Ali, reads: “The goal for this community is to create an organic link and a place where [artists] can live, work, connect and inspire. The extent of this development’s economic and cultural impact will be directly correlated with the strength and authenticity of this connection between people and place.”

The courtyard sits between the new and the historic buildings at WAL. (Photo by Nicholas Wray courtesy of CFY Development)

While certainly an earnest distillation of 40 pages of statistics (and more—CADA also attempted to get a read on the plight of local artists with its own survey, albeit with a much smaller reach of 167 respondents), the formal language belies Ali’s heartfelt intent. “He wanted a nice place for his friends to live,” says his widow Azzie Youssefi. She and her husband were patrons of local creatives long before WAL, supporting such Sacramento artists as Raphael Delgado and Gale Hart, among others, by buying their artwork. The couple’s “standard weekend” would comprise gallery hopping (Verge Center for the Arts and Beatnik Studios were favorite venues) and going to music shows (they queued up at Harlow’s regularly).

“The thing I always say about WAL is that we got the right developer with the right vision at the right time,” says Leon, who forged deep bonds with Ali over the fast-paced course of the $41.5 million project. “When it came together, it really came together. Lightning just hit.”

From the pitch that Ali and his father Cyrus Youssefi, president of the family business, Sacramento-based CFY Development, made to CADA in the winter of 2011 to the WAL ribbon cutting on April 9, 2015, the project was in the works for just over three full-tilt years.

“I have built very ordinary buildings in my life, but Ali’s designs were always huge and innovative,” says his father Cyrus Youssefi. “He liked high ceilings. He wanted exposed beams and light wells. I would tell him, ‘They’re too expensive!’ But he had a different vision.” Ali’s widow Azzie adds, “The family inside joke was that Ali was turning the company into a nonprofit.”

In comparison, the Artspace Tannery Lofts in Santa Cruz, established in 2009, was a new-build project for 100 units that was in progress for nearly a decade, an effort led by the city’s redevelopment agency and Artspace, a national developer of affordable housing for creatives. The adjacent arts center opened in stages over the next six years—28 working studios, a theater, a cafe and the Arts Council Santa Cruz County offices now occupy five rehabilitated historic structures in which several economy-boosting leather tanneries were once headquartered more than 150 years ago.

The Tannery project greatly inspired Ali, who visited the campus several times for insight and inspiration, in addition to going on scouting trips to other live/work artist communities in Seattle and Los Angeles. Now that the country is in a full-blown affordable housing crisis (in 2016, Harvard researchers discovered that nearly half of renters in America were cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent—the predicament has since only gotten worse), WAL has become something of a North Star. Cities like Truckee, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco have sent emissaries to check out the complex, which earned multiple accolades in the short months after it opened, including the Building Healthy Places Project of the Year award from the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Performers practice in the complex’s airy dance and rehearsal studio. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Given the scarcity of affordable housing in urban centers— recent history’s grimmest example of the problem is the Oakland Ghost Ship tragedy of 2016, in which 36 people died inside an unpermitted artists’ live/work warehouse when it caught fire during a rave—Randy Koss, chief investment officer of the midtown-based real estate development firm Fulcrum Property (Ice Blocks, the Barn, Arden Fair mall), tips his hat to his friend Ali. “He had a unique passion—to deliver quality projects to people who could not otherwise afford them,” says Koss, who worked with Ali on an affordable housing project a block away from Golden 1 Center called the Bel Vue. “He created cool places for people to call home.”

 

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WAL’s 116 industrial-style units were initially available on a first-come, first-served basis, which means that for the privilege of living in one among creative peers, around 250 artists queued up in tents and sleeping bags outside the CADA office in October 2014 to submit applications for the big spring 2015 move-in.

At the time, visual artist Jose Di Gregorio was going through a divorce and had been illegally sleeping at his painting studio at Verge. He was No. 4 in line. “I sobbed when I [found out] that I got one of the apartments,” says Di Gregorio, who shares a three-bedroom unit with his two young daughters. James Cavern was No. 13 in line—Ali had tapped him on the shoulder one evening at LowBrau to introduce himself (he had seen the R&B vocalist play in shows around town). “I had been hearing bits and pieces about WAL, but when I met Ali, I took it as a sign to apply,” says British-born Cavern, who immigrated to Roseville as a teenager and landed on The Voice in 2014.

