Sound Off

After the Ghost Ship Fire, We Need to Nurture Artistic Communities, Not Destroy Them

On December 2, a blaze of unknown origin ripped through an Oakland, California, warehouse arts space known as Ghost Ship.

That night, a dance music offshoot of the Los Angeles-based label Not Not Fun had promoted a concert, attracting artists and musicians, many of them part of the LGBTQ community. They would become tragic victims of the deadliest fire in the city's history.

Once the rush of breaking news began to subside and the body count reached 36, the narrative surrounding the fire switched to warehouse’s lack of permits to host such events and the myriad of building safety code violations inspectors found.

There were no fire sprinklers.Mannequins, pianos, and other artistic accoutrements cluttered hallways and rooms. Part of the staircase was made from wooden pallets, and it was the only way up to the warehouse's second floor.

Former residents and guests of Ghost Ship came out of the woodwork; one called the space a “tinderbox.” It was only a matter of time, they said — it was when, not if. City officials released documents showing a history of every red flag, every code violation, and lamented the conditions of the warehouse-turned-studio-turned-residence-turned-venue. From the outside, people speculated why anyone would ever attend an event or live in a place that in hindsight looks like little more than a deathtrap.

But when news reached those of us involved with DIY communities, a footage reel of every potentially dangerous creative space we’ve ever been a part of began playing through our heads. I counted every unconventional venue I’ve visited, including the one I helped operate, and recalled every last hazard that could have led to its — or our — demise. Despite the laundry list of risks, we knew why all those people showed up to Ghost Ship that night, because we’ve been in the same position time and time again.

"People didn't walk through those doors because it was a horrible place,” Derick Almena, the landlord and manager of Ghost Ship said in a distraught interview with Today. “People didn't seek us out to perform and express themselves because it was a horrible place."

Many of us are, and have been, willing to make the trade-off of physical security for creative freedom. We’re so desperate for non-monetized, non-sanitized, non-contracted artistic space that we take the risks of congregating in under-the-radar places that any city official would scramble to shut down.

Because here’s the thing: While others rush to decry the safety conditions and rally for closure, there are just as many who find these unsanctioned warehouses to be the safest space they have.

When we started Parliament, a now-defunct DIY space nestled in the industrial warehouse sector of Tempe, that’s what we were aiming for. We tried our hardest to make a space that was safe in all regards, but ultimately, we knew we didn’t have the capital to operate as a legitimate venue. That meant no permits, no safety inspections, no city giving us the green light. Parliament could have easily been shuttered for the same reasons why the very existence of Ghost Ship is being condemned.

For what DIY venues lack in permits, they make up for in fostering community in a way that you simply can’t get anywhere else. Without a solid DIY scene, Phoenix’s budding artists would be denied the one thing they all deserve — a chance. Those who feel unsafe in conventional spaces — whether it’s bullied youth, queer and trans identities, women, people of color, recovering addicts, people with disabilities, starving artists, or anyone else otherwise marginalized or disenfranchised — can find a home in DIY spaces. It doesn’t matter how you identify, what color you are, how much money you have, how experienced or successful you are. Here, your art matters. You matter. 

In a world that conditions us to believe the only legitimate art is profitable art, that’s highly refreshing. It’s why we flock to these spots, despite the risks. They serve as artistic incubators and offer unfettered creative freedom in a way that simply can’t exist within the realms of traditional art space.

Starting a venue the legitimate way is prohibitively expensive, and the bureaucratic process is stifling. If you don’t have a line of investors who believe in you or a fat stack of capital to get things off the ground, it’s damn near impossible. Every permit or license you must receive, every inspection you must pass, every regulation you must follow comes at a high financial cost. And to keep up with those costs, you need to be able to turn a profit every month. You are essentially required to operate as a business.

But what if running a business isn’t your goal? How do you navigate a profit-driven landscape when all you want to do is share art?  

At Parliament, five or six people each put in $100 a month, granting them access to the space to do with what they pleased. The majority of our members used it as a band practice space or as a venue to host their own events. We paid our landlord roughly $1,300 each month, not including utilities. On a night with a great turnout, we’d collect anywhere from $600 to $800, the majority of which would be paid out to performers. We were also an all-ages space, which meant we didn’t collect the booze revenue that sustains most venues. Eventually, we built a screenprinting setup so we could make merch in-house to try to rake in a bit more cash to pay our rent. It worked, and we did it, but every month was a struggle to stay above water. In the end, we didn’t make any money off of it. Quite the opposite, actually — we ended up selling our sound system to pay back a fraction of the debt we incurred.

It was difficult, sure, but a lot less difficult than trying to host our events through an established venue. Some places charge you $500 for the privilege of using their space for the night. You’ve got promoters and techs to pay, and if you want an all-ages show, you’ll have to dig deep into your pockets for expanded security. If your night doesn’t end with the venue collecting a handsome profit, your chances of securing another night there in the future are slim to none.

That’s the position we're put in: If you’re not making money, you don’t get to share art through traditional channels. We want so, so badly to operate legitimately, but it’s just not feasible. So we seek out our own means, knowing well the risk we’re taking on.

“Imagine you were on a sinking ship,” Oakland-based musician Kimya Dawson wrote in a Facebook post addressing the Ghost Ship tragedy, “and there is only one lifeboat. And someone screams that there is a chance the lifeboat might tip over. You'll take that chance.”

Two days after the Oakland fire, officials in Baltimore boarded up and condemned a local DIY staple, Bell Foundry, on four safety violations. Dozens of artists were evicted without notice, and the future of the property, as well as other DIY spaces across the country, is up in the air. Community organizers and DIY showgoers are grieving the loss of 36 individuals while fighting to actively reduce harm and promote safety in our own spaces to avoid a crackdown.

So here’s our plea: Work with us, not against us. Pull us out of the shadows and let us shine.

Cities in Maricopa County should create programs that support artistic communities, like the ones that help fund Art Share L.A. or Market Hotel in Bushwick, that will give us the resources necessary to get our spaces up to snuff. In crowded housing markets, support aggressive rent control and anti-gentrification efforts that will keep artists and marginalized people in place, rather than pushing them to the outskirts of safety. With regards to permit applications and requirements, stop treating all “special events” as one-size-fits-all affairs. Recognize that there is a spectrum and not all events are on an equal playing field.

Most importantly, realize we are no strangers to this type of adversity. For every DIY property that is shuttered, a new one will spring up. The drive to experience art and foster community is infinite, and as our go-to spots close down, we’ll be driven further underground to increasingly unsafe spaces.

The DIY community will always find a way. Help us do it the right way.
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Maggie Spear