DIY in Crisis: Has Oakland's Ghost Ship Fire Jeopardized the Underground?

Tragic blaze has given way to weeks of venue closures and evictions nationwide. Will the scene recover?

The tragic December 2nd fire at Oakland's Ghost Ship space has had serious repercussions for DIY venues across the country. Credit: Illustration by Ryan Casey

The flames had barely been extinguished at Ghost Ship, the Oakland live-work warehouse space where 36 people lost their lives during a December 2nd party, when officials began investigating and, in some cases, evicting residents from DIY spaces nationwide.

Three days after the blaze, officials condemned the Bell Foundry, a venue, studio and living space in North Baltimore that also houses nonprofit the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. The same day, December 5th, the Nashville Fire Department shut down a Nobunny performance at the all-ages venue Drkmttr, and warned the Glass Mènage that any future performances would be promptly halted. The Denver Fire Department and Police Department shuttered the sister venues Rhinoceropolis and Glob on December 8th, and evicted 11 total people who lived there. In neighboring Colorado Springs, the fire department shuttered local fixture Flux Capacitor because it didn't have the proper zoning to host public events. Several underground venues in Los Angeles, including Purple 33, have been given the ax. And the list continues to grow.

Besides spurring conversations about fire safety and building inspections, the Ghost Ship tragedy has cast a particularly harsh spotlight on the nation's thriving but consistently ephemeral ecosystem of DIY performance and living spaces. Nihar Bhatt, a survivor of the fire and a musician who records under the name Nine, likens DIY's current reckoning to "almost like a Triangle Shirtwaist Fire for the electronic-music scene." Says Bhatt, "I saw somebody make that comparison, where in some ways this thing is where people work on the margins, where it's not safe, and are cultural producers who do play this essential role in the process of displacement and gentrification – you know, doing this cultural work but forced into the margins in an unsafe space, then trapped inside and burned."

DIY advocates like Jes Skolnik, Managing Editor at Bandcamp Daily, say that these spaces offer burgeoning creatives, many of them marginalized, rare opportunities to thrive, especially in prohibitively expensive cities like San Francisco. "Gaps in culture is really the key: 'My voice isn't being heard; I'm not being represented; well, I'm going to change that myself,'" Skolnik says. "The power of that is just so immense, and also knowing that you don't just have to do it as one atomized person. There are communities of people who are trying to do the same thing." 

An undetermined number of DIY spaces in the Bay Area have been served eviction notices in the days following the fire. The East Bay Times reports that at least four warehouse spaces have been targeted. Others have been red-tagged, like Qilombo, a black cultural community center (despite the fact that no one resides there), and Burnt Ramen, a warehouse venue in neighboring Richmond, California, that's been operating since 1998. SF Gate reports that 30 tenants (many of them artists) residing at Richmond's Bridge Storage and ArtSpace were given eviction notices earlier this month, as well. Sam Lefebvre, an Oakland-based journalist who works in an art studio complex that's also currently under scrutiny from the city, says he witnessed one inspection that suggested conflicting directives are spurring the ongoing crackdown. "I can say that the inspector, before they'd even looked around, went: 'Well, you know, we've gotta get y'all out of here,'" Lefebvre says. "That's really frustrating, because that's contrary to what you're hearing from top officials right now. There's a really big dissonance between what top officials are saying and what the reality is of these inspections."

That dissonance doesn't just appear to be limited to Oakland. The Denver Fire Department cited fire-code violations, as well as the space not being zoned for residential use, as the reason Rhinoceropolis and Glob closed, according to a press release. Authorities said they were unaware that people were living at the two spaces (it's worth mentioning that while the block where Rhinoceropolis and Glob are located had been sold, months to years remain on the lease). But according to Rhinoceropolis founder Milton Melvin "Buddy" Croissant III, "the landlord was fully aware that we were living in his property – we built rooms to code, made sure there was safe exit and maintained fire extinguishers." Inspection documents obtained by local news outlet Denver7 show the space passing their fire inspection this past summer – as it had for the past 11 years.

