In the aftermath of a warehouse fire in Oakland, artists nationwide aim to keep their buildings open and secure.
As Melissa J. Frost sat in her house in Philadelphia on December 2 and watched the fire rage on at the Ghost Ship live-work space in Oakland, she was devastated. But her sadness was tinged with a sense of inevitability.
Frost has organized and lived collectively in these kinds of unconventional urban dwellings for years. As an architecture undergrad in Philadelphia in the late 2000s, Frost bought a house for $10,000. It had no power, no water, and no electricity; she had to figure all that out all on her own. Then she began booking the place out for concerts and shows.
“At the time, the DIY community learned these things through a network of squatters and punk-trained people,” Frost says. “It was a very low level of work being done; I had bands get shocked while they were playing at my house because the power wasn’t grounded.” Through it all, Frost says, she remembers a feeling of “man, this isn’t safe.”
But the shows went on. “We didn’t have the money or skills to do anything about it,” Frost says.
The culture in the kinds of DIY art spaces that have long flourished on the fringes of American cities—like those Frost lived in, and like the Ghost Ship in Oakland—has always been one of independence from municipal regulations. “It’s known that you avoid anyone official as much as possible, because you have the idea that all they’re going to do is evict you,” Frost says.
DIY spaces are typically housed in substandard properties—often warehouses and lofts that landlords rent out to tenants for cheap. “There’s a kind of unholy alliance in which these buildings are leased with a ‘nod nod, wink wink, nobody lives here,’” Thomas Dolan, an Oakland-based architect, told The New York Times. “It’s a precarious situation where tenants exchange cheap rent for substandard housing—and if they rock the boat, they’re out,” Dolan added.
There’s often an understanding that city leaders—desperate to inject vitality into underutilized parts of town—will go along with this this arrangement, too, tacitly tolerating code-breaking in emerging arts districts and looking the other way. Until something goes wrong.
Just three days after flames ravaged the Ghost Ship and left 36 people dead, Baltimore’s department of housing shut down the studio and performance space Bell Foundry, citing numerous safety code violations. Though a representative from the city’s Fire Department denied the closure’s connection to the Oakland tragedy, fear of eviction and shutdown has been heightened in artist communities across the U.S. in the days since.
Oakland has taken steps to ensure its arts and DIY community that such a wave evictions will not be coming: Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a $1.7 million grant in philanthropic funds to go toward creating and maintaining safe and affordable spaces for artists. A local councilman, Noel Gallo, also told KQED that the city will have to find money to provide more thorough fire inspections to places like the Ghost Ship. (Despite being notified of possible code violations at the Oakland warehouse multiple times, officials never followed through on a complete examination of the property—negligence that Gallo has condemned).
But David Keenan, cofounder of the Oakland-based Omni Commons and a veteran of DIY spaces in the area since 2012, says that building organizers and tenants cannot be lulled into complacency by these statements. In order to keep unconventional spaces open and viable, Keenan says, all involved parties—from tenants to the arts community to the city—must develop a new set of protocols that will strike a balance between the independence organizers like he and Frost value, to the oversight and protections officials like Gallo are calling for.
What building tenants can do
Two days after the Oakland fire, Frost set up a website called Safer Spaces. “This is for all of us who understand that the fire in Oakland was not an unlikely accident, but rather an inevitability given the dangerous precarity of the spaces in which underground DIY culture exists nationally,” she wrote on the site.
Through Safer Spaces, Frost has aggregated an array of information, from notices about meetings and benefits to local resources for those affected by the fire. A crowdsourced list of safety tips for building occupants and tenants is perhaps the most painful to read: De-clutter spaces and surrounding areas; clear paths to doors; mark all exits; take a day to scan for and remove flammable materials like cleaning chemicals. There is a sense, Frost says, that these are all suggestions that people knew to do, but didn’t. “In a way, there’s a certain leaning within DIY culture that to consider things like safety is bourgeois, or too mainstream,” she says. “Like, why would we worry about this kind of yuppie stuff?”
In her years of organizing, Frost watched people decide against buying emergency lights and smoke detectors. Now, she says, “safety is going to be a long-term fixture at the front of the kind of skill-sharing we do.”
