After the Fire, an Uncertain Future for Artists in Oakland
7 days after the deadly blaze, the city's creative community fears more dangers lie ahead.
Photo of Oakland courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
On a cold grey Monday afternoon in Oakland, the clouds hang low over a bustling city-center coffee shop. Speaking over the sounds of sirens and booming car stereos from the traffic passing by, a small crew of artists belonging to the Satya Yuga art collective gather around an outside table to share their stories. Most are still wearing the clothes they wore when they escaped the deadliest fire in Oakland's history, the previous Friday night.
Members of the group pass around cigarettes and try to collect themselves so they can rehash how their home—the now-infamous warehouse called The Ghost Ship—became the site of a horrifying inferno that claimed the lives of 36 people.
In the studio space where he lived on the first floor of the two-level warehouse, Bob Mulé had been hunkering down for a chill evening. After checking in on the event being held upstairs, which featured a group of musicians and DJs from the LA-based underground dance music label 100% Silk along with a few local openers, he headed downstairs to call it an early night.
Around 11:30 PM, Mulé smelled the smoke. He went toward the back of the building to see what was happening, and the flames were already climbing up the back wall. "They were already like six-feet high," he says. "I ran to the front yelling, 'Fire! Fire! Fire!'"
The building was quickly consumed in billowing black clouds as the fire tore through the warehouse. The power went out. Still, Mulé ran back to his space to try to retrieve his camera. It was then that he heard Pete Wadsworth calling for help. His studio neighbor and friend was a larger man who had fallen while trying to escape.
"I found Pete laying on the ground with his ankle broken," Mulé says, choking through tears. "He was saying, 'You have to pull me out, you have to pull me out,' but by that time everything was already on fire, and there was a bunch of shit in the way. I tried. I couldn't lift him, and I couldn't clear the path all the way, and any amount of time longer that I stayed with him I wouldn't have made it—there was just no fucking way. It was so horrible watching that place burn and knowing exactly where Pete was."
During a press conference on Tuesday, Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman J.D. Nelson said that the victims who have been autopsied perished from smoke inhalation. In their final moments, some texted loved ones and crowded together. "We have found people that have died in each other's arms, protecting each other, holding each other," Alameda County Sheriff spokesperson Sergeant Ray Kelly told reporters during a press conference that same day.
At this point, officials believe the fire was caused by something electrical. They initially believed it was a faulty refrigerator, but ruled that out at a press conference on Friday. At the same press conference, investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also ruled out arson.
In the chaotic days that followed the tragedy, questions about culpability arose, with fingers pointing in every direction. Many are holding Satya Yuga's eccentric founder Derick Almena—who the property was leased to—responsible for not taking steps to protect the residents of the space and making sure the likely outdated electrical wiring was equipped to handle the strains of residential living and events. City records show that Almena had constructed a dangerous "one-way stairwell...built out of wooden pallets" as a means of accessing the second floor where the shows were held. The Ghost Ship residents told THUMP, however, that the stairs were sturdy enough and wide enough to move pianos and refrigerators. Still, the building was not equipped with fire sprinklers, and investigators found that many fire extinguishers that were on hand were inoperable.
Others have called out city officials, who may have been made aware of building code violations and missed ample opportunity to shut the collective down. Two complaints about the warehouse were filed with the city's Planning and Building Department in the month prior to the fire. The first was for garbage pile up outside the warehouse, and the second for "illegal interior building structure," which was listed as "pending investigation." The East Bay Times reported on Thursday that, after a small fire outside the warehouse in 2014, a firefighter who was able to gain access inside reported potential hazards to the fire inspector. No one followed up. Commercial buildings are supposed to be inspected by the fire inspectors annually, but according to the report, there are no records that the those inspections ever took place at the building.
City documents show that in response to the November complaints, The Planning and Building Department sent a letter to Chor N. Ng, the landlord who owns the warehouse as well as its accompanying lot. She has been criticized in the media for the substandard conditions of the building and the lack of oversight into potential hazards being set up there. She denies knowing that people lived in the warehouse, though the current residents told THUMP she knew they were there.
In the days since the tragedy, media coverage from around the world has focused on the safety issues that may have caused the fire, with some reporters and commentators disparaging spaces like The Ghost Ship for flouting the law and putting young lives in danger. Now, Oakland's artists—as they grieve the loss of their friends and a beloved underground outpost—are worrying about the greater dangers the fire poses for the future of the arts in the city.
The Satya Yuga art collective that called the warehouse home was created by Almena and his wife Micah Allison at the end of 2013, with the intention to foster and build a community of creatives who collaborated and pushed one another. The name comes from a Hindu concept denoting the "Golden Age" or the "Age of Truth." In conversation with THUMP, former resident Max Ohr said the moniker was "borrowed and appreciated from a beautiful part of an ancient culture."
