Vibrant arts scene helped re-energize Oakland, but Burning Man Death-fire spreads fear of crackdown
Most dead bodies are tattoo marked and Millennial demographic
OAKLAND — Chris Dunn stood on International Boulevard on Sunday, across from the charred artist warehouse where dozens of people perished in a deadly fire Friday night, and shared a fear that is on the minds of many in this city’s celebrated arts community.
As they grieved for friends killed in the inferno at the Ghost Ship warehouse on 31st Avenue, artists, musicians and partygoers from east to west Oakland couldn’t help but worry about a backlash of building inspections at other warehouse collectives.
“There’s going to be a draconian overreaction to shut everything down,” said Dunn, 42, who has attended events at the collective in the Fruitvale neighborhood. “That would only add to the tragedy.”
“People are getting worried (the fire) is gonna be used against us,” said Katelyn Charvoz, of West Oakland. The 25-year-old said she’s been involved in the music/party scene since she was about 15. “The city’s gonna paint us as some ugly, crusty, punk kids that are up to no good. If they buy up all the warehouses on every street and kick everyone out, it will just hurt the arts community here.”
The tragic warehouse fire is roiling an already simmering tension between official Oakland and a vibrant, free-wheeling arts community that has given life to many of its former industrial neighborhoods in recent years. Already, rising rents were threatening to dislodge some of these artistic centers; now concerns about lack of proper permitting and unsafe conditions, like what existed at the Ghost Ship, could add to the pressure.
As far back as the 1980s, artists’ live and work spaces have been hives of creativity inside converted industrial buildings left empty after many of Oakland’s blue-collar manufacturing companies closed. Large, open and dirt-cheap, the vacant buildings of West Oakland and East Oakland were attractive to artists and developers desperate for tenants.
They became homes to punks, sculptors, musicians, Burning Man artists, people in construction — makers of things responsible for creating the First Friday festival and putting Oakland on the international art scene map. Parties are a constant theme, and some raise money to pay rent like the Ghost Ship event Friday night.
A lot has changed since the first and second wave of artists came to Oakland. A round of development ushered in during the Mayor Jerry Brown era converted some of those former manufacturing sites into gleaming new condos. This time around, rents are skyrocketing, and landlords are finding ways to evict or push out artists for a new wave of tech and wealthier residents willing to pay more.
Mayors from Brown to Libby Schaaf have embraced Oakland’s thriving underground art scene and its more recent transformation to a global happening place that has garnered the East Bay city international attention and helped make it a tourist destination.
Schaaf often arrives at parades and other events in a fire-breathing art car in the shape of a large snail, fabricated by Burning Man artist Jon Sarriugarte, and has attended events in converted arts spaces around town. She has pledged to do all she can to preserve and promote the arts and spaces for artists in Oakland.
So Friday’s tragedy has put city officials in a bind: Red-tagging unsafe or unpermitted buildings used by artists will likely reduce an already scarce supply of affordable space. But ignoring code violations puts residents at risk.
In January, Oakland city building inspectors deemed 1919 Market St., a large, two-story warehouse hub in West Oakland unsafe because of illegal construction and ordered the metal and wood workers to leave. In May, residents at Ghost Town Gallery on San Pablo Avenue, a 12-year-old warehouse shared mostly by musicians, were evicted. The landlord claimed the construction done inside by tenants was unsafe, but after doing some minor renovations, the place is advertising for new tenants — at a much loftier price.
An ad on Craigslist last month listed the rent as three times what the Ghost Town Gallery residents paid and boasted of having space for a yoga studio.
“They don’t want you to have affordable rent,” said Damon Gallagher, who was the master tenant at Ghost Town and has since left Oakland. “There was blood dripping out of their mouths, dollar signs in their eyes.”
The 1919 Market evictions had artists who live in warehouses around the city worried that their buildings were next. Now they wonder if that was one reason why no one at Ghost Ship answered the door when city inspectors showed up Nov. 17.
“Who is going to want to call inspectors and risk losing their space?” Dunn wondered.
On Sunday Schaaf was asked how the city will balance the need for artists’ safety with making sure they aren’t forced out. She pledged her support for the artists, and said, ironically, that on Tuesday the city will announce a significant philanthropic grant to address recent displacement of Oakland artists, an event scheduled before Friday’s horrific fire.
“The issue of creating safe, vibrant spaces for Oakland’s artist community is a priority not just of me as mayor but of this community,” Schaaf said. “This is work that’s been going on for a long time and we’re going to stay focused on accomplishing that in a way that makes sense both for Oakland and also for all the different stakeholders involved.”
Sarriugarte, 53, an artist, blacksmith and longtime part of Oakland’s vibrant arts community as well as the Burning Man crowd, wants to make sure artists using warehouses are not painted with a broad brush.
“It’s a new generation of warehouse dwelling that’s different than what we did when we were younger,” Sarriugarte said. “We were a more independent group and we used very large spaces with very few people. Now you see more communal living, not a very big space with a lot of people in it.
“But if we start sending in all the city agencies going after each space, it will be the demise of underground spaces, which have been a very important incubator for all the beautiful stuff that happens here,” he said.
In Oakland, there’s a range of communities using converted warehouses, groups that often overlap. Some are organized, permitted artist collectives engaging in legal warehouse use for work spaces, gallery shows and events. At Vulcan, an East Oakland warehouse with just under 60 units, fire sprinklers were installed earlier this year and fire paths are clearly marked, said resident Darin Marshall, 47.
Then there are the so-called DIY collectives – the underground arts scene, often operating in illegal live/work situations like Ghost Ship. And there’s also the underground music scene, holding parties and electronic music shows in some of these spaces that are not permitted or up to code.
“In 2010, 2012, there were a lot more underground performance spaces and venues,” said Marshall Brooks, 31, a West Oakland resident and party thrower. “It used to be we could do it in places where it’s not so dangerous. We didn’t have to use places where red flags abound. But now everybody gets kicked out of warehouses and they turn them into condos.”
Already, some in the “Burning Man hierarchy” are talking about how to facilitate improvements to some of the illegal warehouse set-ups without getting the city involved, Sarriugarte said.
To this end, Michael Snook, founder of the NIMBY collective in East Oakland, reached out to artists on Facebook Sunday. NIMBY started in a West Oakland warehouse in 2004 and was forced to move after an untended candle sparked a smoky fire in 2008 and inspectors shut it down for lack of permits and sprinklers. The city helped the group relocate to a new space in East Oakland, but it took months and a $30,000 permitting nightmare before they could rest easy.
“If anyone lives in a live work space and would like it inspected without worry of all hell breaking loose, contact me,” Snook wrote on Facebook. “I can hook you up with a private professional that knows all the rules but doesn’t work for the city of Oakland. There is a fee and all I ask is you do what he says. Please.”