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Sunday, September 26, 2021

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Arts + CultureMusicIn the Ghost Ship aftermath

In the Ghost Ship aftermath

"We care for each other": taking the temperature of local nightlife after its biggest tragedy

The mood was tenderly festive last night at the long-awaited party for the reopening of RS94109, the Tenderloin record store and cafe. A slight cloud of shock and somberness lingered over the swelling crowd, and you could hear the word “Oakland” drift from several conversations.

Sweet, smiling brothers Sohrab and Skander Harooni, who opened the space with friend Josh Wood, accepted compliments, served coffee, and played some music. Their parents served Afghani food in the corner, accepting donations for victims of the devastating Oakland Ghost Ship party fire, which the night before claimed so many lives of people who would have been there to celebrate RS94109’s return. (So far, officials have announced 33 dead and more missing at what is being called the deadliest structure fire in the city’s history.)   

This was the kind of crowd that would have been at the Ghost Ship party: mostly dressed in casual black with a knowing bright streak or two, attitudinally chill, influenced as much by classic goth as classic house — with a European bent and a practiced connoisseurship in intelligent, experimental musical projects that don’t tip over too much into artiness or irony, but still offer moments of joyful catharsis. The kind of well-rounded individuals who could hold a solid discussion about gender politics or Caribbean music of the 1980s — or just hug you hello on a weird dance floor somewhere and make you feel welcome. In other words: cool, sophisticated young people you wanted to know better. 

Totally not the mythical drugged-out, aggressively Day-Glo ravers some sensationalizing media were saying attended the “electronic dancing concert” in Oakland the night before.  (50 years later and the press is still so square it can’t properly describe a warehouse party, let alone an artist collective). And definitely not the orgiastic, anarchic, godless libtards, deserving of their hideous fate, that disgusting comment trolls from TMZ and Fox News to SFGate and East Bay Express were sliming. (The trolling on the Ghost Ship story has been so overwhelming, you’d have thought Hillary was DJing that night.)

Amanda Allen's last posted picture on Facebook was of Johnny Igaz, aka DJ Nackt, spinning at Ghost Ship.
Amanda Allen’s last posted picture on Facebook was of Johnny Igaz, aka DJ Nackt, spinning at Ghost Ship.

No, the missing included people like Johnny Igaz, aka Nackt, a shy, skilled, and ubiquitous DJ with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, the most goofball cat-dad smile, and an impish social media presence that made sly light of cultural events. Or Amanda Allen, the nightlife photographer who always sported the zazziest eyeglass frames and magically appeared on the most unlikely dance floors with an enthusiastic hello. (One of the most wondrous WTF moments of my life was when Amanda suddenly parted the crowd at a Detroit party to beam towards me.)  

Or Chelsea Faith, aka Cherushii, the prolific DJ, promoter, and musician who would set up her complicated equipment at a moment’s notice to generate ethereally danceable sounds in her signature post-disco style. Or Barrett, responsible for the ace soundsystems at the Bay Area’s deliriously dark underground techno/noise events. Or Joey Casio, who connected everyone and inspired them to perform (or, in his expansive term, “facilitate”). Or Micah Danemayer, who hosted the coolest live joint, Obscura Machina.

Or Kiyomi, or Feral, or Cash, or Nex, or Denalda … or so many more, all denizens of a tight-knit scene, much of it queer and of color, that nourished itself on DIY dedication and a true family spirit. Some saw each other pretty much every weekend, and their lives were musically, socially, and professionally intertwined. (Not that you could make nearly enough money to pay rent doing any of this, so it was also all extracurricular.) I knew many of them, wrote about many of them, aspired to be as cool as many of them. Some I just spotted from afar, at the periphery of my social media vision. Several were on my perpetual “I need to interview you because you’re a freakin’ unicorn” list. Just the fact that they existed in this crazy world made me believe in the power of nightlife all the more.

