Our Backyard: Disasters Waiting to Happen

There are dozens of large, unsafe—and vibrant—living spaces in Oakland like the one that became engulfed in a deadly fire Friday night. Unfortunately, fixing them could also result in mass evictions.


Courtesy of the Oakland Fire Department

Anyone who has paid attention during the past decade to Oakland’s underground warehouse scene has been dreading this day. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of large, unsafe—and vibrant—living spaces in Oakland like the one that became engulfed in flames late Friday night, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 people.

Every weekend there’s an underground warehouse music show somewhere in Oakland, oftentimes, several of them. It’s easy to find fliers around town advertising these shows or postings on Facebook about them. These big house parties are typically in old warehouses or other buildings that have been illegally converted into living spaces and artistic venues for musicians and artists. Inhabitants charge for these shows and use the proceeds to pay rent and buy food. They’re among the last affordable places for artists and musicians in a rapidly gentrifying city. And they’re integral to Oakland’s DIY artistic fabric; they’re key to what makes Oakland cool and why so many young people want to live here.

But they’re also death traps.

Like the so-called Ghost Ship space that burned so tragically on Friday night in Oakland's Fruitvale district, many of these places have no sprinkler systems and no smoke alarms and are riddled with building code violations. For those who have attended shows at these spaces over the years, it’s not unusual to have seen exposed electrical wiring dangling from the ceiling amid water leaks. According to some reports today, the Ghost Ship was a cluttered labyrinth with a makeshift staircase of wooden pallets, and bars on some of the second-story windows that blocked eventgoers and residents from jumping to safety.

But over the years, the city has mostly ignored these warehouse spaces and allowed them to thrive. And that’s been just fine with the people who inhabit them and pay to see shows in them. Why? Because they know if they complain about how unsafe these spots are, then it will likely result in the places being shut down and hundreds of people being evicted. Indeed, local journalists over the years have had great difficulty chronicling these spaces because their inhabitants and patrons are simply too afraid to talk for fear of what will happen.

But in the days and weeks ahead, Mayor Libby Schaaf and the Oakland City Council are sure to come under intense pressure to fix these spaces in the wake of one of the deadliest disasters in city history. It’s vital, however, that they not overreact and to remember that we’re in an extreme housing crisis, and that closing these buildings or forcing them to come up to code will likely result in lots of people not only losing their homes and being pushed out of the city, but Oakland losing a not insignificant portion of its artistic soul.

“These spaces are really important places for musicians and artists—they’re vital places; important places,” said Kathleen Richards, former co-editor and music editor of the East Bay Express, who wrote an in-depth piece on Oakland’s underground music scene in 2011 (disclosure: Richards and I worked together at the Express for years). “There’s gotta be some way to make these places safe and not evict everyone at the same time.”

In some ways, the rise of these illegal spaces is a result of the extreme lack of affordable housing in Oakland. The city and the rest of the Bay Area have failed to build enough housing to keep up with the growing population and the economic boom. The dearth of housing has caused rents to soar as people have competed feverishly for a limited number of living spaces. Artists are often among the first to be displaced. So many of them have banded together over the years and created their own spaces by transforming warehouses and other older buildings to serve both as their homes and their artistic venues.

These art and music spaces are especially crucial because opening legitimate ones is prohibitively costly. In other words, these spaces are the epitome of Oakland DIY culture, of creative people with low incomes responding to an overly expensive world. In some respects, these communes resemble large indoor shelters.

One long-term solution is building lots more housing to meet demand. And another is for Oakland, a city with a rich history of arts, culture, and music, to invest in and actually sustain its artistic community. But in the short-term, the city must find smart innovative ways to make its underground warehouse/living spaces safe--so that Friday night's tragedy does not result in yet more people losing their homes.


Our Backyard is an occasional column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

Published online on Dec. 3, 2016 at 2:22 p.m. 

Updated Dec. 4 at 12:30 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect the fact that authorities now say at least 30 people died in the fire. 

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