The Oakland warehouse fire hasn’t stopped a creative underclass from finding artistic kinship—and a place to call home—in so-called “unsafe” spaces
It’s been a surreal week for Bay Area musician Mykee Ramen, who lost a friend in the fire that killed 36 during an electronic music show at Ghost Ship—an Oakland warehouse that had been converted into an underground artist collective/living space/concert venue. Ramen’s former housemate Sam “Peaches” was also in attendance and has been placed in a medically induced coma with severe lung burns. Then, a few days ago, Ramen watched in horror as Tom Butt, mayor of Richmond, California, where Ramen owns the all-ages DIY venue and living space Burnt Ramen, said on national television that Ramen’s venue would be “the next Ghost Ship.”
“The mayor called us out by our address, and it’s been a media frenzy around our house lately,” says Ramen. Though Burnt Ramen has never shied away from its rough-and-tumble reputation—its website features a photo of a bloody toilet and the tongue in cheek tagline “an unsafe place for all ages”—the venue now faces a fire inspection on December 16. Ramen says his housemates, many of whom are mourning partners and friends who were lost in the fire, are frustrated with the camera crews still parked outside their home.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]No matter what it was like inside, it was one thousand times safer than the street outside.[/quote]
To Ramen, who says his venue was recently inspected, Butt’s assessment was unfair, revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of what places like Ghost Ship and Burnt Ramen provide for thousands of people across a variety of intersecting communities. The low monthly rent—about $300-$600 in an area where one-bedrooms under $3,000 are rare—is only one factor.
Matt Saincome, former frontman of straight-edge punk group Zero Progress and one-time music editor of SF Weekly, used to play at Burnt Ramen regularly. “No matter what Burnt Ramen was like inside, it was one thousand times safer than the street outside. The idea that kids were inside there making music instead of outside on the street—it seems like the wrong target,” he says. “I grew up every weekend going out to Oakland, Richmond, wherever, to these warehouse spots where artist communities were thriving.”
Ghost Ship was originally zoned as a commercial space—in other words, not designated for dwelling units—and the space itself did not have multiple exits, accessible windows, or a sprinkler system. Burnt Ramen, on the other hand, has many exits and windows, and was originally zoned as a multi-family residential space. When it comes to hosting music events, the lack of a commercial designation brings up questions about whether it’s legal for Burnt Ramen to host shows or not, or whether or not the space is meeting appropriate standards.
Saincome recalls a similar story he once reported about Submission, an art gallery in San Francisco that wasn’t permitted to host live music shows. Because they were in “a bad part of the Mission,” they got away with doing so until a fire inspection by the city resulted in a demand for “50,000 dollars worth of updates, including intense sprinkler systems and moving walls. … They tried to raise money and do the right thing, but ran out of time. They lost their lease.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]If you don’t understand anything about this world, your first reaction is going to be: ‘Why don’t you let the inspectors in?’ It’s a very quaint notion.[/quote]
David Keenan, an organizer with Omni Commons, a community center and social justice collective specializing in zoning and permit issues, says that these types of challenges are common. “There are so many interlocking problems that are fundamental, it’s hard to know where to begin. In almost every case, there are existing code violations to the building before they even move in,” he says. “In my experience, most of those landlords don’t want enforcement or inspectors or any of that stuff.”
“In commercial leases, there’s a boilerplate template that says, ‘You can’t do illegal things in here,” says Keenan. “If you decide that you don’t get a permit to modify that space, just by building that loft, technically you’ve broken the lease. That gives landlords tremendous power, because they already know that you’ve done something against the lease and it makes it safe for them to terminate it at any time,” something a number of landlords in the Bay Area and elsewhere have been accused of doing in order to convert affordable housing into luxury units.
Omni Commons needed about $60,000 to get its building up to code, along with a landlord’s approval and multiple permits and inspections by the city, says Keenan.
“In a way, it’s a city-created problem,” says Saincome. “Why is it that Oakland is able to make whatever sort of concessions are needed to host the Pandora headquarters in their city, but they’re not willing to make concessions … to actual artists making the music Pandora streams? If there was a safer spot that was as financially reasonable—that’s where they would go,” he says.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]With DIY, no one questions your identity, they don’t question anything about you. We’re not going to turn you away for not having five bucks.[/quote]
For San Francisco’s Ruby Perez, who drums in the Xicana punk band Pumpkin, it’s paradoxical to deem DIY venues “unsafe.” Though the Bay area has long been a beacon of progress, especially for LGBTQ people, the city is changing, thanks in part to the recent tech boom. Traditional venues host a very different kind of audience than they used to—often richer, whiter, more male. Perez says that women and straight-edge, queer, disabled, and other marginalized individuals don’t feel safe there anymore, in part because they don’t feel represented.