At RS94109 I didn’t feel much like talking — I just wanted to be around people and look through records — but I ran into one of SF’s foundational DJs, Solar, outside and we both shared a long, tearful hug. He’d had been busy all day setting up for the afterparty at Monarch, working through the shittiness of it all, and he shared a common sentiment: 2016 couldn’t be over soon enough. “I’m actually scared, though, of what it might have planned for New Year’s Eve,” he said, employing the dark humor we all were to get beyond the panicky places our imagination of the previous night kept taking us.

I went to get a drink next door at the Gangway — yet another endangered old-school safe space for queerdos in a city of ever-dwindling options and skyrocketing rents — but after weakly singing along to Keyshia Cole on the jukebox with a big, beautiful, motherly stranger, I couldn’t take the coverage of the fire showing on the TV news, so I jetted to Powerhouse in SoMa. Friends were gathering for the Powerblouse party, where drag queens transform well-known nightlifers who have never done drag before into the inner queen of their dreams, live onstage. It was a perfectly “only in SF” thing that I felt sure would keep me going.

There, I ran into two longtime performers: Fauxnique, an outspoken female drag queen who has toured the world performing, and Profundity, another female drag queen presence on the scene. We spoke for a long time about big issues like the housing crunch in the Bay Area, how expensive it can be to open or perform in licensed venues, how there have always been and always will be underground spaces, how creative kids are always going to do creative things in creative places, and how America’s weird Puritanism combined with its “pioneering spirit” was twisting everything into a confusing, funhouse-mirror Wild West of morality-based, selectively applied regulations where everything is allowed for some, nothing for others.

“This tragedy points to the need for our community to really be mature about the necessity of these spaces and how we can take care of ourselves and each other,” Fauxnique said. “It can feel like we’re on our own here.” And indeed, in the aftermath, architects, engineers, counselors, therapists, and more from the community have offered to help guide people through running and maintaining an underground space.      

Talking about all that was comforting, and knowing that people in nightlife venues throughout the Bay Area were talking about it was, too. (Almost all of the parties I knew of on Saturday night were dedicated to paying tribute to the missing or raising money for their families.) And when some of the Bay Area’s biggest jocks, the Oakland A’s and Raiders, and San Francisco’s most avant-garde electronic music performance venue, Gray Area, are both hosting huge fundraisers for the same cause, a real feeling of unity emerges. Please donate.

The days ahead are going to be very, very hard, as the hole torn through the Bay Area nightlife community will become more painful and obvious. On top of all that, the bullies and idiots of the world are attacking us, too. And some very tricky issues and serious questions about the venue will arise: Already some in power are trying to use this tragedy to further marginalize artists and performers. If the licensed venues and living spaces are too costly and the unlicensed ones are shut down or evicted, what will artists do? 

But a bit of hope came in the way the community was coming together last night — numbly, but showing its ever-colorful, resilient spirit.                           

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.
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  1. I do know – I wasn’t conscious during that time and have no memory of it. Maybe it’s time to start telling the truth, that we’re just here when we’re here, and not when we’re not. You don’t speak for me – I SPEAK FOR ME.

  2. Those poor kids have never had a healthy life and, trust me, they are permanently emotionally and psychologically damaged by the lifestyle their crappy parents chose over the health and safety of their children. Don’t be so naive.

  3. Much worse than this little bit of gossip will follow “innocent parties” through life, by which I assume you mean his children. And he and his wife are responsible for that, not a poster in a comment section.

  4. “there is no consciousness anymore”. You do not know this to be factual. You could not know this to be factual. You have not stated a fact. What you have stated is your one experience and your belief, based on your limited knowledge and understanding of the soul/spirit. You do not KNOW!

  5. Sorry, I don’t believe this. I was hit by a car a couple years ago and knocked unconscious for 15 minutes until I woke up in an ambulance. Those 15 minutes didn’t exist for me. I read that victims of the fire would have gone unconscious first from the smoke. There is no consciousness anymore.

  6. You need to just ignore my comments if you can’t handle the scrutiny that your community is under now. Clearly I’m the least of your problems. But get, I’ve never ripped off the poor or caused the deaths of dozens of people. In fact, it’s people like me who help keep poor people housed and who’ve taken on the monied and powerful who should be listened to. Get organized and demand changes. Find people with money, knowledge and power to advocate for you.