While some of these inspections seem to have been randomly conducted, authorities say they received tips or complaints that led them to investigate certain DIY spaces. Officials told The Baltimore Sun that the Bell Foundry's inspection came in response to a complaint, and was not related to the Ghost Ship fire. An anonymous email from "A Concerned Parent" was sent to city officials and members of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry's administration, and is what sent the fire marshal to Drkmttr, as Nashville Scene notes. A spokesperson for the Denver Police Department told Denver7 that they received an anonymous tip for a "possible activity of concern" happening at Rhinoceropolis.

A handful of authorities deny that these sudden inspections are a response to the Ghost Ship fire, yet others say the en masse evictions are directly related to the tragedy. "Our community ... is still in shock in the wake of Oakland and trying to sort of navigate our feelings and see how we can be of service of each other," says Bree Davies, a writer and founder of the Denver-based Titwrench Collective. "And all of a sudden, the fire department is knocking on the door of every DIY space they can find. And I've seen reports that they said it was not in response to Oakland, but I had heard otherwise. It's clear what cities are doing." 

Drkmttr founder Kathryn Edwards says that while she wasn't present at the venue when the fire marshal came through earlier this month, she, "ended up speaking to one of the officers on the phone ... and they cited Oakland" as a reason for canceling future shows at the space, located in a building zoned for commercial use.

Qué Pequeño, a multimedia artist and Baltimore native who had lived in the Bell Foundry since April, said that fire marshals and housing inspectors on the scene used the Ghost Ship tragedy as an excuse to evict residents from the building. "They were saying they gave us an hour, but they gave us 20 minutes [to leave]," he tells Rolling Stone. "Our police officer, by the way, who was enforcing that, was yelling at us using the Ghost Ship, saying: 'Get the fuck out of this place, you squatters. ... I do not plan on picking up your dead bodies because of something like Oakland.'"

"A police officer was yelling at us: 'I do not plan on picking up your dead bodies because of something like Oakland.'" –Qué Pequeño

Authorities might also be receiving aid from a group of trolls active in the notorious "politically incorrect" 4Chan thread /pol/. The day following the Ghost Ship fire, users began mobilizing to file complaints about similar spaces in their respective cities, posting names, addresses and information. "Flushing out these leftspaces sounds like a fun pre-inauguration project for /pol/," wrote one user. "Even if we don't actually do anything, we can easily create the appearance that we are, which will put a dent in these sordid pits of depravity." A "Pepe the Fire Safety Frog" meme also began making the rounds online, encouraging such action with a five-step guide how to report DIY spaces to authorities in the name of "fire safety."

Some believe that these inspections are merely an acceleration of the inevitable, though. "I don't think Ghost Ship happened and now there's mass panic," says the founder of one current New York City DIY space, who wished not to be named. "It's more like Ghost Ship is expediting something that was happening anyway for a while now." He notes, however, that he's "definitely noticed an increase in police activity on [the venue's] block" in the weeks following the Oakland fire, due to what he believes is "a citywide mandate to investigate certain spaces."

Others believe well-timed opportunism has had a hand in the ongoing investigations. "[Some] property owners are seizing hysteria and panic right now as an opportunity to oust tenants of properties that are more valuable after they redevelop, and they're able to do so right now in the guise of safety," says Lefebvre. Sheer fear may also be a driver. "The thing is, I understand where the landlords are coming from to a degree," says Seung Lee, a Berkeley-based freelance journalist and survivor of the Ghost Ship fire. "They just saw the largest fire in Oakland in a century [and] they're scared shitless about their property being a safety hazard ... but it's coming at such a rapid pace for a community that's so sensitive about displacement. It's another scar."

Evictions are a sore subject in the Bay Area, particularly in Oakland (the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project reports more than 2,400 evictions in the area from January 2014 to January 2015). "If you live in the Bay, and especially if you're involved in the arts community, you know dozens of people who have been evicted," says Nihar Bhatt. He says that the dance-music event at Ghost Ship on the night of the fire likely would have happened at one of three other safe and compliant warehouses – had residents of all of them not been evicted within the past year. "It's not very difficult to connect the dots between the housing crisis and the tragedy that happened," Bhatt says. "It's a jump away. The causes are so unbelievably direct."