The Facebook page for Satya Yuga describes it as "a collective of musicians, painters, woodworkers, hot dog vendors, scrappers, boutique designers and lingerie models." It's unclear how many people were living there at the time of the fire, but residents say around 20 people had floated in and out of the live/work space since its inception.
Residents describe the interior of the 10,000-square-foot warehouse as an "ever-changing art installation"—built into two levels, and layered with all manner of art pieces, musical instruments, lofted structures, and esoteric artifacts. Rusted car parts were decorated with old boots and sprockets. Parasols and mannequin arms jutted out amidst pianos, draperies, and furniture, and miscellaneous Americana and non-Western art objects. Lamps dangled from hand-built structures. "Almost every surface had another layer of detail," Ohr says. "Not only was it a changing landscape, but you could notice something new every time."
"It was a museum of culture and spirit," he adds. "I don't know anything else like it."
Beyond the unique hand-built infrastructure, those who frequented the Ghost Ship did so because it was a creative hub.
"The way that I saw the space was an encouragement—an encouragement for me to develop myself and push myself harder as an artist," says Anthony Perrault, a seamstress and musician who had been living at Ghost Ship for about a year before the fire happened. "All the filters vanished when you went in there. You became an accepting person and you wanted to be around people who were different from you."
Residents were charged around $500 in cash for a live/work space, and say the lower rents that came with living in the collective allow them to focus on their creative work. According rental site Zumper, which publishes an annual rental report, Oakland is the sixth most expensive city for renters in the nation, with the median cost of $2,120 for a one-bedroom. San Francisco is ranked as the most expensive city, at $3,440 for a one-bedroom.
Many Ghost Ship residents ended up there when they were priced out of other housing. Perrault says he was paying $1,300 a month for a motel room in San Francisco's Mission district before landing a spot in the warehouse.
"It was the idea of what a utopia could be like," Ohr says. "Where people can live with some level of leniency that allows them to pursue what they want to be doing. If someone couldn't make their rent, there was an option for sweat equity."
Despite residents' descriptions of a dilapidated infrastructure that leaked each time it rained, repeated power outages, and potential fire hazards, the warehouse—and others like it—had become a beloved refuge for artists in a city where the outlets available for creative people are increasingly limited.
"These DIY venues really encourage pure unadulterated creativity," says Geoff Saba, a recording artist who has spent the past several years performing and booking DIY shows around the Bay Area. While he says he has never booked at The Ghost Ship, he has frequented spaces like it. "You wouldn't get that at officially sanctioned venues, because they are preoccupied by a profit-based agenda. These DIY spots are just an open forum for creators to come in and feel welcome and safe enough to express these ideas and feelings. They really foster pure innovation of ideas."
Cassidy Martin, a local electronic musician and event promoter, also hadn't been to the Ghost Ship, but says spaces like it foster a sense of personal safety, if not physical safety.
"These are places for people who may not be accepted by normal or general culture," he says. "Whether it be sexual identity, or some sort of mental disability, or issues like anxiety or depression, or [people not feeling] normal in their bodies—these are generally accepting spaces."
Martin co-founded a performance series called Outpost with Johnny Igaz, a celebrated local musician and promoter who was playing records for event-goers at The Ghost Ship when the fire broke out. According to its Facebook page, Outpost creates "a platform for undervalued musicians/people to gather, play music, and share ideas freely and safely."
Igaz didn't make it out of the warehouse that night. Martin says Igaz's intentions were always to bolster the scene and strengthen community. "Parties for him were just putting together Venn Diagrams of people," Martin says. "People he might know with other people who might have similar interests—so there was commonality with everybody, no matter who they were."
The Venn Diagrams in Oakland's underground art scene include people who feel more safe in subcultural spaces like Ghost Space than they do in mainstream society—even in progressive cities around the Bay Area.
"This situation is unique," says Scout Wolfcave, the Executive Director and Founder of Trans Assistance Project, an organization dedicated to connecting transgender people with legal and health care services. Wolfcave lost two friends in the blaze, Them Are Us To guitarist Cash Askew and fellow musician Feral Pines—both trans women she calls her "sisters." A third trans woman she didn't know, Em Bohlka, was also a victim of the fire.
Wolfcave says she has spent the days following the tragedy advocating for the three of them amidst an onslaught of press coverage that has misgendered and misnamed them. "I can't remember the last time Trans people have died in such a public, gruesome way," she explains. "Everyone is writing articles about this shit, and everyone is fucking it up. It hurts me a lot to see my friends disrespected in death like that. It amplifies the grief and amplifies the trauma that we are already experiencing."
"So many of us ended up in this space because we were displaced," says another resident Nikki Kelber. "Some straight-out homeless, some couch surfing, some bouncing between other places looking for a safe place—a place to call their own." —Nikki Kelber, former Ghost Ship resident.