  7. That’s an excellent point, Foginacan. People at the venue ranged from attendees who’d never been there, some who had, to those living there, to promoters and entertainers. All creatives have to learn to draw a line at what level of boho is acceptable to them. But appearances can be deceiving and that can be deadly.

  8. Murder charges sound pretty good, as long as it’s Almena who’s charged. His landlady should be charged with something criminal, too.

  9. I’m not mansplaining or censoring you, I was suggesting that rather than just bring up the mistreatment of the kids and show concern, actually treat them with concern and omit those details. But hey, have at it.

  10. It’s in the newspapers and in court. No one is airing any business out that’s not already published. Stop telling me what to post aka mansplaining. Stay in your lane.

  11. I’d still suggest we error on the side of hoping his children have a judgment free, healthy life and not air their business out.

    I mean, in the big scheme of what went on in that space, sex parties seems like the least of it. No legal toilets, and no cooking facilities is horrifying and sad.

  12. There is documented evidence of him having sex soirees at the warehouse. It was one of the reasons many people had stopped living there. He rented it out, against the wishes of his sub-leased tenants to sex parties. This is not gossip, it is fact, and it is why CPS removed the children from his care, it is why the children were not in the warehouse (thankfully) that night. Additionally, there were not toilets in the space nor cooking facilities. All of this is documented and will come out in the court cases which are currently gearing up.

  13. @disqus_rrTgRbA3TG:disqus “Some of the event folks who’d been there before – djs, promoters and
    musicians are also culpable because they knew it was a potential death

    if we’re talking about culpability then where does it end? Does it include the landlord? how about the bank that the landlord pays the mortgage to? How about the volunteers at the event, or how about the dancers that have been there before?

    The problem is so much larger than one scummy dude.

  14. On what planet are new condos hosting Ghost Ship like artist communities with fire dancers, and DJ’s, and a labyrinth of bedrooms?

  15. “If the licensed venues and living spaces are too costly and the unlicensed ones are shut down or evicted, what will artists do?” Maybe move to a cheaper city instead of selling kids tickets to a deathtrap? I’d suggest Midtown Sacramento, which is pretty nice, and half as expensive.

  16. New condos have fire suppression systems, marked and lighted exits, and fire detectors that function. People don’t like to burn to death in a firetrap.

  17. “The artists who lived there would have prefered to live in affordable apartments.”

    On what planet? If you replicated their lifestyle in a new condo it would become a death trap there too. The people who live in these kinds of arts spaces chose to live in them.

    The tragedy here isn’t material for asshole YIMBYS to try and make about themselves, and their zoning/housing crusades.

  18. Where were your strong responsible leaders preventing kids from perishing in a fire? One doesn’t need to be part of your community to be right.

  19. “they do it because it’s better than living on the street in a tent”

    Obnoxious. It wasn’t a squat, there were sub letters paying rent who could have paid their rent elsewhere before resorting to homelessness.

  20. The artists who lived there would have prefered to live in affordable apartments. The artists who performed there would have wanted to perform in safe venues able to open late. No one wants to live in a fire trap.

  21. I got to know Johnny Igaz for a short period of time. The smile on his face was intoxicating. A beautiful smile. He definitely had a glow about himself. A good, friendly guy gone too soon. And I will miss him. Rest In Power Johnny. My condolences to all who lost loved ones.

  22. You don’t think that the unavailability of legal spaces might have something to do with the restricted supply of entertainment licences, and the zoning laws banning entertainment uses in many areas? The fact is the Ghost Ship was what what it was because the laws left the artists no other affordable options.

  23. It takes a real sickness to try and drag topics pertaining to commercial zoning, the housing market, or limited supply, into this.

  24. You aren’t part of the community isn’t a good excuse. There’s blood on the hands of many who carried that same attitude.

  25. “Art collectives often rent cheap, non-code compliant buildings because that is all they can afford.”

