Casualties of the Crisis

The dozens who perished in an Oakland warehouse fire were victims of the affordable housing crisis.

Outside Oakland's "Ghost Ship," before last weekend's lethal fire.

The Oakland arts community is still reeling from the warehouse fire last Friday that took the lives of at least thirty-six people. The city’s arts community is small, and no member of it has been untouched.

The site of the fire, the “Ghost Ship,” was a former warehouse that had been rented out as a studio space but functioned as a joint living-working space for multiple artists. Like so many similar sites, this arrangement was completely off the books. The residents tended to be temporary and transient, filtering in and out over time.

Inside, the Ghost Ship was crammed full of statues, musical instruments, tchotchkes, vintage electronics, bizarre curiosities, and, of course, art supplies. As pictures reveal, it was genuinely beautiful in parts. It was also eternally on the brink of inferno.

Last Friday, the Ghost Ship was throwing a concert and dance party, an event not dissimilar from many it had hosted before. Residents often organized parties there to help cover rent. But this time, something, perhaps an appliance plugged into an overloaded electrical outlet, created a spark that set the building ablaze.

Profiles of the victims show them to be diverse, idealistic, and young. They were musicians, poets, painters, and students. One was a teacher. Several were queer. Their heterogeneity is a testament to the welcoming atmosphere of spaces like the Ghost Ship in cities and towns across the country, where reclaimed industrial spaces point to a world free from transphobia, racism, and instrumentalized education. Like art itself, these sites contain a glimpse at a better world that can be constructed from this one.

And yet, this utopian promise resides in locations indelibly marked by the inequalities of the present. Where wealth is unequally distributed, safety tends to be too. While DIY spaces foster a profound sense of community, this feeling develops in part because denizens thrive together despite the risks. And sometimes, Oakland reminds us, the risks win out.

I have fond memories of some exceptionally dangerous spaces. In my former life as a musician, I was constantly playing shows in obvious firetraps. When I heard about Oakland, one spot in particular came to mind: a low-ceilinged urban basement with questionable wiring, a rickety hand-built stage, some makeshift lighting, and — if I recall correctly — a single exit.

It was the consummate DIY nightclub, hidden below the main floors of a collective home for local artists. Like the Ghost Ship, the main floors of the house were a maze of converted sleeping spaces. One resident had turned a tiny raised alcove into a sleeping bag–length bedroom. I remember thinking it was cozy.

The show was fantastic — a genuine highlight of the time I spent playing gigs. The music was eclectic but unpretentious, and the bands came from all over the country to play in that cramped, hand-wrought venue. The night is etched in my memory. But a single spark could have sent the whole place up in flames — and few of us would have made it out alive.

When you’re part of a DIY arts community, you take special pride in what the community creates, in part because it seems so shocking it was ever created at all. Resources are basically nonexistent, so events are built on the fly and venues are constructed out of thin air. The odds are perpetually stacked against you.

Yet art and music continue to be produced, and with them, a deep sense of collectivity stemming from shared experiences and common struggles. It is a powerful and wonderful sensation — enough to make you forget about the wires sticking out of the wall.

At the same time, artists don’t take up residence in warehouses out of a desire for communal living or an appreciation for deindustrial aesthetics. They do it because that’s what they can afford. Sky-high rents and stagnant wages are overwhelmingly responsible for driving artists into precarious collective living arrangements.

Inside industrial sites nationwide, especially in urban centers like the Bay Area, artists are constructing berths and bedrooms in pursuit of affordable housing. But the Oakland fire serves as a reminder that this sort of workaround from below — an example of the everyday innovation of ordinary people — can only go so far in making these spaces livable. Things are at a breaking point.

In a sane world, no one, artist or otherwise, would have to sacrifice basic safety just to keep a roof over their heads. But like the choice to work or starve, these are the options we are presented with under capitalism. When wages are low and housing costs are high, people have little choice but to roll the dice: adaptation to risk becomes an essential part of maintaining subsistence.

The question is whether adaptation, even the shared adaptation of living-working art collectives, is enough. The Ghost Ship fire shows that it isn’t. Comprehensive solutions are necessary.

When it comes to the housing crisis, the main narrative is usually one of displacement. We talk a lot, rightfully, about gentrification, explaining how absurdly high rents are pushing longtime residents out of their homes. We warn that American cities are becoming playgrounds for the super rich. This narrative is compelling and accurate, and we should not discard it.

But the events in Oakland also demonstrate that the housing crisis is a crisis of public safety — it’s something that puts working people, as a collective unit, at increased risk of bodily harm and even violent death. Lax regulations, underfunded public housing, landlord-friendly public policy, lack of rent control — these are exponentially increasing the risks associated with just trying to get by as a working-class person in the US.

Of course, “public safety” is already being cited as a rationale for cleansing sites like the Ghost Ship to make way for further capital accumulation. There were inklings of this even in early news articles about the fire, which made repeated reference to unanswered official complaints about trash and unlicensed construction. The site, in this telling, was an eyesore and a menace that the authorities should have dealt with long ago.

It doesn’t take a cynic to see a narrative being constructed in favor of “redevelopment,” with its attendant evictions and demolitions. Whatever the rhetoric of local officials, the safety produced by razing DIY art spaces and cracking down on undocumented renters will be anything but public. It will be a privatized safety — an enclosed security in the service of luxury condos and artisanal cupcake dealers. It will not be a safety for us.

This rush to implement punitive measures can only be combated by embracing the collectivity that grows in shared art spaces — and scaling it dramatically upward. I can think of no greater path to true public safety than universal housing, which we should start seeing not as some utopian goal but as an absolute necessity, the only legitimate solution to the current crisis.

A housing guarantee would be a radically different starting point for the construction of artistic communities: indeed, it diverges from the status quo so profoundly that it’s difficult to imagine. But what a way to unleash the creative forces we see at work in spaces like the Ghost Ship — and what an appropriate memorial to the thirty-six victims: casualties of a fire, casualties of the crisis.