Mission Fire Story: Karen Van Dine, Studio 217

Karen Van DineFifteen years is a long time to be in one place, but not when it feels like home. That was the case for Karen Van Dine, a 73-year-old multimedia artist who founded Studio 217 in an affordable space in the heart of the Mission back in 2000.

Sadly, Karen’s business was completely destroyed in the four-alarm fire of January 28th at Mission and 22nd streets, which also displaced 35 of her fellow community-serving businesses and their 71 employees. All are now in limbo.

Karen didn’t just lose an inventory. She didn’t just lose her livelihood. She lost her life’s work and the tools of her trade. It’s all up on the second floor of the shuttered edifice, where she cannot get to it to even see what may be salvageable.

There are drawings from high school, when Karen started making her artistic passion a reality. Bits and pieces collected over the last 20 years for one project still in the works. Rare brushes from Holland, these delicate extensions of the hand made of sable and speaking a language only Karen understands. Hand-built shelving to house all of these special items. These are not things that can be replaced at Lowe’s or Ikea, causing a growing frustration in Karen over the last month.

“Every day that building gets farther away from me. It’s like a tomb,” explains an emotionally exhausted Karen, who had been drawn to San Francisco decades ago, knowing the welcoming place offered the ideal environment to create the art she so wanted to share with the world.

As community members walk by and still stare in disbelief at the burned-out, three-story, historic structure, the contrast to the past is stark: the building was once the lifeblood of the Mission Street commercial corridor, showcasing the range of affordable businesses a neighborhood needs.

A teenage girl could buy that pastel-colored dress for her quinceañera, finally feeling all grown up. Immigration rights could be learned for newcomers unsure of their next step. A bad back could be fixed via acupuncture. You could enjoy hearty, authentic cuisine reminiscent of your homeland.

“It’s not just us. The Mission lost so much that night. San Francisco lost so much that night,” ruefully states Karen.

The destroyed building stands as a microcosm of the rapid changes in the Mission–a place where income disparity has become wide, with escalating residential and commercial rents.

Karen sums up, “In this economy, we’re an endangered species. Where are we going to go? We had affordable spaces where we could give our gifts. And now we cannot.”

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