Dear Mayor Schaaf,
It’s been less than a week since the tragic Ghost Ship fire killed an estimated 40 people. As Wear Your Voice writer Antwon Herron previously highlighted, this tragedy should not be about blaming people who decided to party on a Friday night, but about the City of Oakland’s inhumane and unethical housing practices.
Many reports state that the events held at Ghost Ship were meant to help raise money for rent. People will rush to blame the landlord, the building manager, the artists and even the victims themselves, but this should be a time for Oakland’s officials to reflect on the ways they have failed Oakland’s residents by denying access to affordable housing, particularly to Oakland’s artists — who are this city’s life force.
Fire and gentrification share a symbiotic relationship with each other. Typically, if landlords can’t push out their tenants quickly enough, they resort to arson. Although the Ghost Ship fire was not set on purpose, it was the result of gross negligence that has become normalized in urban housing markets. The Ghost Ship isn’t a unique venue. Many artist collectives and warehouses have sprung up throughout the world with the growing popularity of events like Burning Man, Symbiosis and Rainbow Gathering. Due to the severe housing crisis in Oakland in particular, warehouses like Ghost Ship house people who need safe spaces to live and work — and because of the lack of affordable housing, these artists often have to deal with slumlords who exploit their lack of economic resources.
Some of those warehouses have already been shut down due to similar safety concerns, causing their inhabitants to be further marginalized and displaced in the name of safety and revitalization. Mayor Schaaf, many of your policies have embraced increased development in order to “revitalize” Oakland, but who is Oakland revitalizing for? Certainly not these struggling artists. Where can they live in a city where rent prices increased by more than 50 percent in 2015 alone?
Spaces like the Ghost Ship provide a lifeline for independent artists to create and commune. Independent venues are where artists find their fans and hone their crafts. If you only create policies to completely shut down these spaces, you take away the ability for artists without considerable means to create and share in order to affirm their right to the city.
Mayor Schaaf, on your website, you claim to be driven by your own “passion for the arts,” but what do these words really mean to you? Does your “passion for the arts” extend to your policies? How sincere are your words when Oakland’s arts community continues to suffer large casualties in our city’s housing war? Despite what they have done to foster community and commerce with Art Murmur and First Fridays, Oakland art spaces continue to close due to rising rents, and now there is death. You even announced a $1.7 million grant to create affordable spaces for arts organizations, but would it have protected a group like the one at the Ghost Ship?
If you want to prevent another Ghost Ship tragedy, don’t just crack down on inspections, and don’t displace the people who contribute so much to Oakland’s rich creative culture. Try implementing reforms that put artist collectives into the affordable housing conversation. Additionally, provide housing protections, or provide infrastructure for alternative safe space if need be. This would not be an act of charity, but an investment in the entire city’s ecosystem.
What Oakland needs is not fewer places like the Ghost Ship, but safer ones — and the only way to make sure this happens is to truly invest in them. First responders are now left to pick up the pieces of a devastating event because the city of Oakland turned a blind eye toward its own creative force. Mayor Schaaf, the ball is in your court; what’s next?