What the arts community can do
What the Oakland fire made clear is that the conditions in DIY spaces are similar nationwide. While individual buildings work to ensure safety, the arts community has to organize on a wider scale, says Omni Commons’ Keenan.
A well-known figure in the Bay Area DIY scene, Keenan spent years negotiating with planning and safety departments over building codes and project finances. He knows the system: how to present a cohesive plan for a space, how to appeal permit denials, and how to do it without paying excess fees hidden along the way. As he worked to get a new space approved over the past year, he invited people to come with him to meetings at city offices to observe the process. From the outpouring of requests for help around venue planning after the Ghost Ship fire, it became clear that this hard-won knowledge could benefit the community. So on December 7, Keenan organized a skillshare at Omni Commons. Safety was one focus, but so was establishing a larger advocacy network for DIY spaces. “We need people who know how to interface with the city on issues like permitting and engineering,” he says.
Frost’s Safer Spaces platform has seen an outpouring of offers to help that have shed light on the potential for a community to galvanize around DIY spaces. “Part of the advocacy I want to do is to connect people in these buildings with people who are professionally trained in say, building or electrical work, who are willing to help out with these spaces,” she says. Email lists with contacts offering project assistance and building services have filled up with people and organizations across the country.
One such organization, the San Francisco-based 1+, connects nonprofits with pro bono architecture and design services. Amy Ress, the program’s director, says that the design community has a deep respect for the creative freedom that DIY spaces provide, and sees a role for established organizations to play in supporting them. The design firms that 1+ works with, Ress says, can provide building assessments and drawings of plans; they also can assist with capital campaigns and with securing discounted construction services. “Communities are stronger for having an arts community,” Ress says. “But it’s going to require a lot more collaboration in the future to maintain it.”
What cities can do
Photographer Chuck DeLaney rented his first loft in lower Manhattan in 1975. In those days, he says, the financial district was deserted, and artists like himself were moving into abandoned office buildings and manufacturing spaces on the cheap. When the then-Mayor Ed Koch got wind of this, his administration began sliding eviction notices under doors. DeLaney received one in 1977, as did several of his friends. In response, they banded together and formed Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants (LMLT), an organization that still exists today.
“Organizing wasn’t very hip in the late ‘70s,” DeLaney says. But when LMLT called their first meeting, several hundred people came out, and elected officials took notice. In the next several years, LMLT agitated for more protections from the city, which resulted in the passage of the NYC Loft Law in 1982. Under the provision, if a landlord registers an illegal building with the city, they’re allowed to retain their tenants and given a time frame in which to bring the building up to code. The law also protects tenants, who are not allowed to be evicted once the building is registered. After the building is brought up to code, its rent is stabilized.
Under the original loft law, around 900 buildings registered; approximately two-thirds became legal (which is why one can still find lofts in notoriously expensive Tribeca for under $800 per month). “The bottom line is that the loft laws really work,” DeLaney says. The opportunity for the landlords and tenants of illegal properties to come forward and work with the city, while retaining the inherent structure of the living arrangement, did away with the need for the turning of blind eyes that predated the Ghost Ship fire.
The tragedy in Oakland brought DeLaney back to the early days of working for protected tenancy. “When we read about the people there, we saw ourselves,” he says. Preventing this kind of event, “is incumbent on government,” and a version of New York’s loft laws could open up avenues for similar protections in Oakland and other cities. But, echoing Keenan’s sentiment, he beleives “it would be a huge mistake for tenants and renters to think that the city is going to solve their problems.”
When he was starting the LMLT, now a part of NYC Loft Tenants, DeLaney received a few words of wisdom from Jane Benedict, the legendary founder of the Metropolitan Council on Housing: Organize your building, form an association, and secure legal representation. Those steps are necessary for arts communities working with cities in the future, DeLaney says. A strong, informed coalition like the kind Keenan envisions in Oakland can fill the role of an attorney.
Arts communities may be rattled by the Ghost Ship fire, but the tragedy also offers a critical opportunity, Frost says: “This is the time for artists to advocate for this kind of housing as being a good and healthy and beneficial part of a creative city.”