Whenever someone compares Brooklyn to Oakland, an angel loses its wings, and is sent plunging straight down to hell where the sexless being is reborn as an enormous phallus– imagine, like, a hedge fund manager or, in some cases, a real-estate developer.
That’s because the observation usually has to do with the proximity of a relatively much more prosperous place like Manhattan or San Fransisco (actually those are mostly just super fancy places no matter how you slice it) and based on dumb facts like that you can take a train between the two (the BART, the MTA respectively). Oh, and there’s also that whole gentrification thing– like parts of Brooklyn, Oakland has been declared fabulously “up-and-coming” (barf).
The truth is that, aside from stupid comparisons like these–usually found in real-estate ads, or grunted between high-five’ing bros–Oakland and our beloved borough actually do have some real stuff in common.
Namely, we both have remnants of one time massive manufacturing industries, DIY spirit, and a certain romantic magnetism that sucks in artists and creative people and musicians from all over the globe. They arrive here, and in Oakland, despite the challenges (disparate as our housing situations may be), and the resulting vibrant creative communities and art-centric nightlife scenes, are known for resourcefulness and zeal. Combine those traits with necessity (aka poverty) and the need for space in which to make things, and you’ll start to see these people moving into post-industrial buildings– disused, abandoned, and lacking in essential services, like heat and hot water, as they may be.
In the case of the Ghost Ship, the Oakland art-collective space that made national news when it caught fire a few weeks back, a whole bunch of young artists– many of them queer, trans, and the sort of people who used to be drawn to San Francisco before it became Tech Br0 City– took over a neglected building located in an already marginalized community. In the wake of the tragedy, various lawsuits have been filed against the building owners and local government on behalf of some of the 36 people who were killed in the fire. The suits point out what many Oakland residents and art scene people already knew, that the building was a “death trap.”
According to a friend of mine who used to live in Oakland and had been to several parties there, the Ghost Ship was obviously dangerous. This was especially true when the place was packed for a party or a show– in order to exit the building, you had to wait in line to get down a rickety spiral staircase. On top of that, at one point the stairs were missing a few steps, making it necessary to actually jump your way down.
But the Ghost Ship was beloved too. The same friend remembered that the place was filled with antiques, trinkets, art pieces, and found objects, combined to make a space that was as fantastical as the imaginative people who inhabited it. It also served as a cultural center for this art community, a place to socialize with other creative people and an easy access point for the uninitiated to learn about art, as well as a safe space for LGBTQ and a zone where people could be themselves. These things are beyond important for gentrifying neighborhoods, and for cities facing homogenization, especially when that transformation is directed by the tech community, which is both notoriously lacking in diversity and famously entitled. (A winning combination, if “winning” means fucking horrible.)
A lot of people might ask, how something like this could happen– why would anyone put themselves in danger just to attend a party? Could the artists have done something to make the space safer? The answer is that, for many people, it’s necessary to live and work in spaces like this. And if you think about it, most people are willing to take risks in exchange for doing something they love– in this case it was making art, and maintaining an eccentric and open-access space.
Of course, as lawsuits allege, it’s the building owners who bear the responsibility of maintaining a safe building and abiding by code. In the Ghost Ship’s case, the warehouse was horribly neglected, and still zoned as a manufacturing space. And this wasn’t just a minor violation sort of thing– according to records and the reporters covering the story, the Ghost Ship owners appear to have been breaking the law and neglecting the space in egregious, extensive, and extended ways. However, it’s worth highlighting that city officials, even though they had received a number of complaints regarding illegal occupancy and inspectors were sent out repeatedly, never addressed the situation fully. That might have had something to do with the fact that in more than 30 years, no inspector had set foot inside the building– as the Times pointed out: “For years before the Dec. 2 fire, the Ghost Ship may just as well have been invisible to the Oakland Fire Department.”