For Wolfcave, the media's mishandling of the story drives home one of chief reasons why trans people and those from others marginalized communities seek out environments like the Ghost Ship in the first place.
"As a trans woman, it's not like I feel safe at Walmart," Wolfcave explains. "I have seen all these articles about how we are pushed into these dangerous places but I am like, no, motherfucker—going to the bank is dangerous for me. Going to buy groceries is dangerous for me. The world is dangerous for marginalized people just because of who we are not where we are at."
As with many shows on the Oakland underground circuit, a diverse group of artists and creatives showed up at the show on December 2. Though widely described in the media as a "rave," the event was less bumping dance party and more like a concert in someone's living room. Still, survivors who helped organize the event told reporters there were around 60 people at the event. According to The East Bay Express they were expecting the numbers to swell to double or triple that as the night wore on.
Bay Area-based 100% Silk artists Chelsea Faith Dolan and Johnny Igaz—electronic musicians who performed under the names Cherushii and Nackt, respectively—were scheduled to be opening for Portland-based producer Golden Donna. One of the many musical identities of Wisconsin native Joel Shanahan, on facebook he posted that this was the final tour he was planning to perform under that name.
The event also featured several electronic-leaning local musicians who were part of a tight-knit Bay Area underground music community, including sound artist Russell CL Butler, Joey Casio who performed as Obsidian Blade, AJ Archuleta performing as Piano Rain, and Jon Hrabko as RADAR.
Only Shanahan, Butler, and Hrabko made it out of the Ghost Ship that night.
"The community of musicians [who performed] are on the fringes of music," Ohr, the former resident, says. "It wasn't the kind of music that would make a lot of money for a bar. It was true self expression—people playing modular hardware, playing synthesizers, and really crafting it all themselves."
Though the event has been called a dance party Mulé says when he went upstairs that night, "people were in conversation and just enjoying what was there and the space." When the fire broke out, nail artist Kiyomi Tanouye—who was a music manager for the app Shazam—was reportedly upstairs offering painted nail designs to attendees. Tanouye also didn't make it out of the warehouse that night.
"So many of us ended up in this space because we were displaced. "Some straight-out homeless, some couch surfing, some bouncing between other places looking for a safe place—a place to call their own."—former Ghost Ship resident Nikki Kelber
While the city is still reeling from the tragedy, fears have arisen that the event will have dire consequences for Oakland's art community at large. In the wake of last week's tragedy, many are worried city officials will crack down on these spaces, which could cause evictions.
It's already starting to happen. Days after the fire, a restaurant owner in Downtown Oakland called for investigations into potential safety issues at a nearby warehouse and collective called The Salt Lick, which sparked outcry from its residents and other artists in the area. Journalist and music critic Sam Lefebvre tweeted on Thursday, "The punk house and occasional venue where I grieved with friends on Saturday received an eviction notice yesterday."
Rumors of an impending policing aren't limited to Oakland. Dozens of artists were evicted from Baltimore's Bell Foundry warehouse this week, and Los Angeles officials also announced they are planning to "tackle illegal housing issues."
"Right now it's important to focus on healing and making sure that some fucking witch-hunt doesn't start, and that landlords don't use this as a mechanism to start pushing people out," says Adam Hatch, who operated underground art venues before opening a legal bar/venue called the Starline Social Club housed in a historic building in the heart of the city.
Hatch has been a leader in the arts community for decades, both within the underground scene and as part of Oakland's artistic establishment. He has witnessed DIY venues in Oakland diminish in number over the past few years as the rising cost of living pushes more and more artists out of the town.
Named for the West Oakland neighborhood colloquially referred to as The Lower Bottoms, LoBot, a warehouse collective he started in the early aughts, was a thriving hub that included a print shop, a wood shop, and rehearsal spaces for artists in low-cost studios.
Hatch stepped away from officially managing the space a few years ago, but during the time he was there, rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed. After the landlord continued to raise the rent on the building—which shop up from $5,250 to $10,000 a month over the last two years—the warehouse collective shuttered earlier this year.
Several artists and musicians were also displaced this year when two other live/work spaces in the city were served with evictions: The Ghost Town Gallery, a 4,000-square-foot warehouse and music venue established in 2003, and another two-story industrial building. For both, landlords cited illegal activities and safety hazards, but the ejected artists saw it as a sign that Oakland was undergoing a disturbing change.
On Wednesday, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that her administration had called upon the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to help Oakland build a fire safety task force and that the city was considering new regulations in response to this fire. She named enhanced fire inspections and monitoring of illegal events among the top priorities for the administration moving forward.
"After this fire, folks are going straight to enforcement, which is totally missing the point," says Randolph Belle, the Executive Director of nonprofit Support Oakland Artists. Instead of penalizing sub-legal spaces, he recommends that the city offer what he calls a "compassionate compliance strategy" to help artists meet standards without risking displacement.