While move-in hopefuls are reviewed by an Artist Selection Panel, earning income from their creative pursuits is not required—foremost, however, is a “commitment to participating in art,” according to the WAL application guidelines. Nor are the disciplines limited to the usual suspects (painting, photography and the like): Beckett and Neils Herman, 13 and 8 years old, respectively, design greeting cards and live with their family at WAL; Ernesto Robledo is a makeup artist with a line of dramatic false eyelashes called Graffiti Glammed; and voice coach Omari Tau often trains opera singers in his apartment, but never before 8 a.m., per the building’s rules of etiquette. These days, if you want to put your name on the waiting list for a highly coveted single-occupancy affordable housing unit, there are about 75 people who have staked their claims ahead of you. In other words, you can expect to hear news of a vacancy in two to four years.

The building’s rooftop space offers a picture-perfect backdrop for gatherings and activities like plein air painting. (Photo by Nicholas Wray courtesy of CFY Development)

WAL architect Michael Malinowski of Sacramento-based Applied Architecture designed a structure that connected the historic warehouse to a similarly sized new loft building, a landscape in which income-dependent market-rate apartments (30 units at $1,100–$1,400 per month) and affordable housing (86 units at $412–$1,253 per month) intermingle somewhat anonymously—while market-rate apartments are limited to studios or studio lofts, affordable housing units run the gamut, from studios to three-bedrooms.

Units in the old warehouse have faceted concrete pillars, floors and board-formed concrete ceilings—bunker-chic, if you will, but with plenty of sunlight from the original oversized windows. The lofts in the new building are more modern and open, with 18-foot-high ceilings, concrete stairs, iron railings and a hardwood platform in the upstairs bedroom.

Sometimes, Cyrus and Ali would get into disagreements about the design of WAL, over the bigger and better things that Ali wanted versus the more pragmatic things that Cyrus was accustomed to, having dedicated his 40-year career in the U.S.—he fled Iran in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution—to affordable housing.

WAL artist Jose Di Gregorio works on a mural that spans the second-floor elevator lobby. (Photo courtesy of CFY Development)

“I have built very ordinary buildings in my life, but Ali’s designs were always huge and innovative,” says Cyrus. “He liked high ceilings. He wanted exposed beams and light wells. I would tell him, ‘They’re too expensive!’ But he had a different vision.” (Low- to average-height ceilings are a basic design tenet for multifamily housing—the more units, the higher profit. By including 18-foot-tall ceilings in the studio lofts, the number of units was slashed drastically.)

Other expensive expenditures include a second-floor dance studio (which is also double-height and surrounded on two sides by tall glass), a large community room (also double-height), as well as the fully finished basement “jam room,” soundproofed for the resident musicians. Rounding out the building amenities is a rooftop deck that offers sweeping city views and provides residents with the perfect perch for photo shoots, plein air painting, music videos, concerts and yes, parties.

“The family inside joke was that Ali was turning the company into a nonprofit,” says Azzie, who has taken up her late husband’s vice presidential mantle at CFY to ferry his last affordable housing developments to fruition, a mixed-income building at 1717 S Street and the Truckee Artist Lofts, a new build of 77 low-income units that was inspired by WAL.

The festive scene at an Our Street Night Market in 2018 (Photo courtesy of the Yellow Brick Group)

But for all of the design’s modernity, an age-old authenticity provides a beautiful patina. “I admire WAL’s understated soulfulness,” says Sacramento architect Ron Vrilakas from his perspective as a longtime R Street advocate and designer (his credits on the strip include the renovation of the old Perfection Bakery Building, where Shady Lady Saloon, Burgers and Brew, R15 and Ace of Spades reside, and the entertainment-and-office complex known as the Ice Blocks).

Since the Warehouse Artist Lofts opened, many businesses have populated the Corridor: Market 5-One-5 is a Raley’s concept neighborhood grocer with a popular happy hour of $4 craft beer pints. Restaurant Aji Dori, which opened next door to WAL last June, has quickly become the neighborhood go-to for a Hawaiian-style hangover breakfast of Spam, eggs and garlic fried rice. Another Vrilakas project, The Carlaw—an upscale residential building with ground-floor retail at 11th and R—is ready for April 2020 move-ins. A dozen or so local designers such as MTA Inspired Spaces, KBM-Hogue and HGA, have moved their offices into the hood. And stylish national chains like Warby Parker, Bonobos and West Elm have set up shop at the nearby Ice Blocks, banking on the discerning tastes of R Street denizens. “I’ve been spoiled living on R Street,” says Cavern. “There’s no need to leave the Corridor.”

