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2016 Oakland Ghost Ship Fire

article by Greg Cutler for ArtsEarth | photo source: Los Angeles Times

“On December 2, 2016, at approximately 11:30 p.m. PST, a fire broke out in a warehouse, known as Oakland Ghost Ship, that was converted to an unpermitted artist collective and to unpermitted dwelling units in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. At the time of the fire, the warehouse was hosting a permit-lacking concert promoted by the house music record label 100% Silk.

At least 36 people were killed in the fire, the deadliest in the history of Oakland. It was also one of the deadliest building fires in the United States in the last 50 years, the deadliest in California since the 1906 earthquake and the deadliest mass-casualty event in Oakland since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.”
— from Wikipedia

The fire in Oakland highlights an issue that we have come to almost take for granted here in the Bay Area. The people who make this place a place worth living (artists) can only afford to do so in places that they create themselves. Artists scrape out a crevice in the city and fill it with their souls. Say what you will about the individuals who lived at Ghost Ship, but even among the creative, who can make something out of almost nothing, the resources to do so in the Bay Area continue to evaporate. Ghost Ship was obviously not the safest building project. But it was all they had. Now it’s gone…with some of the lives who helped shape it.

Artists are the most resourceful people in the world. When I was in my 20’s, I lived in a storefront in the Tenderloin with some friends. We built our own bedrooms, a shower, a kitchen with a sink, stove, oven, and microwave. We each had an art studio in which to create our hearts’ desire. None of it was permitted by the city. It was mostly built to code, however. One of the guys living there was a carpenter. We had wooden OSB partitions for our studios. There was a lot of unpainted wood in there. We all smoked cigarettes. It too, was a tinderbox ready to go up in flames. We too, had a gas heater that heated the table at which we ate our meals. We too had fire extinguishers placed all over the place. There were only two exits. One in the front and one in the back. Neither of them had safety latches (the kind with the paddle to open the door to escape). They were locked with a big padlock from the inside that you had to open with a key. We were safe from thieves, but we were not safe from fires. The police knew we were there. We weren’t drug dealers, so they let us exist. We did not engage in criminal activity. Our very existence was a crime.

Our landlords, who knew what we were doing and turned a blind eye, should have helped us get permitted for what we were doing. They were slum lords and they knew it. They were waiting for the real-estate prices to go up so that they could sell the place for more money. And that is exactly what they did.

We were artists living the dream. We were lucky to have no incidents of fire while we lived there. To us, it represented freedom. It represented a way to live in our beloved city of San Francisco and create art. It was the only way we could do it. Ghost Ship was the only way they could do it too.

The situation screams for a change. There needs to be a better way for artists, of any age, to receive the resources to live and work in the Bay Area (or anywhere for that matter). Should only the wealthy be able to make art? Is art a leisure activity? Is art a side project? Is art something you do after you retire, or have been the president?

This problem of artists not having a safe place to live and work is not a new problem, but it can, some day, be an old problem. We have an opportunity to create a world in which we look back and say, “Remember when artists didn’t have a safe place to live and make their art?” “Yeah, that sucked.”

So how do we fix this problem? With money. That’s the simple answer. How much money? A lot. Who’s going to pay for these places where artists can live and work safely? We are. The people who give a shit. Will it be hard to do? Yes, but we can do it.

At the moment, ArtsEarth is a very small organization, but we are growing every year. Every year we get more people interested in what we are doing. We attract more donors, staff, and volunteers. We are building a community. We and other organizations like ArtsEarth can make a difference.

ArtsEarth provides a way for artists to get their events promoted on the web for free. Eventually, we want to have a space where artists can live and work safely. And after that, we want to build more places worldwide where artists can live and work safely, until all of the artists in the world are living and working safely.

Our deepest condolences go to those who lost a loved one in the fire. Please know that the art community is thinking of you during this time of loss.


Greg Cutler

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