“In the DIY scene, I met other women—women of color, queer women—and I never saw their faces at ... any of the more ‘official venues.’” Underground spaces became very special to her, she says, “because I started to make very close friends, and we just started supporting each other.”
Erika Delgado is a Bay area music booker, show promoter, and local music writer, for whom DIY venues have provided much needed interaction, a creative outlet, and a place to be seen. Delgado says, “With DIY, no one questions your identity, they don’t question anything about you … We’re not going to turn you away for not having five bucks. If I didn’t do what I did, I wouldn’t be able to go to shows because I actually have multiple mental issues and severe anxiety, severe depression, questionable bipolar disorder, and I’m sometimes chronically ill to the point where I ... can’t leave my house.”
Chris Zaldua, who runs the San Francisco record label Left Hand Path, is also a DJ and a writer for FACT, KQED, and elsewhere, focusing on underground music movements. He lost several friends and collaborators in the Ghost Ship fire. Independent art and music has always been a countercultural response to a mainstream, noninclusive culture, he says.
“If you don’t understand anything about this world, or what that space was, or who these people were, your first reaction is going to be: ‘Why don’t you just bring this place up to code?’ or ‘Why don’t you let the inspectors in?’” says Zaldua. “And it’s a very quaint notion, and it would be good if that’s how the world worked, but there are so many underlying, contradictory factors here."
"I think what really gets lost in the greater conversation is that if you are a creative person at heart, and you want to be true to yourself and live the life that you want, you are going to have to make innumerable compromises, choosing a less than ideal living situation because it was affordable, because it provided them with the opportunity to express themselves,” he says.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]When we feel like we are dying anyway, the risks don't seem as risky.[/quote]
Like Zaldua, Perez, Saincome, Delgado, and Ramen, I’ve spent countless hours involved in art collectives and attending DIY venues like Ghost Ship. The night of the fire, I watched the real-time updates and the aerial footage of the smoke. It seemed impossible that any of my friends who were there—the people who made my community a unique and vibrant place—had survived.
In bed, I curled into a ball and listened to punkish antifolk hero Kimya Dawson’s “Anthrax” on repeat. I’ve been listening to Dawson since I was fourteen, at first to cope with violence at school, and as I’ve gotten older, with death and loss. I thought about all the people I knew who were now particles of smoke.
The air is filled with computers and carpets
Skin and bones and telephones and file cabinets
Coke machines, firemen, landing gear, and cement
They say that it's okay but I say don't breathe in
A day after the Ghost Ship fire, Dawson, a long-time regular at many warehouse venues, issued a powerful statement on Facebook:
Playing music saves my life. People tell me listening to music saves their lives. People telling me that my music saved their life saves my life even more. And we take the risks. Playing and listening in unsafe spaces. Because when we feel like we are dying anyway the risks don't seem as risky as the risks we already face every day.
She announced a benefit concert days later in Oakland at the Starline Social Club. Dawson originally intended to throw two concerts on the same night benefiting the victims, but was shut down by the fire inspector after 994 people responded that they would be attending. There simply wasn’t capacity.
At the show, I sat on the hardwood floor next to friends wrapping their arms around each other, while others were draped over their knees, sobbing. I came to the event alone, but a series of kind gestures made me feel included: One woman handed me a sunflower; moments later, a man handed me a full bouquet of roses.
Before playing, Dawson said that, “It’s a night for remembering friends.” Her set mixed songs about Black Lives Matter against a few from her children’s album. She encouraged the audience to sing along to goofy choruses like “Oh, Bobby-O,” and laughter spread. We were collectively happy to be there.
Toward the end of her set, Dawson told us that she lost a friend and collaborator in the fire. Like the rest of us, she said she’s been combing through the words of friends and family members across social media. “I just want you to know that, like, I see all of your friends, and I see their faces. I read about them and I learn about them, and I will remember them, and I just love you all so much, and I am really sorry that happened.”
It's just art, people say. It's just music. But for many of us, art, music, and the people who make it are everything. They are why we are still here.