Lessons From the Ghost Ship Fire: We Need to Support Artists

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Inside the Ghost Ship, Artist Communal Arts Space Oakland
Inside a Ghost Ship studio. Ghost Ship Tumblr.

Last Friday, a venue and live-work space in Oakland known as the Ghost Ship burned down, claiming the lives of 36 individuals, 35 of whom have been identified by authorities.

This tragedy is immense, and has sent ripples through Oakland, which has a population of 400,000 and is home to scores of experimental artists and activists who contribute to the city’s rich and inspiring culture.

The very conditions that resulted in this horrific incident are also the chief causes of Oakland’s soaring costs, which has hit low-income residents and artists the hardest.

Oakland – which sits just outside prohibitively expensive San Francisco – has been an affordable alternative for Bay Area residents. The city’s progressive values and DIY arts scene has also provided an invaluable outlet for underrepresented demographics in the arts industry, including LGBTQ, black, and hispanic artists.

But the same tech money that made San Francisco one of the priciest cities in the United States is starting to permeate its neighbor, driving up costs and low-income residents out. This has led to the further popularization of communal work-live spaces, which combine habitation, art galleries, music venues, and community organizing spaces into multi-function sites. While these buildings have benefited activists, artists, and the disenfranchised, they often pop up in old warehouses or other structures without safety oversight.

While some media outlets have been victim-blaming those affected by the fire, pointing out the unsafe conditions, the fact is that collaboration with city authorities to bring buildings up to code can often lead to eviction. Thus, lower-income inhabitants are stuck between affordable housing and safety, incapable of achieving both as developers look for official recourse to take over structures, remodel them, and rent or sell them at market value.

The Ghost Ship was emblematic of Oakland’s vibrant culture. Gentrification is a complex issue, but we’re well past the point where we can ignore the issue of affordable housing. Residents in a given neighborhood who cannot afford the market transformations of their communities should not have to face expulsion or – in the case of Oakland artists – actual mortal peril in the form of old, dangerous buildings.

In the wake of last Friday’s fire, we must understand: artists deserve support, not punishment, for generating cultural value and providing outlets and havens for the disenfranchised.

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