    This place could have never legally existed, and that was at least part of the point. It’s non conformity isn’t a sign of victimization.

    The romance of a bohemian art collective on the bad side of the tracks goes out the window when you’re bring DJ’s in out of state.

  26. Finally Mark understands that when regulations raise costs by limiting supply, there is a problem as people evade the regulations, and that this can happen to commercial zoning.. Let’s see if he applies this newfound wisdom to the housing market.

  27. We don’t know what happened? The cause of the fire, and liability falls on will be decided, but we do know what happened. You may be grieving, but you’re also talking about the community, as if that should even become a factor. It’s because of this fake sense of community that people allowed such negligence to occur under their noses.

  28. Would the DNA situation have been more palatable if it came from Almena?

    You should really edit that portion of your reply out. The gossip shouldn’t follow the innocent parties involved all through life.

  29. You’re an idiot if you refuse to focus on these negligent, greedy drug addicts, because these types are always involved in marginal communities and they do a lot of damage. But sure, keep focusing on market forces and things that you can’t change.

  30. Sounds like you aren’t part of this community, and sadly don’t get it. We do have many strong responsible leaders. If you were part of this community your would know that. Your statement proves you aren’t connected in any way, and that your commentary is irrelevant.

  31. Doesn’t sound like you are part of this community, so we don’t expect you to get it. “We Have to Deal”? Doesn’t sound like you have to deal with ANYTHING regarding this situation. If you did you would get that we are STILL GRIEVING, and your rant is completely inappropriate and poorly times, not to mention coming from a place where you have no frame of reference.

  32. We are still grieving, please stop your pointing, it’s really not helping.

    The pointing is what is whipping city officials into a PR frenzy and is forcing them into a position of handing out MURDER CHARGES in order to placate the pointers, before we really know what happened!

  33. Art collectives and the economics that lead many artists to seek out shared spaces in non-code-compliant buildings, often in marginal neighborhoods are topics 100% related to my original comment.

    I read about Almena and Allision and yes they are despicable people. But none of that changes the fact that artists wouldn’t be in such a uninhabitable space if. . .oh never mind. Have a good day – this is my last response to you on this topic.

  34. What’s the point of asking that question? The collectives you describe aren’t the topic of discussion. Three dozen people are dead so far.

    I hope you’ve had a chance to read up on how awful Almena and Allison are. They even laughed when an event performer accidentally set themselves on fire some time ago.

  35. My heart goes out to all the people involved in this terrible tragedy. As a shamanic practitioner, my main thoughts are for the folks that lost their lives. Sometimes when people die in a traumatic way like this it can be very confusing for their soul and they can become stuck between the worlds of the living and the dead. I encourage the community to seek out local shamanic practioners to psychically journey to the site to do any psychopomp work that is needed- assisting those who may need help crossing over. This is very important in a situation like this and is a very real scenario. I pray that no one becomes a ghost in the Ghost Ship. Sometimes souls need help to find their way home…

  36. If anything good comes out of this I hope it is an understanding of safety culture. Safety culture is not about building codes, but responsible adults identifying, understanding, and mitigating risks (and having zero tolerance for the behavior that allowed this to happen).

  37. “It was no longer an art collective, but an illegal housing commune where
    people were exploited to various degrees so that the operators could
    feed their drug habits and lifestyle.”

    While I agree that the operator is a pig, I reject that it was no longer an art collective, and that is based upon what I’ve read.

    But EVEN if I accept what you wrote is true, if it was still an art collective you think that the outcome would have been any different? Art collectives that aren’t exploited also host parties. Art collectives often rent cheap, non-code compliant buildings because that is all they can afford.

  38. I’m not missing any point. I don’t agree with the point. It’s a copout that deflects the responsibility shared by city agencies, the landlady, the venue operators and performers/organizers who’d been there before and who knowingly endangered attendees.

    It was no longer an art collective, but an illegal housing commune where people were exploited to various degrees so that the operators could feed their drug habits and lifestyle.

