There are no words to convey the heartbreak felt by those closest to the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire. At the moment, 33 are confirmed dead, with search crews still sorting through the ashes of the site. As stories and details of the fire are shared, and while thousands await news of missing loved ones, a phrase keeps coming up: “It could have been any one of us.”
For those of us involved in artist spaces one way or another, the tragedy is impossible to process. I, too, have been inside a warehouse like that, we think, living, working, dancing into the night. According to the Oakland Fire Department, this fire has taken more lives than any in the city’s history.
And yet for many of us, these spaces are what have kept us alive. In a world that demands its inhabitants to be a certain way, think a certain way, or live a certain way, we gravitate to the spaces that say: Welcome. Be yourself. For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of color, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand — or can’t, or doesn’t seem to want to try.
The first such space in Oakland I came across, in 1994, was Phoenix Ironworks, a giant former foundry in West Oakland cluttered with furniture, mannequins, makeshift structures, and large-scale, incredible art around every corner. A skate ramp owned by the editor of Thrasher took up part of the space; most of it was a labyrinth of over 50 pianos forming walls and hallways. Parties at Phoenix Ironworks were the stuff of legend: bands played, and, if the mood was right, a giant Tesla coil would be wheeled out into 8th and Pine Streets to create loud, bright lightning across the sky on the furthest forgotten edge of the city.
I spent long hours inside Phoenix Ironworks, rehearsing with my band and getting to know its residents. And in the years since, I’ve lived in, been to, helped build, or performed at dozens if not hundreds of similarly unsanctioned DIY artist spaces, warehouses and punkhouses in the Bay Area and around the country — and the world. There are thousands like me who are a product of such environments. Chances are that you are, too.
We know the risks. We know that police and landlords can shut us down at any time. We know our creative alterations to these living spaces are not one-size-fits-all. And we are all too aware of the clashes in piling personalities of divergent backgrounds in close proximity.
The bigger risks, the more unlikely ones — that such a treasured place could become an inferno in mere minutes — those don’t always cross our minds.
Today, I know two people on the missing list. As I scroll through news and social media for updates, hoping to see the word “SAFE” next to their names, I also see words like “death trap” and “unpermitted.” Outsiders reporting on the tragedy inevitably get it all wrong: they mischaracterize the party as a rave, the music as EDM, and implicitly criminalize the victims as attendees of an illegal event. Hours after the fire, the tragedy is politicized.
How can we explain?
They don’t understand why we don’t just live in a $3,000/mo. apartment where everything is safe and sterile and clean; why we live in a warehouse, or a garage, or an attic or shed or laundry room; why there is a mattress on the floor with a space heater where there normally would be a Queen size bed with a duvet and a nightstand and central heating.
They don’t understand why we congregate here at night, pushing salvaged furnishings out of the way to make room for the drum set and amps, packing our friends’ bodies in like sardines, moving as one to music that never gets played on the radio. Why we play music here for each other when we could be trying to get booked at “real” clubs. Why we avoid conventional nightclubs and their bookers, bouncers, security, soundmen.
They don’t understand why the floor is so rickety, the lamps don’t have shades, the wall is painted three different colors and the table is made of scrap wood. Why we forage meals from dumpsters, and eat together from huge pots of rice and vegetables and spices. Why, on Sundays, we cook up even more as a group and set up tables in the city and serve it to those in need.
They don’t understand why we work day jobs as little as possible, and perfect our art as much as we can.
They don’t understand that we do not fit into the boxes the world tries to sell us. That their world is unacceptable, and that even for all the ragged edges, we need our own world on our own terms.
They don’t understand how beautifully tight-knit these new worlds are; how the community around missing loved ones these past two days has supported each other in incredible ways, even amidst unimaginable grief. They don’t understand how our music scenes become families.
I feel strange typing these words, because I no longer live in communal artist spaces like this. But they stay with you. They shape us, make us more fearless, give us confidence, validate our dreams. We never forget what those spaces gave us, especially those of us who turned those dreams into a life, and re-fit ourselves back into a once ill-fitting world.
The people lost to the Oakland fire will never get that chance.
And yes, there are conversations to be had about Oakland’s housing supply, and about the market forces that push artists into unregulated spaces. There will surely be a crackdown on the many similar warehouses in the rapidly gentrifying city, spaces with names I don’t want to publish so as not to raise their profile at a critical time. There are those discussing how to preserve them, and especially how to ensure they aren’t dangerous to residents and visitors. All of these conversations are either already happening, or will be in overdrive in the coming weeks.
But for now, it just hurts. For Oakland, and for many of my friends, to be sure. But for all of us who understand.