The Oakland fire spurs crackdown on arts spaces

Do we have to destroy a community in order to save it?

The tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire is already leading to a crackdown on underground arts spaces, where thousands of Bay Area artists and performers live, work, and put on events that could never happen anywhere else.

Although Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has vowed to meet with artists and avoid a “witch hunt,” advocates are worried that the result of new policies and procedures will be evictions and shutdowns. She was booed offstage at a vigil by people who say that she has been too focused on code violations and not on the tragedy and the reasons behind it.

From tragedy ... to evictions?
From tragedy … to evictions?

That’s begun in Richmond, where Mayor Tom Butt is already telling people that he has found local places like the Ghost Ship, and he wants them shut down. His comments border on wildly insensitive:

Cities also get a lot of pushback when trying to enforce codes. Everyone wants to be excused or some reason. Artists want to be excused because they are well – artists. And other people are also sympathetic, explaining that the overzealous city should let them be – artists – just doing their thing. Apparently finding a cheap studio or place to crash is more important than life itself.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director at Tenants Together, told me that Butt is against rent control. “He doesn’t want regulation of housing prices, but somehow he wants more regulation of code enforcement,” she said.

She noted that “this is a difficult situation; we don’t want people to choose between being safe and having affordable housing. But we haven’t created any programs to make space for artists.”

As Nick Miller, the editor of the East Bay Express notes, the fire is not the fault of artists and musicians.

I want to keep it real about the imminent witch hunt against Oakland’s arts and music underground scene.

In fact, it’s not even looming. The blaming of the tens-of-thousands of low-income creatives living in unconventional domiciles throughout the East Bay is already happening.

I’ve already seen residents and business owners outing “secret” warehouses to journalists, accusing these hubs of being “the next Ghost Ship.”

And traditional-media outlets that have published shameful editorializing on how officials must crack down immediately on furtive artists and their presumably illegal, purportedly dangerous live-work spaces.

This divisive blaming isn’t a way to respond to Friday’s fire. Evicting the very community that was harmed by the Ghost Ship incident won’t prevent further tragedy.

Everywhere, reporters seem to be scurrying to expose the next live-work situation that doesn’t fit into current building or zoning codes. I understand the sentiment – I am a supporter of building and zoning codes, and we often complain here that developers and tech companies ignore them with impunity.

But if all the people using old industrial buildings and warehouses for housing and performance space are evicted, the Bay Area’s arts and nightlife scene will be hit with another stunning blow. The fatalities at Ghost Ship were horrifying, but there has to be a way to allow residents to report and repair health and safety problems without facing eviction.

Meredith Isaksen, a poet and English teacher at Berkeley City College, puts it this way:

The economic trends in Oakland and the circumstances leading to the Ghost Ship fire are a magnification of what many are experiencing across the country. People can’t afford to make ends meet. They can’t afford safe housing. But we must acknowledge that economic disparity in 2016 isn’t the provenance of the white working class, and resist shallow attempts to place blame for this tragedy on the victims of disenfranchisement.

The artists and innovators who perished in the Ghost Ship fire found alternative means of endurance and achievement despite the shadowy existence society afforded them, maintaining their commitment to free expression, community and tireless work in the creative borderlands that impel our culture toward insight and delight. The people who made up the Ghost Ship collective got by on very little in pursuit of a dream — it is the stuff on which our beloved country was built.

Well, a little melodramatic there, but yeah: This is a wakeup call for all of us to work together to make our spaces more safe – but not by destroying them.

  • 4th Gen SF

    On the one hand, the libertarian side of me says people can do what they want, on the other side of me it says, but Oakland has declared the Ghost Ship a NATIONAL EMERGENCY, and is demanding FEDERAL FUNDS for the clean up and salaries of the firefighters and personnel it takes to clean it up. I find it really odd that Oakland is mismanaged its funds so much that it can’t take care of one warehouse fire.