"It's not very difficult to connect the dots between the housing crisis and the tragedy that happened." –Nihar Bhatt

Zeph Fishlyn, an artist and activist who used the West Oakland DIY space LoBot Gallery as a studio, says that both rising property values and gentrification catalyzed its closure earlier this year. "At LoBot, we didn't get a lot of city scrutiny or anything like that until the whole neighborhood started shifting around us," Fishlyn says. "When I moved in, it was like, 'OK, there are lofts opening up a block away, they're sprucing up the park next door that's always been kind of shitty, planting trees and mulching. This isn't really for us.' We know this is not for the people who have been living here forever. This is for the people they're getting ready for. We can see the bulldozer on its way; it's just not in sight yet."

The same goes for cities that have experienced a population boom in recent years, like Denver. "You can draw your own conclusions, but living here and experiencing it first hand, it looks and feels like an attack on lower income individuals and individuals that are particularly marginalized, whether that's in the community in general or when we're looking at Rhino and Glob, the residents who are artists as well," says Bree Davies, noting that the recent development of a $38 million brewery, luxury apartments and markets in River North, the area where Rhinoceropolis and Glob are located, is evidence that "gentrification has literally gone up to their buildings."

The Bell Foundry's Qué Pequeño says that "in my time living [there] I would notice people coming around looking at [it], and I knew these weren't people that weren't interested in anything but knocking it down and turning it into, like ... a Chipotle, something that contributes to gentrification."

While DIY venues like the Bell Foundry and Ghost Ship in particular were havens for LGBT and artists of color, these spaces are the nucleus of a complex cultural ecosystem. Unsurprisingly, the debate over DIY is also inciting larger critical conversations about gentrification and displacement. Kathryn Edwards and the other members of the Drkmttr Collective, who operate in a space housed in a historically black neighborhood in Nashville, have been working with their neighbors "since day one," says the booker, who is herself African-American, in an effort to halt negative impacts on the area. "We've gone around, introduced ourselves, we've had barbecues and art shows and have had their kids over to look at things ... just trying to make sure our impact on that neighborhood is as little as possible that can cause any [gentrification] problems there."

"If our response to losing our spaces is to just take over another neighborhood, and if we're displacing another group another group of people with less power and resources, we're not actually doing anybody a favor," Zeph Fishlyn says. "We're doing a favor to the gentrifiers who are right behind us. We need to figure out a more strategic way to be in cahoots with other folks who need to defend their housing." 

"Displacement in Oakland is a decades-long problem ... one that disproportionately affects people of color, and on that tip, it's a decades-long problem with a decades-long history of resistance," Sam Lefebvre says. "Artists are trying to get politically organized right now, but they need to acknowledge the context of their struggle, and they need to learn from the decades-long history of resistance that preceded their arrival."

Yet "it's communities like these that grow the roots that allow a city to form its own artistic identity," as Lightning Bolt's Brian Chippendale wrote following the Ghost Ship fire in a provocative Creative Independent essay called "The Paradox of Life Affirming Death Traps." But it can be difficult to get people on board to support these causes, which are often avant-garde, commercially unviable, or both. When Nihar Bhatt first moved to San Francisco, he and a friend approached various legal venues in an attempt to throw an ongoing party that first centered on DIY electronic, minimal synth and post-punk music. "We went around looking for an official venue to sponsor us and nobody would," he says. So he and his friends took matters into their own hands, started throwing parties, and met like-minded individuals. In other words, a scene was born.