Starline Social Club owner Hatch agrees that officials need to work hand-in-hand with dwellers of sub-legal spaces to make sure spaces are up to code. Still, he is quick to stress that responsibility doesn't fall on the city alone; those who run these spaces have to be accountable, too.
"Expect that they are going to come," he says referring to city officials and fire inspectors. "They are going to come knocking on doors and doing inspections. You have rights and it doesn't mean they are going to kick you out. It is fine if [what you are doing] is weird...Just have a fire extinguisher out. Have a backup plan. Have a list of resources so when The Man comes you know what to do. Whether it is police, [Alcoholic Beverage Control], Fire, whatever. Resist fear. Take care of your neighbor. Try to be legit. Not legal—just legit."
"Right now, it's important to focus on healing and making sure that some fucking witch-hunt doesn't start, and that landlords don't use this as a mechanism to start pushing people out."—Adam Hatch, Starline Social Club owner
Mayor Schaaf has tried to placate renewed displacement fears by emphasizing that she and her administration are committed to supporting the arts. In a statement released Tuesday, she unveiled a $1.7 million initiative—leveraging funds from public and private partners to "support sustainable, long-term solutions to creating affordable, safe spaces for Oakland's artists"—that had already been in the works for several months at the time of the fire.
The announcement included details about bringing The Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST)—an organization that buys buildings and land and exclusively leases them to nonprofit art organizations in San Francisco—into Oakland. As part of a two-year pilot, CAST will provide up to $75,000 in grant funding for displaced arts organizations and will begin working to create spaces for the arts that are both affordable and safe. To that end, CAST has partnered with local nonprofit Northern California Community Loan Fund (NCCLF) to provide consulting and real estate expertise for arts orgs hoping to negotiate their leases.
Additionally, the mayor announced the creation of a new city position, with a special focus on creating "new policies and initiatives to stem the displacement of artists and arts organizations from Oakland." Kelley Kahn, a city planner with experience working on economic development projects and with cultural education center The Crucible, which provides programs in fine and industrial arts for children and adults was chosen for the position and has already started.
Still, Support Oakland Artists' Randolph Belle questions the mayor's intentions to do what it takes to actually sustain independent artists. He highlights that the city's initiative is targeted more at assisting organizations and cultural centers than individuals and underground communities.
"Oakland has never had the political will," he says. "We have gotten a lot of political rhetoric but the political will—the real support system for the arts as an economic and community development tool—has never been pursued in a real way."
Belle noted that he has seen artists fight these battles since as far back as the early nineties—long before the current housing crisis—but that historically, those were people of color.
"Artists have always been here and they are always going to be here," he says, "but like a lot of things, these aren't problems until they are white people's problems."
He stressed that Oakland's cultural landscape is formed from many diverse art communities with different intentions, backgrounds, and styles—and that in order to push for change, there needs to be more cohesion and collaboration amongst them. "A lot of the folks coming now are trying to create their pods," he says. "They are not really interested in being part of a larger arts community."
Elena Serrano, Program Director at the EastSide Arts Alliance, a cultural center and arts advocacy organization based just blocks away from The Ghost Ship, agrees that grassroots efforts to organize and make demands on the city will be important for Oakland's artistic in years to come. The worry, she says, is that artists will focus on securing continued access to substandard warehouse living, when they should be collectively demand entry out of the social and economic marginalization that drives them into those spaces.
Civic organizers, she says, have recognized that the arts are essential parts of community health and are pushing for policies that prioritize building stronger cultural support. Rather than retreating into dilapidated facilities or existing on the fringes of society, she hopes artists will join those advocates to ensure the city not only acts on their behalf—but also listens to their ideas.
"The young people who were tragically in that space are calling themselves 'marginalized,'" she says adding that The Ghost Ship set-up and others like it are disrespectful to the artists. She thinks better spaces need to be available for creators. "I don't think 'marginalized' is a badge of honor. Get integrated and demand that it gets built for you," she says, adding, "This is what we deserve."
Back at the coffeeshop, the sun is sinking behind the darkening clouds. It's going to be another cold night. The displaced and distraught former Ghost Ship residents gathered around the table haven't yet had time to think about organizing for the future of arts in Oakland. They are still just trying to figure out where they will go.
"We are all so fucking tired and homeless," Ohr says. "We all lost everything. We lost our friends and our place and now we are having to be in a defensive mode."
Still, Ohr says he hopes that something positive will come out of this tragedy—that people understand the value and importance of places like the one he lost. Even though they have lost everything, you get the sense that the collective is sustaining them.
"The Ghost Ship may be gone," he says looking down with a deep sigh. He looks up and adds, "But Satya Yuga is not."