    But since that is the case, now it means that all the warehouses with poor safety will have to be shut down. All those warehouse spaces with artists will need to be up to code or shut down.

    The other day according to SFIST & CBS, an older female African-American restauraneur was going to hold a press conference saying that The Salt Lick was also a dangerous place, code violations, no 2nd exit, no sprinklers. She was literally screamed at & threatened by the white male artists that live there and did not hold the press conference. If The Salt Lick goes up, there goes her business too. I think there needs to be an immediate investigation by OFD into the Salt Lick warehouse, which is doing the same thing as Ghost Ship.

    I also do not think it’s ok for white men to scream and threaten older black women. That’s really horrible.

    • Do Something Nice

      It would be fiscally irresponsible for any jurisdiction to NOT apply for Federal funds if they are eligible. And California and the Bay Area send much more money to the Feds than we get back.

      As for BG Anaraki, the ‘white’ guy who ‘screamed’ and ‘threatened’ an older black woman, get real. You don’t give a shit about non-white people and BG is as non-white as you claim to be.

      King’s press conference was ill-timed and if she wanted to fix the problem, she should have tried to engage the Salt Lick owners first. Anaraki has publicly stated that he feels bad about his outburst and he’s been very emotional since the fire.

      Also, King’s assertions about only 1 exit, etc are being challenged. I don’t have the facts but King came off as an attention whore or someone with motives that have nothing to do with saving lives.

      • 4th Gen SF

        Again, I find your assumption of my race reprehensible. I have been on this board for years, have told about my mixed ethnic background for years. I do care about all people. You OTOH seem full on racist, esp since it’s fine for younger white men to SCREAM at older black women. GMAFB.

        • Do Something Nice

          I make no assumption about your race – you said you are “mixed” and I believe that. Your assumption that Anaraki is ‘white’ is the problem. Do you know for a fact that Anaraki is not of ‘mixed’ ethnicity/race because it seems like YOU are making assumptions. The only reason that race matters is because of discrimination. Do you believe that it may actually be possible that someone with an Iranian lastname just may have faced some type of discrimination in his lifetime, especially in a post 9/11 United States?

          Oh, and your pearl clutching that a man of Middle-Eastern descent screamed at an older black woman, a woman who he believed is lying and that he saw as denigrating the lives of people lost is sickening. And you don’t even cut him some slack for saying what he did was inappropriate.

          Again, it seems like you are the racist. He didn’t attack King because of her race; he did so because of what she was saying.

          Grow up.

    • Don Sebastopol

      Those who died were party goers; one resident artist died. Illegal party spaces need to be shut down, not necessarily living space.

      • Charlain

        Any building that does not meet the fire code needs to be shut down immediately. Yes, adults can choose what risks they want for where they live; however, you CANNOT choose what risks you will impose on your neighbors and also on fire safety personnel.

        If your illegal residence catches fire, it threatens all the buildings and people around you, and it also puts emergency personnel at risk when they come to put out your fire and rescue you. If a building would just be left to burn in isolation and would not pose a risk to its neighbors, then I would say, “Great, let people live in a death trap if they choose.”

      • TheShahSleepsInLeeHarveysGrave

        Would you support the extra taxation and administration to provide the staff necessary to survey and “shut down” any “spaces” that could be used as “party spaces” if they were “illegal”?

  • Brian T

    I think we need to differentiate between illegal residences and illegal venues. If you want to live in a potentially dangerous situation I’d argue that you’re an adult and it’s your choice provided you’re not posing a significant danger to your neighbors.

    If on the other hand, you have an illegal space and hold events there, you have a duty to make sure the space is reasonably safe for your guests. You need to take precautions like making sure there are sufficient exits, fire extinguishers, and you have sober person(s) monitoring for unsafe situations like fights, over-crowding, or medical emergencies.

    That’s my 2 cents. My heart goes out to anyone impacted by the Ghost Ship tragedy.