We Brooklynites, New York City people in general, might understand the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire better than anyone else outside of Oakland (except maybe for Detroiters). In a place where access to space is incredibly privileged (yes, even in Oakland and especially Detroit, where rent is relatively cheap), low-income earners, and people otherwise marginalized in terms of access to resources like good jobs, loans, education, and powerful people, desperately in need of affordable housing, are forced to take what they can get. Often that means dealing with some combination of dilapidated homes, a lack of or precarious essential services like heat, hot water, and cooking gas, health hazards such as lead, anxiety-inducing landlords, the threat of homelessness by eviction or foreclosure, neighborhoods that are sapped of food, positive recreational outlets, playgrounds, good schools, green space, and safety. Many artists face these issues, and similar problems when it comes to finding space to create, often they must choose between safety and the ability to make their work.
As the LA Times reported, “The Ghost Ship was far from unique” in Oakland, and the same could be said for Brooklyn. Here and across the U.S., really, artists often lack the resources, materials, appreciation, attention, and straight-up compensation that they so desperately deserve as the actual creators of culture. All of these things are magnified in gentrifying areas– even though artist and front-line culture creators are the very people who draw attention to cool neighborhoods. And they apparently stink like crazy of potential money-making, because they are quickly followed by real-estate developers, luxury hotels, and techy startup firms with mysterious capital, artisanal soap shops, and boutique wine shops (the post-gentrification answer to pedestrian wine stores), all of whom make a neighborhood “hot” and, conversely, not cool at all. We all know who profits and who gets kicked out.
Josette Melchor, director of the SF-based art foundation Gray Area told CNN: “People are desperate for places. It’s one of those things where you don’t want to report something you see because you know how hard it is for people to find spaces.”
Of course, not all underground art spaces and DIY music venues are necessarily dangerous places– many are perfectly safe and strictly up-to-code, and others flout some rules out of necessity but remain vigilant devoted to hosting safe shows, parties, and other events. Secret Project Robot, for example, was less-than-legal for a long time, however, the owners say they have always considered safety to be super important, something that will carry into their new space.
Still, the SPR people have been at it since the late ’90s, and younger artist and those just starting out are more likely to occupy unsafe spaces– simply put, they are broker than established artists. They’re less often the recipients of grants, and haven’t had the time nor do they have the experience, reach, and understanding necessary to navigate the complex terrain known as “asking people for money that you’re never going to pay back.”
After the Ghost Ship tragedy, the Mayor of Oakland announced a grant of $1.7 million to help artists pay for studio and event space. It’s a great step and a nice gesture, but pocket change when it comes to the bigger picture. Places like Germany, for example, actually provide for their artists– in November, the Minister of Culture announced the recipients of $44 million in art and culture grants. That’s a buttload of money. The UK is likewise known to grant bands and musicians money that can be used for things like going on tour and recording sessions– basic building blocks of a career in music that are super duper expensive and require lots of cash up front. (And we’re not talking classical or mandolin players who serenade tourists at some Royal Family historical reenactment thing– sponsored bands played “acid punk and thrash metal.”)
In light of the ultra-white, ultra-right, hyper-masculine turn American politics has taken, we’re only getting further from the nice things all those liberal, enlightened people in European get just by paying a little more taxes. As we learned at a recent meeting held by City Council Member Steve Levin, who assured his constituents that city government will continue it progressive mission, but was even more adamant in his belief in the power of individuals to oppose the outcomes of a federal government policy shift. Levin’s district, which includes the Williamsburg waterfront and industrial Greenpoint, is home to homegrown activist efforts such as the environmental group NAG and Central American Legal Defense, which provides free representation and legal advice for undocumented immigrants facing deportation. But the district is also where Brooklyn DIY started out in the late ’90s, and where the scene still hangs on in tiny pockets today– a scene that is itself a shining example of the power of the people and, especially, the potential a community has to steer its own course.
Still, any notion of realizing an artist utopia seems like some hazy K2-induced nonsense talk. And yet, many people who know the art world, including the underground DIY space occupied by so-called “emerging” artists and counterculture producers, insist that preventing another Ghost Ship, and ensuring that artists and people who enjoy art are safe, means a serious and dramatic restructuring of how we treat artists and fund the arts.