    The Bay Area has had many places similar to this through the years, but in this case it was intentional neglect and intentional violation of many safety laws that led to this avoidable tragedy. The art collectives to which I’ve belonged have had stringent rules for safety, insurance and legal reasons. But they weren’t run by madmen and tweakers. I’ve walked out of venues like SY because they were unsafe, but most people don’t think of safety when they walk into those places, nor should they have to. When we go out for the evening we aren’t usually thinking, “Gosh, who’s going to exploit me tonight?” Or, “Am I walking into danger?”

  39. Almena & his family are now living in a posh hotel & the Daily Mail has the pix to prove it. He is a greedy guy, an alleged meth addict, and according to his father & mother-in-law a sociopath. The children were taken away from him when his child ate a condom filled with dna from someone else. There were open nails at the place, they lived on the 2nd floor, the stairway was made of wooden pallets.

    Instead of making a safe space for his family, he allegedly stole gas & electricity from surrounding buildings. The warehouse did not have a toilet, let alone sprinklers. He allowed people to smoke in the building & the 2nd exit was blocked off.

    The city of Oakland is not charging him with anything at this time.

    SMDH at ALL of it. There is no excuse, he was making good $, & chose to spend it on expensive classic cars.

  40. Regarding your critique, the writer is a part of the community, and this piece is (beautifully) written from his POV; ergo, he must employ “I.” He in no manner suggests that he is more special than anyone else; this is a lovely insider’s take on the tragedy, and I, for one, am very moved by his words. If you’re not, fine, but you’re not being fair.

    There is and will be plenty of blame to go around, but that’s not what this piece is about.

  41. Spot on, martisco. I turned away from living in places similar to that and attending events in similar locations when I’d see how unsafe they were. This place was deliberately unsafe and neglected since money was used for drugs instead of improvements and Almena is a true hoarder, making things more dangerous.

    The crazy, charismatic leadership of Almena meant that people put up with a lot of crap and their behavior ran the gamut from enabling him to filing criminal complaints about him. But many, many people saw the neglect of his children and did nothing. Many witnessed his mistreatment of lgbtq folks and did nothing to stop it. The sorts of transactional relationships conducted by Almena and Allison create a lot of gray area with other people. Those people aren’t culpable in what happened, but the totality of their complicit behavior, even before this avoidable tragedy – had produced a lot of collateral damage. Now the ultimate horror had occurred as a result of an exploiting narcissist and his partner, both maladjusted addicts.

  42. It’s not economic injustice that led to this. It was hyper-local greed from Almena, Allison and their landlady, as well as the formers’ drug-fueled abuse of trust and negligence toward everyone’s wellbeing. Some of the event folks who’d been there before – djs, promoters and musicians are also culpable because they knew it was a potential death trap.

  43. i don’t read/listen to trolls but i take your word its ugly. that doesn’t change the fact that human safety is a moral responsibility for all. there has been an ‘outside’ arts scene morphing and evolving for 50 years in old buildings around the Bay that are often problematic safety-wise. the GhostShip, one of those, was an irresponsibly dangerous venue for an event no matter how beautiful a creative space it was. and “gentrification” etc. is no excuse for that either. no party, no “scene” is worth three dozen lost lives. be creative and responsible at the same time to find another way to keep it alive. and get political to deal with the social/economic realities that threaten it.

  44. Fair point, I just wanted to highlight that this community isn’t all early 20-somethings, nor btw were the partygoers and promoters. Plenty of over-30s. It’s such a horrendous tragedy, and I am full of sadness and loss, but we cannot pass it off as just the folly of youth.

  45. I read about him yesterday. That doesn’t change a thing in my response to the comment about ‘community’ and ‘community standards.’

    And there is plenty of blame to be shared, including the owner of the building who KNEW that it was being illegally inhabited.

  46. It took 146 death in 1911 at The Triangle Shirtwaist factory in NYC to reform fire and labor laws. Sad that it often takes death to move reform.

  47. How about you pay the rent then big boy? Oh you can’t provide a safe place for the arts personally? Some people are passionate about what they do. Some people live to do what they are passionate about. It’s something you’ll never understand. I truly feel sorry for you and your existence.