 

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The residential lobby of the Warehouse Artist Lofts sets the tone for the building, which is a living museum of over a dozen public art pieces: a Raphael Delgado installation of concrete prisms that incorporates the Lawrence Warehouse’s original elevator wheel, Gale Hart’s paintings of shooting targets titled Don’t Shoot, and a found-object sculpture by Shaun Burner, which murmurs of a cobbled-together dystopian existence à la Mad Max, are among the works displayed in the entrance. Former resident Tre Borden, an art consultant and placemaker, curated the project with Ali, a former Jesuit High School classmate. In many ways, the partnership was one of the original creative collaborations that the developer had hoped would come of WAL.

“Ali knew how to get a lot of people with different ideas and bursts of energy working together. He understood how to aggregate that and turn it into a great building and a great community,” says Rick Holliday, the original developer of the Lawrence Warehouse whose series of market-rate plans didn’t pan out, but who has nonetheless come full circle on the project in a winding sort of way—he’s partnered with CFY on the Truckee Artist Lofts. Set to open by the end of this year, the complex will serve an emerging creative class that has contributed to the Sierra Nevada town’s official designation as a “cultural district” by the California Arts Council.

Clothing designer and WAL resident Samuel Rose Parkinson in his atelier (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Eventually, WAL just might go down in history as a less salacious version—although, who knows what legendary exploits are in store—of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, a hub for artists of the early/mid-20th century, where Jack Kerouac reportedly wrote On the Road in three weeks; where Leonard Cohen, pretending to be Kris Kristofferson, seduced Janis Joplin in an elevator; and where actress and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick accidentally set her room on fire. In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith wrote, “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone.” To that end, Borden says that WAL, too, is full of “lovely lunatics, the kind that really propel the community forward.”

Such creative synergy is the gold standard by which to measure the success of any artist colony. Clothing designer and Warehouse Artist Lofts dweller Samuel Rose Parkinson’s custom, pattern-forward streetwear, with its creative patchwork and unique applications of traditional textiles—quilted utility pants, anyone?—have an editorial edge that appealed to local performance painter David Garibaldi, who until last year had a studio on the Corridor and wore a collection of Bespoke by Samuel Rose jackets during his stint as the opening act for the most recent Kiss concert tour.

“I don’t think I would have started working with him without the help of my friends at WAL,” says Parkinson, 34, who lives in a market-rate apartment (the designer was No. 162 in line at CADA). He was introduced to Garibaldi by Shawn Kahan and Curtis Currier, fellow 30-something inhabitants and co-founders of the Yellow Brick Group, whose wildly popular Our Street Night Market put their creative agency on the map and whose clients now include local restaurants and bars like Shangri-La in Fair Oaks and The Cabin in midtown, as well as global brands like Uber’s Jump bikes. Inspired by the dynamic evening markets of Asia, the inaugural event took place in June 2018, just a few months after Ali’s death. The crew wore T-shirts bearing his name, and Our Street Night Market is now an emerging local institution. “Ali’s theory was that if you build a place where artists don’t have to worry about making ends meet, they can invest in making the city more beautiful. We wanted to make sure to prove him right,” says Kahan. To carry on the developer’s starry-eyed benevolence, his sister Ladi Youssefi helms the Ali Youssefi Project, a stipend-based residency program for artists, with “a particular focus on underrepresented perspectives and voices.”

Fellow Warehouse Artist Lofts dweller Trisha Rhomberg helps a customer at her Old Gold vintage store in the WAL Public Market during a First Friday event on Feb. 7. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

“Curtis and I make something from nothing just like all artists do, and not unlike the way Ali was able to turn a dilapidated warehouse into a magical place for people like us,” says Kahan. “We will always try to embody that spirit.”

At the next (that is, the fourth) night market planned for September, WAL resident and aerial dance choreographer Tresa Honaker, 54, hopes that her performance troupe, AirAligned, will be able to set up its pyramidal rigging—the same used for the company’s ethereal and gravity-defying, albeit rare, First Friday courtyard shows—on a flat, high-visibility rooftop along the Corridor. “I really want to support Shawn and Curtis,” says Honaker, who holds AirAligned rehearsals in the building’s dance studio. “They’ve created a fabulous tradition.”

In 2016, when she gave a TEDx Sacramento talk about a paralyzing injury she suffered from an aerial stunt gone horribly wrong, she tapped her then-WAL neighbor David Taylor Gomes—the composer who staged an episodic musical called Boxed Up in his studio loft over the course of six First Fridays in 2017—to play an improvisational piano piece for Honaker’s solo performance inside an aerial net, one of WAL’s most profound collaborations to date.

“I’ve never experienced a standing ovation quite like that,” says Gomes, 28, who moved out of WAL two years ago in pursuit of homeownership. “I felt lucky just to be there next to her.”