    • Llywelyn Jones

      Except that fire impacts everyone nearby. It doesn’t matter if your space is for living or working or for a music venue — if it catches fire, it puts the surrounding buildings in danger.

  • Don Sebastopol

    Use and safety are different issues.

    • Don Sebastopol

      Also illegal living space and illegal party space are two different issues.

  • Watson Ladd

    Why don’t legal live work spaces exist? Because of zoning codes that ban that use. You can’t support zoning codes without acknowledging that they will make some uses illegal, and thus drive up the price and drive people into the shadows. Its time to embrace zoning reform that makes the land useful for actual people to live and work on.

    • LibertyHiller

      “Why don’t legal live work spaces exist? Because of zoning codes that ban that use.”

      You seem to conflate zoning (which dictates permitted uses) with building codes (the laws covering how to construct for particular uses). These are not the same thing and your statement is not at all true for Oakland; it has some of the most comprehensive live-work regulations in the country (both in terms of zoning and building codes), thanks to Jerry Brown’s administration.

      Building for safe use is time-consuming and expensive. This is true whether you’re talking about single-family housing, an office building or a live-work space. Oakland can reform its zoning (by which I assume you mean “do away with”) , but building codes won’t — and generally shouldn’t — get looser.

      This tragedy is just the sort of thing that motivates cities to tighten (and enforce) their building codes.

  • SnapsMcKenzie

    There’s no such thing as “regulation of code enforcement.” Codes are mandatory and must be followed by every property owner, regardless of the situation of those renting the property. However, enforcement can be done in a practical and humane manner, which I hope is done in the cases of other artist’s colonies in the Bay Area.

  • Heart

    To all the people here touting zoning codes, how do you feel about short term rentals in neighborhoods not zoned for hotels? That’s illegal use in unzoned areas.

    • Heart

      Or running an under the radar/unzoned club and party house in a residential neighborhood. How is it different?

      • Charlain

        Do you see anyone claiming that these are somehow “different?” No one is supporting any illegal use of property. That said, as I pointed out in my other post, there is a real and serious difference between a mere zoning violation and a fire and safety violation. A zoning violation may be a nuisance, but a fire and safety violation can easily get people killed, and it has in this case.

    • Charlain

      If something is illegal, it should not be permitted to occur, period, end of story. This applies to illegal short-rentals, or any illegal use of property.

      That said, there is a HUGE difference between something not meeting the zoning code and a structure not meeting the FIRE AND SAFETY codes. A building that is an illegal zoning use, generally poses no immediate risk to anyone. A building that fails to meet the fire and safety codes, not only threatens the lives of anyone who lives, works, or visits the structure, but it also poses a serious risk to the neighboring buildings and their inhabitants, as well as to emergency response personnel who have to come to put out a fire and rescue trapped individuals.

  • Justin Beck

    I want to thank the SF Bay Guardian for all the coverage of this. My heart is broken. I just heard about a bunch of fucking cool music that was then immediately taken away. My aura hurts. This beer helps. I’m living in exile fleeing fascist corporate gang stalkers. The problem with redheads. Fuck dude.

  • Don Sebastopol

    It was party goers who died 35, and 1 resident artist. The issue is not really unsafe living space but illegal party space.

    • pilastr

      Well, you’re factually incorrect. Read the biographies of those lost. Because Sebastopol lacks non-commercial co-creative warehouse spaces, many of your artists flee to Oakland. It’s disingenuous to ignore the fact that music and performance art require (and attract) audiences of other artists. In case you’re new to the idea: Artists deeply influence and support one another. You seem to denigrate the word “party” while unable to recognize converted warehouses as spaces of co-creation, as meeting places for philosophical, political, artistic ideas, and yes as places of personal connection.

      • Dick Gozinya

        why i wont support the artists , they are just another exclusive group who becomes inclusive only when they need help

        • TheShahSleepsInLeeHarveysGrave

          I’m curious Dick, how do you prevent yourself from supporting artists that need help or don’t when you see a movie, look at art or listen to music?