  48. “I”, the most used word until the last paragraph is exactly what these “artists” don’t seem to get. The world does not revolve around you. It does appear the same way in front of everyone who is alive. We all live and die the same way. You are not more special than anyone else.

    The community had a chance to self regulate but made a choice to ignore obviously self absorbed scruffy personalities. Maybe in the hope that things would just take care of themselves. Whatever that means. Now we have to deal with 30+ dead people. It all went to shit. No one gives a shit about the “art” you created. It went to flames within minutes. What remains are lost lives and a lot of hate towards the entire “arts” community. Especially as it turns out that the victims had not relationship with this place but were tricked to enter a death trap to pay someone else’s rent.

  49. Well, I’m angry and it has been boiling for years. This isn’t about me – I’m actually a former tech guy.

    I cannot stand our culture’s lopsidedness in the way it values – or should I say doesn’t value artists and creative people. It this economic injustice that led to this tragedy.

    I don’t want to rant too much and spoil this eloquent post, so I’m finished for now.

  50. I guess you were never young. Every young ‘community’ that I participated as a youth lacked the ‘standards’ to which you refer, standards young people often can’t afford.

    Your question is akin to asking a rape victim what she was wearing.

    Shame on you.

  51. this was such a beautiful, eloquent, and needed essay. i’m an artist / vocalist up in portland, disconnected from the bay area scene… but i am friends of friends who are connected to the intimate inner circle community down there, so it does hit rather close to home on a social network level… i too am concerned about how this event is going to impact low income, underground artist culture around the west coast. sending love!

  52. Nice, martisco, appropriate comment right now. Not sure why you feel the need to dish out shame but I guess at least you will feel better.

  53. You clearly know nothing about artist collectives or the effect gentrification has had on the housing market in The Bay Area yet you think you have a right to opinion on what people should and shouldn’t have done? People don’t take risks to live in places like this because it’s all fun and games, they do it because it’s better than living on the street in a tent. Also you don’t know what kind of complaints the residents made or what type of organizing they were doing to improve their living conditions in the space and/or bring it up to code. You have no facts whatsoever about these people or their situation and it is beyond gross you’d resort to victim blaming and shit talking dead people on this post. If anyone is lacking in the understanding of community means it’s you. People are freaking mourning lost friends and you come here with this crap?

  54. It’s a mixed scened, there are plenty of groups and individuals who maintain high safety standards, communicate and train people to those standards, and look out for each other, others don’t, either out of ignorance or something else. A loose community is still a community.

  55. Thanks Mark. The trolling IS disgusting and out of control. Your piece is exactly what we needed to read today.

  56. Actually it doesn’t sound like you’re hoping something like this never happens again, otherwise you wouldn’t drop this preachy victim blaming nonsense on a memorial piece. Because you probably don’t like whatever you thought they stood for, or what kind of people they were, or electronic music, so you invented this little story to justify your irrational disdain for something you don’t understand.

  57. Finally the deep heartache has onset that I felt strange not feeling before now. Very nice article, in light of the circumstances. Thank you.

  58. You don’t have a sense of the economic scene in the Bay or the housing crisis. Educate yourself before leaving insensitive, harmful comments like this on an article so many people will be flocking to hoping to make sense of a random tragedy.

  59. I have only on question: if this was really a community, why weren’t there community standards? Everyone knew this warehouse was a potential death trap. Why didn’t someone in the community put their foot down and tell people not to go to events that were held there?

    That is the difference between a real adult community and an adolescent “scene.” A community (of adults, anyway) looks out for each other. A community has people who aren’t always wanting to run and play; it has leaders who contribute their voices and influence to keeping people safe from scumbag exploiters, as well as entertained. I hope that this community grows up and never allows anything like this warehouse to ever happen again.

  60. Thanks Marke, I wanted to rage puke on the trolls, your tender words were perfect. Still crying, still willing to throw my love into this world.

  61. Don’t lose faith Marke B., healing takes time and art will always find a way. All my love for you and yours.

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