On Friday, a fire consumed a warehouse in Oakland, Calif., known as the Ghost Ship, killing 36 partygoers — many of whom were pillars in their creative communities. The following Monday, Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney decided to tweet: “#ghostshipfire reveals a lot of complex issues. #OakCity capacity, anarchist rejection of regulation, lawlessness as a lifestyle, hsgcrisis.”
She was right about two things: A tangle of complex issues underlies this tragedy, and one of them is the housing crisis. But to characterize the affected community as anarchists choosing a life of lawlessness is a dangerous and disrespectful misrepresentation. These artists have not deliberately excused themselves from the table. They were never offered a seat.
McElhaney later backpedaled on the statement, purporting that she was simply offering a roundup of perspectives, and deleted the tweet. Nevertheless, her post was a potent distillation of reactions to the fire from media, some local elected officials and people who don’t understand the reasons that any group would gather in such a precarious place.
Mainstream media has focused on the details that imply irresponsibility: The single staircase built out of pallets leading up to the makeshift second floor of the warehouse; the labyrinthine interior and excess of flammable furniture; the lack of permits and illegal live/work accommodations. One ABC News headline reads: “California party fire: ‘Ghost Ship’ an illegal Bohemian residence filled with ‘horrors’, former residents say.”
Yes, there are venues without permits in Oakland, similar to others that exist all over the country. Neighborhoods at the margins of the city have suffered from decades of civic disrepair and governmental negligence, spawning opportunities for disenfranchised artists to reimagine vacant industrial spaces into communal havens. Ghost Ship was an exceptionally unsafe space, both in terms of its structure and the way it was run. But these harsh descriptions evoke a flippant rebelliousness and lack of accountability that can’t fairly be applied to the entire nebulous network of artists now opaquely being referred to nationwide as Oakland’s Underground Music Scene.
Too many of those lost or still unaccounted for since the fire were creative powerhouses looked up to by their peers: Ara Jo was the beloved gallery director of Rock Paper Scissors Collective and the founder of Sgraffito gallery, both strongholds in the Oakland art scene; Jonathan Bernbaum was a visionary master at manipulating digital projects to accompany live performances; and Joey Casio (Obsidian Blade), Cash Askew (Them Are Us Too) and Chelsea Faith (Cherushii), are only three of the many revered musicians on the list.
These artists are not all alike. The communities that inhabit and frequent underground warehouse spaces in Oakland are defined by their diversity. These are black and brown people; queer, trans and gender nonconforming people; people who have fled abuse and been bogged down by poverty. These are artists and musicians who sustain themselves off work that’s transgressive, adamantly experimental and that challenges hierarchies of power.
When such people take it upon themselves to build spaces and communities in which they feel welcomed and free to be themselves, they are often willing to take risks because they have nowhere else to go. And if those risks include lacking proper permits or not following regulations, it is most often not because of negligence, but lack of resources.
As musician Kimya Dawson poetically put it in a recent Facebook post, “Imagine you were on a sinking ship. And there is only one lifeboat. And someone screams that there is a chance the lifeboat might tip over. You’ll take that chance.”
Artists have long been among Oakland’s populations most vulnerable to displacement. Despite the fact that Oakland’s art scene is a major draw for developers, representation for artists in city government has been anemic for many years, leaving them defenseless. The city has not had an arts commission since 2011, and the cultural affairs department, which had 13 employees in 2001, was at just three full-timers and one part-timer earlier this year. In August, Schaaf hired a new Cultural Affairs Manager, outfitted with a budget of $900,000, but he has yet to begin visibly making moves.
Oakland’s housing market is the fourth most expensive in the country — its median rent is now $2,899 a month. The meager income of artists, even those who work minimum-wage jobs to supplement their practice, is barely enough to hang on. Last year, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Artist Housing and Workspace Task Force surveyed more than 900 local artists and found that the majority considered housing expenses to be the biggest challenge to being an artist in Oakland. A majority also claimed to be paying for housing on a month-to-month basis, making them particularly vulnerable.
In June, a West Oakland creative live/work warehouse known as LoBot was the latest casualty in a series of closures — further narrowing the lineage of do-it-yourself venues that have fed the vibrant fringe art and music scene for decades. After a neighbor complained about artists illegally living in the space, the landlord issued an eviction notice, and the tightknit group of tenants was torn apart.
That same month, another West Oakland underground hub called Ghost Town gallery was raided by two Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, resulting in a mass eviction of tenants ranging from jazz pianists to BDSM practitioners, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. And in January, the city ordered dozens of tenants to leave a large, non-permitted residential warehouse at 1919 Market Street in West Oakland when officials were alerted to several code violations. Building owners told the artists they would have the opportunity to move back in after renovations, then sold it to another developer — who decided to demolish it.
With risk of eviction very high, and without any safety net from city government, attempts to report an exploitative warehouse landlord unwilling to create better conditions is simply not an option for tenants in buildings without permits. Since the fire, members of the underground arts community have rallied resources to ensure venues and housing are as safe as possible, but tenants can still be evicted based on zoning.
On Dec. 6, former residents of LoBot issued an open letter. “We so deeply feel the need for increased safety — but we are worried about what that might mean for our community,” it reads. “Today, many of us are housed in less-safe places, or jump from one temporary crash pad to the next, clinging to hopes of making it in Oakland. Others have been forced out of the Bay, losing the community they’ve spent years building. This cannot be the answer.”
Schaaf is already facing pressure to ensure that all warehouse spaces are immediately brought up to code. Less than a week after the fire occurred, residents and business owners have already begun to out neighbors who they suspect to be hosting illegal concerts.
Safety must undeniably be everyone’s highest priority. But the reality is that hunting down and evicting the city’s remaining warehouse spaces would simply put already vulnerable populations at further risk, driving the scene deeper underground and into more dangerous spaces.
At a citywide vigil for Ghost Ship fire victims on Monday night, Schaaf was booed and heckled when she took up the mic. Many Oaklanders feel that she hasn’t worked hard enough to curb displacement, instead frequently meeting with developers and unwelcome incoming tenants such as tech behemoth Uber. And for more than a year, artists have been organizing meetings and rallies to demand that the city create a plan specifically to keep artists and arts organizations in Oakland.
Finally, on Tuesday, Schaaf announced a $1.7 million philanthropic grant that she says will go toward helping art institutions acquire the buildings they inhabit or move into affordable space, sometimes purchased by the city and rented back to them. Considering the number of worthy and more visible galleries and venues in Oakland, it seems unlikely that this money will directly aid artists living and working in unpermitted spaces. That would also require an unlikely collaboration between city government, property owners with little incentive to rent or sell at a less than exorbitant price, and artists living in unsanctioned tenements.
But many artists feeling a sudden threat of imminent homelessness are praying that Schaaf puts some kind of protective strategy into play. It’s crucial that these artists receive a seat at the table.