Artists accept the risks, inhabiting so-called death traps, in lieu of going legit. Why? It's often a question of means. The unnamed founder of a New York-based DIY space says: "We don't thrive off the danger of that. It's not like, 'Oh, man, we're having this great show in this really tenuous space. You know, this is so sick, there are no fire exits, this is the thrill of skydiving,'" he laughs bitterly. Obtaining the necessary licenses and permits to operate these spaces is also astronomically expensive. Tyler Kane, a booker and co-owner at the former Brooklyn DIY space Aviv, and a talent buyer for the recently reopened Brooklyn Bazaar, estimates that launching a space in the legal way costs roughly $500,000 to $2 million – before doors even open. "You don't even know what you're in for; you don't know what to expect," he says. "Even when I was watching Brooklyn Bazaar [before re-opening], they were just bleeding money. Soundproofing? That's so expensive, it's insane. Your system, a backline … there's so many things."

Jes Skolnik, along with a board of four other DIY veterans, has been trying to legally open an all-ages, ADA-compliant venue in Chicago named Pure Joy for three years. Though they have a concrete business plan, and a considerable amount of startup cash thanks to crowdfunding efforts, banks wouldn't give them a loan for the space, citing the financial crisis as the reason they were funding less nonprofits (one of the Pure Joy board members ended up taking out a personal loan instead). What's more, Skolnik says that a loophole in Chicago commercial real-estate law allows the owners of vacant buildings to profit from property taxes. And since that number is based on property values instead of market values, the property tax offset often ends up being more than tenants' rent, and there's no incentive for landlords to rent out the space to DIY ventures like Skolnik's. "We've looked at about a hundred spaces at this point," Skolnik says. "And it's basically the same story every time: They would make a lot more money leaving the property vacant."

The week following the fire, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf granted $1.7 million worth of affordable spaces for arts organizations. Yet while intentions behind such efforts are ultimately good, resources for artists are often distributed disproportionately. Pequeño says that residences in Baltimore's City Arts apartment buildings are rented by "white MICA students" and that the applications "deny marginalized people." In Chicago, Skolnik says that artist grants awarded under current mayor Rahm Emanuel are frequently given to "people already in the established gallery system (including white Art Institute students who are new to the city)" in an effort to make the city a prime arts destination for tourists. "There's a whole value system with art that totally devalues art for the people by the people," Skolnik says. "That's what our federal and local arts funding is set up for."

Still, some artists and activists see the value in working with the powers that be rather than against them. "If something needs to be fixed or changed, do it – don't get shut down," says Ryan Pelham, who runs Nashville's Glass Mènage. "Making sure the place is running so artists can continue to have an opportunity is more important than defying city officials so you can feel like a rebel." In addition to petitioning local government officials and backing local, arts-supporting officials with votes, Skolnik advises people to get involved on a human level first with their communities. "Instead of immediately calling the police in the area or filing a complaint, try going over to that space, get involved in that reciprocal neighborhood community way," Skolnik says.

On a more grassroots level, the Ghost Ship tragedy has led to increased solidarity within the DIY arts community. Since the fire, dozens of shared resources have been making the rounds online, including a "Harm Reduction for DIY Venues" Google Doc outlining inexpensive, immediate ways venues can improve their safety standards. People with electrical, architectural and project management knowledge are coming forward, as well, offering their services pro bono or teaching others skills they can put to use in the future. A YouCaring fundraiser in support of those affected by the fire has already raised more than $40,000. "All of the mutual aid I've seen ... is incredible," Lefebvre says, of Oakland in particular.

To some, it may seem that DIY can't go on. But these sorts of spaces are transient by nature, springing up, shuttering and transforming with time. What will likely change, however, is the visibility of these venues. "We're going to have to go totally aboveground and totally underground at the same time," Bree Davies says of the future. "One of them being the legitimacy of all-ages spaces. And the other side of it I see is going completely underground and going back to the old days of shows where you weren't on the Internet. I think we're going to see smaller house shows, super secret."

It's worth remembering that these super-secret shows are where many popular left-of-center artists, Dan Deacon and Animal Collective among them, cut their teeth. "We really need people with institutional power to care about local art, to care about how vital these communities are and how life-saving they are," Skolnik says. "When we lose spaces left and right, we lose the space I walked into as an 11-year-old who already had a drug problem ... and found something that got me clean because I cared about it that much. I'm not unusual in that way. I think that all of us who love and spend time in these spaces are brought there because we need them to survive."