That includes New York City, where artists should have greater access to funding and housing– admittedly these things require a great deal of money. However, there are many more barriers artists face in their quest for space– as Todd P. pointed out to Gothamist, things like fire safety and building code are “absurdly complicated and specific.”
These things may or may not be put in place to intentionally block DIY communities from flourishing– but that question distracts from the real issue: clearly, inaccessibility puts people at risk. Which means also that there’s an obvious solution, and yet building codes remain difficult to decode (and, ironically, very easy to get away with breaking). “If we were really concerned about safety instead of being concerned about making it difficult, we would have a lot more people building safer spaces. And there would be a lot fewer people getting hurt.” The same thing could be said about providing basic resources for artists, the people who make the culture that makes our city interesting in the first place, especially those who are just starting out.
Here are a few ways you can help those impacted by the Oakland fire, all of them are happening in the immediate future, right now even:
1)A Benefit for Trans Assistance Project, Oakland – Thursday December 29, 8 pm to 4 am at Saint Vitus, $15 – $30 sliding scale
You gotta hustle to this one, coz it’s happening tonight. Even if you’re reading this late in the day–or, ahem, in my case writing this at the 11th hour (sorry)– keep in mind that the lineup is a hefty one, and the show, featuring live music and DJ sets, is going till 4 am.
And we’re talking high quality, not just quantity– some big names in noise, like Pharmakon, and bleak electronic music, such as Container are riding in on their dark horses. See also: New Castrati (I honestly have no clue who they are, but they have an excellent band named, likely inspired by ultimate fuqboi Rush Limbaugh’s pet term for an imagined community of men who have been essentially been robbed of their masculinity by “feminazis”), Drew McDowall, DJ Richard, and Ciarra Black.
It’s late, but what the hell, technically it’s still the holidays. And if you don’t do something nice before New Years Day, you’re gonna turn into a bag of dog food, and then you’ll be dog poop stuck to someone’s shoe, then some bacteria inside a rat belly, the same stuff that manifests as one of the handful of bubonic plague cases that strike each year. Avoid being a dick for these reasons, and maybe also because you have something shaped like a heart and occasionally it throbs all thumpy-like in your chest until you put down the pizza rolls, turn off Game of Thrones, and call your mom just to ask her about her day and thank her for ensuring your miserable existence. Phew!
2)Remembrance Gathering – Friday December 30, 8 pm to 2 am at The Glove, $10
Reports said that in the aftermath of the fire, within the Oakland arts community,”it seemed nearly everyone knew somebody who was supposed to be at the show or who had once passed through the warehouse.” Actually, the same could be said for Brooklyn, just with a bit more distance in some cases– that’s because of the art community’s mobility and the two scenes’ shared cultural values.
So it’s not surprising that The Glove (location not given, and as noted: “ask a punk”) is hosting a fundraiser slash performance and “remembrance gathering.” Billed as a “benefit for the living” the venue invites people who were connected to victims of the Ghost Ship or otherwise impacted to, “Come & speak/share/sing of/or anything. We will make time/space for whatever you’d like to bring.”
Organized by Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, the local art-technology hub that operates the Grand Theater in San Fransisco has set up a crowdfunding campaign. So far, they’ve raised more than $820,000 (that’s about $30,000 short of their goal). Even after the You Caring fund comes to a close, the foundation says that their mission is a “long term” one. “Our belief is that relief, recovery, and resiliency of this community is the greatest cause we can work towards into 2017,” they write on the fund’s site.
Working in tandem with the Oakland Mayor’s office and the Red Cross, as well as requests from donors and the community itself, Gray Area’s aim is to “assess a broader need” that goes well beyond immediate disaster relief. “To date, we have received over 300 requests for aid from this fund,” they write. “Running the gamut from funeral expenses, grief counseling all the way to funding for safety upgrades to DIY space.”