 

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Before starting my self-guided tour of the open studios, I was lured into the WAL Public Market, the building’s ground-floor retail complex, by music that I could hear from the street. Threadbare denim, scuffed cowboy boots and faded concert tees made up the unofficial dress code for the party, influenced no doubt by purchases past and present from the market’s vintage clothing store Old Gold, owned by Warehouse Artist Lofts resident Trisha Rhomberg. Parkinson is fielding questions about his bespoke urban wear—what’s the turnaround time for a custom quilted trucker jacket, for instance, and can you put a camouflage pocket on a dead-stock Hawaiian shirt? The buzziest corner of the market is where CBD apothecary Magpie Alchemy is doling out samples of tinctures and balms made on-site to curious—that is, anxious, achy or generally stressed out—First Friday guests. And the special of the day at Billy Ngo’s poke shop, Fish Face, is a Hawaiian garlic shrimp rice bowl, so the market smells of a thousand cloves of garlic being sautéed in about 20 pounds of butter. After I apply some CBD muscle rub on my sore elbow, I grab a quick bite of the island scampi and then head into the residences.

To an outsider like me, there is the faintest sense that whatever happens in WAL stays in WAL. A prevailing trope depicts the life of an artist as solitary—an article in The Atlantic even justifies the lifestyle choice: “[The] artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours. That’s when the work happens.” For all the show-and-tell inherent in First Fridays, one of the more unsung motives of the monthly event is a creative reset for the artist—a break in the isolation, if only for a few hours. And, of course, the opportunity for a voyeuristic public to see inside what can be viewed as a very enigmatic place.

“It takes a lot of energy for me to open my home to the public, so I don’t often do it,” says fine art painter and self-professed introvert Adam Wever-Glen, 35. “But it’s helpful for me to move forward in my practice if I see what people respond to. I end up looking at the work in a whole new light.” His three-bedroom apartment exhibited portraits of luminous quality and surrealist landscapes with comedic undertones—his work Riding East into the West (Two Moons: One Red, One White) Head Hunting in America features an abstract pink figure with photorealistic eyes riding through a grayscale desert on a black horse. The eccentric canvas, which could portend a futuristic Hollywood Western, just sold for the bargain price of $800.

“Sacramento was going to be like other cities in the country that artists were fleeing from,” says former Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission director Shelly Willis. “Ali’s plan was something our community had never seen before. He was a curious person and came to me consistently to learn about the arts community and artists’ needs so he could get it right.” 

For resident fire dancer Sequoia, founder of the Sacred Fire Dance troupe, February’s First Friday was an opportunity to showcase a different artistic side, one that doesn’t involve camp fuel and belly-baring garb. I admired her shoulder-grazing feather earrings and the mood she set in her one-bedroom loft with, appropriately, candlelight. The flickering catches the light-reflecting objects—broken windshield glass, for instance— that bejewel her paintings, stylistically reminiscent of Aboriginal Dreamtime, which conveys with complex technique the spiritual beliefs of the native Australians. “The art provides a sacred tool for people, creating texture and life in their world,” says the Oregon native, 45, who has been living at WAL since it opened.

Jewelry maker Omonivie Okhade was 112th in line that fateful day at CADA, but needed to wait two-and-a-half years for an opening. In 2017, when she was finally able to move in, she customized her studio apartment by building a platform workbench at one end, where she employs traditional metalsmithing to make minimalist jewelry inspired by nature. Okhade, 38, set out some Nut-Thins and guacamole that she mashed from creamy, verging-on-too-old avocados, a lapse in produce management that turned into a revelation. In between bites, I ask the former health-care administrator about her goals while at WAL. One of them, she says, is to “accept the identity of ‘artist.’ ”

Among the complex’s most influential is Di Gregorio, 47, who got his big break when he was commissioned to do a mural at the Shore Club in Miami for Art Basel in 2016, a year after he stopped the shady studio slumber at Verge and moved into the Warehouse Artist Lofts. In the past five years, he’s worked in Helsinki, Mexico City and, of course, Sacramento, the Puerto Rican native’s adopted hometown, where his kaleidoscopic depictions of tie-dye nebula can be seen at the Metropol Building at 14th and O, all over midtown’s Washington Elementary School and in the second-floor elevator lobby at WAL, a cosmic piece called Forever that he dedicated to Ali, a galaxy enthusiast. (The late developer’s memorial at 7th and K, across the street from one of his co-developments, The Hardin, is installed with over 400 small light bulbs that beam his favorite constellations into the urban jungle.)

