Oakland’s Ghost Ship and the Future of Artist Warehouses

artists-warehouse

Warehouse Art work / Don McCullough

December 5, 2016; Baltimore Sun

In the aftermath of the fire in the Ghost Ship artists building in Oakland, California, it was clear that there was not only loss of life, but also the potential loss of a way of life. This tragedy is an indictment on the need for DIY artist buildings and warehouses that emerged all across the country in response to the high costs of space. Housing options too often must perform triple-duty as live/work/performance spaces, providing a way for artists not just to pursue their art but to do so in community in urban areas. But some of these spaces are not zoned as living quarters nor are they always completely up to code.

Otis Taylor, a self-confessed aficionado of such places, writes for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I know there’s a fatal flaw in the scene that—and this can’t be ignored—has produced several safe havens for creativity, self-expression and the celebration of weirdness. The fire that caused the unnecessary loss of life won’t ever be forgotten.

Likewise, we can’t forget about the resilient artists and musicians who set up bedrooms in their studios inside warehouse spaces. They struggle to make ends meet while creating work that makes the city cool and desirable. They are an important part of Oakland culture, and it’s time that we recognize and support their effort.

Instead of cleaning up the warehouses by evicting people, I urge the city to craft a plan to make these spaces legally habitable and affordable for artists.

We don’t need another early-morning reminder, another scene of cyclonic, charcoal-colored smoke rushing out of a building that people could not escape.

But Oakland needs artistic outlets where original experiences are offered, because that’s why they were there.

A few days after the Oakland fire, police evicted those who worked in the Bell Foundry building in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. City officials said they found safety violations when they responded to a Monday morning complaint. The building has now been condemned and boarded up after tenants, including a nonprofit opera company, were given an hour to gather up their belongings and vacate the premises.

In Chicago, where such warehouse spaces are common, city building inspectors have already been monitoring for code violations, last year shutting down a warehouse in Roscoe Village. Fire marshals and other city inspectors are doing their duty, in the case of the Ghost Ship fire, too little too late. Should other city and civic leaders do their duty as well by helping evicted artists find new communities in which to live and work safely?—Ruth McCambridge