A devastating warehouse fire has made it clear that the city has failed to support its artist community.
On Friday, December 2, a massive fire ripped through a warehouse in downtown Oakland. Known as the Ghost Ship, it was the home of around 25 artists and creatives, and that night, they’d opened their doors to dozens more for a concert.
As the show got underway, a blaze ignited at the back of the building. Nobody is yet sure how it started, but the flames traveled quickly; the interior of the Ghost Ship was a maze of wooden beams and improvised corridors, packed to the edges with art supplies and old furniture. People scrambled to get out, but there were only two exits. Cries for help intermingled with music from the DJ booth.
Since Friday, the death count has climbed to over 30 people. A handful of attendees are still missing, and police believe it will take days to comb through the wreckage.
The Oakland fire is an unmistakable tragedy, a loss for the community and one of the worst structure fires the U.S. has seen in the past 50 years. And it’s an event that lies at the horrifying extreme of a crisis of displacement that has gone unchecked in the Bay Area city.
The people who lived in the Ghost Ship were doing so illegally; the building had a permit to operate as a warehouse, but not as a residence. As steep rents have made housing more and more inaccessible to low-income people and creatives in Oakland, illegal living situations—from shipping containers to overcrowded group houses—have proliferated. But as The New York Times notes, these spaces “are subject to the same market forces rippling through the broader market. That has given outsize power to the so-called master tenants who control the lease of a building and, at least in some cases, can make money by subletting to struggling artists willing to live in substandard conditions.”
In the aftermath of the fire, some have leveled blame for the tragedy against the victims themselves. “You can’t party at a warehouse,” one Twitter user wrote. The people at the Ghost Ship that night should have known better, onlookers admonished from afar. Why were people living in and dancing in a building that was made for neither?
Perhaps because they had few other options. People came to the Ghost Ship in search of a creative community and affordable rent; in exchange, they found themselves under the control of a negligent landlord with a history of denying requests to maintain the property and keep it in compliance with safety code regulations. A criminal investigation into the building launched on Sunday.
Little support for a growing scene
For decades, Oakland had maintained a thriving artistic subculture that was overshadowed by the city’s reputation for violence, poverty, and disinvestment. Only when creatives displaced from San Francisco began to migrate across the Bay in the early 2000s did the city’s arts scene receive the attention it deserved. The city’s monthly art walk, which draws crowds of 20,000 every first Friday, has been cited as a force and a symbol of Oakland’s revitalization. Art galleries now line the once-sparse downtown.
While the city pats itself on the back for these developments—“Oakland is the coolest place on the planet,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf in 2014—it has turned a blind eye to the people at the heart of the city’s creative culture. Revitalization in Oakland means rising rents, fueled by the same influx of tech money that forced artists out of San Francisco 15 years ago. Oakland’s rental market is among the top four most expensive in the U.S.; according to SFGate, the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the city increased 19 percent in the past year. For someone trying to survive on an artist’s income, it’s an increasingly hopeless situation.
The fire at the Ghost Ship is not only bound up in the housing affordability crisis; it has also thrown into relief the plight of the city’s unregulated venues. Warehouse parties, like the event at the Ghost Ship, have been a staple of the city’s fabric for years. Since the early ’80s—when Oakland was still affordable—people would gather in unused buildings and transform them into spaces for art and music. “For many of the city’s young, creative folks of color, underground venues are vital: They establish community and identity when mainstream clubs and arts institutions aren’t accessible,” the East Bay Express writes. As the city has grown more expensive and socially stratified, these venues have only become more necessary.
In the past few years, evictions and closures of underground DIY spaces have become commonplace as developers eye more profitable uses for the properties. Live-work spaces like the Ghost Ship are a last stand against these dual forces of displacement. The people who formed a community in the warehouse did so to hold on to a space for themselves in a city that has abandoned them while reaping the cultural capital of their presence.
A way forward
It has become apparent that it’s not enough for Oakland to claim itself as a city of artists without taking any action to ensure that it remains as such. The way forward cannot be for the city to shut down warehouses and artists’ spaces deemed unsafe. Not only would that eradicate the creative culture, but it would, according to The Guardian, create an avenue for developers to swoop in and make room for more profitable ventures, further distancing artists from a chance of surviving in the city.
Oakland must take a hard look at itself and devise a multifaceted approach to supporting this community. “The city has a responsibility for keeping people safe,” says Sarah Karlinsky, a senior policy advisor at SPUR, a Bay Area-based advocacy organization. If the city knows of buildings in violation of the Life Safety Code, she says, it should work with owners to bring the properties into compliance, rather than allowing them to persist as an open secret, like the Ghost Ship was.
The city also has a responsibility to provide more affordable housing. In that regard at least, there are bright spots on the horizon, Karlinsky says: Oakland has recently approved two separate grants, totaling over $600 million, to increase the supply of affordable housing, which remains in short supply. As the city welcomes more creatives, Karlinsky says it will be important for officials to ensure that buildings like the Ghost Ship fall under better management. And arts building organizers could host collective safety measure trainings to ensure their spaces can remain accessible and independently operated, Karlinsky says. “Because of the extraordinary nature of this tragedy, and the scale, people will be open to new ideas,” Karlinsky says.