Artist Adam Wever-Glen works on a painting in his three-bedroom apartment at WAL. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

“WAL is reminiscent of art school. It’s this incubator from which you gain inspiration just by being in the presence of other people,” says Di Gregorio. “I’m in a fortunate position—I make art full-time. I hope that can be a source of inspiration for other artists to forge their path.”

That said, Wever-Glen, who has aspirations to teach painting after he graduates from UC Davis with a degree in studio art this June, tunes into a more competitive—he calls it “anxious”—vibration at the complex. “As an artist, there isn’t really a road map available for your career,” he says. “We’re all trying to make it, and there’s a lot of looking over your shoulder to see if the next person is better than you are.”

For many, being embedded in a community that represents such a rich variety of artists and artistic disciplines is also a great consciousness expander. “Living at WAL was diverse in every sense of the word, and that’s what struck me the most,” says Gomes, whose latest musical, Ranked, about the bribe-inducing pressures of academia, debuted as the college admissions scandal was breaking. “I work in musical theater, and I pretty much only interact with musicians, actors, directors, dancers and choreographers. So for me, it was really beneficial to be around visual artists who very much operate at a different speed, and it totally helped my creativity.”

Parkinson also makes the connection between the growth in his creativity and the work ethic inspired by living at WAL. “I’ve had so much motivation to keep my head down and just work,” he says. “I know that the people around me are getting better and better at everything that they do, so that motivates me. That’s the good thing.”

But for some, the benefits of that art-school culture plateau. When that happens, WAL—the great Sacramento artist incubator, exodus stemmer, Corridor booster—turns into one of the other things it can be: a bridge to cross.

“WAL gave me such a foothold in the arts community,” says Borden, 35, who decamped to Los Angeles in 2018 after a successful run of River City placemaking paradigms, most famously, Bright Underbelly in 2016. To paint the mural under the W-X Freeway, where the Sacramento Central Farmers’ Market sets up every Sunday, he tapped Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel of the now L.A.–based LC Studio Tutto. It’s the same duo that Ali had commissioned to create a multistory perforated metal mural in the WAL courtyard, which I amateurly interpret as a painterly expression of the human faculty known as the imagination: colorful, energetic brushstrokes (or in this case, broomstrokes) that evoke big ideas in motion. In a residential complex dedicated to artists, big ideas are probably swooshing and streaking by like a meteor shower, whose trailing light knows no bounds. “I’m expanding my reach, finding even more artists I can collaborate with and creating [more fluid] communication between L.A. and Sacramento. I can do that because of what I was able to establish while at WAL,” says Borden.

Iraqi refugee Ghanim Alobaidi holds his portrait of Ali Youssefi on June 30, 2018, a day the building’s residents came together to pay tribute to the late developer. This photo was taken on an iPhone by Youssefi’s cousin Ali Setayesh, who also lives at WAL and owns Kechmara Designs, a Moroccan rug shop in the WAL Public Market. (Photo by Ali Setayesh)

Having left the building in 2016 for a neo-Tudor in East Sacramento, hospitality designer Whitney Johnson is perhaps less sentimental about her departure, though she claims to have an “Ali-sized” hole in her heart. The interior designer counts Kru, Shangri-La, Kodaiko and oh yes, becoming a mother to son Virgil, now almost 2, among her post-WAL achievements.

“The idea is that you move into WAL and there’s such low rent that you’re able to thrive, to succeed, to take the next step. Further your career, land the gig, sell the art,” she says. Johnson started her career in 2008 designing the Shady Lady Saloon, just two blocks away from proto-WAL; she moved into the residential complex as she was putting the finishing touches on her design of Bottle & Barlow, the building’s ground-floor bar-slash-barbershop; and she was informally recruited late one night outside of that very watering hole to work for MTA Inspired Spaces, located just around the corner. Although she’s no longer with the company and no longer lives at WAL, she has a deep stake in this fruitful little pocket of Sacramento.

For his part, Cavern, 32, plans to surrender his affordable housing at the complex this November for a hush-hush opportunity in L.A., giving another deserving artist a chance to focus on their craft, not their rent. “I feel at peace to be in a place in my life where I can do that,” he says. “What I always tell people about living at WAL is that it’s an opportunity to grow yourself to a point where you want bigger and better things. Or maybe just other things.”

Which brings us to the final thing that WAL isn’t really supposed to be, but just plain is: Ali’s legacy. Five years in, his original mission statement—lackluster in spite of its sincerity—is now more dimensional, more vivid and still evolving. “Creating WAL really was the happiest time of his life,” says Azzie. S