The deadly fire in a warehouse-turned-art-venue has nonprofits stepping up to ensure it never happens again
Oakland’s arts community was shaken in December 2016 when a fire killed 36 people attending a concert at the Ghost Ship. The crowd packed a run-down warehouse that operated as an artist collective. It was the deadliest fire in the city’s history, prompting a grassroots movement to ensure the tragedy is never repeated.
After the fire, a number of safety problems at the Ghost Ship came to light. The warehouse was not permitted for residential or entertainment purposes. Plus, the building had shoddy electrical wiring and physical obstacles throughout.
What happened at the Ghost Ship could have happened in a number of worn-down buildings throughout the Bay Area. In a place that’s among the most expensive places to live, it’s difficult for artists and art venues to find affordable real estate. So, they’re tempted to cut corners.
But several groups have stepped up to ensure artists and art venues can operate affordably and safely.
Safer DIY Spaces
In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, a group of architects, artists, contractors, and community organizers pooled their talents and resources. Together, they started Safer DIY Spaces, an Oakland-based nonprofit.
It offers confidential guidance, technical support and labor assistance to people in the Bay Area who work or live in non-traditional spaces. The group calls them “DIY spaces.”
Because those DIY places, like the Ghost Ship, are often out of compliance with building and fire codes, the people in them risk physical harm. Or, the organizations who operate out of the venues are evicted because they cannot afford to bring the space up to code.
Safer DIY Spaces offers guidance, reparative construction and permit preparation, helping these DIY communities become safer. The organization also acts as an advocate for these DIY communities to building and fire departments, encouraging cities to adopt “safer, more compassionate” codes.
Stabilizing Arts with CAST
The Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) purchases and leases space for the exclusive use of nonprofit arts organizations. On its website, CAST notes that Bay Area rents have increased substantially over the last several years. “Keeping space for arts and culture organizations have become a significant challenge.”
The San Francisco-based organization established Keeping Space – Oakland. It’s a pilot program designed to “build the capacity of the Oakland arts and culture sector to be “real estate ready.” It also helps protects arts and cultural groups against displacement.
Oakland city government
The City of Oakland hasn’t sat on the sidelines of this grassroots art resurgence. The city established a Cultural Funding Program that gives about $1 million each year to Oakland-based art and cultural activities. The grant money funds programs that “reflect the diversity of the city.”
It has been said that “out of tragedy comes opportunity.” If there is any solace to be found for those who lost their lives in the Ghost Ship fire, it is the incredible amount of support for the arts that followed.
Oakland’s arts scene, facing enormous obstacles, has the support of its community and an incredible opportunity to grow and thrive.
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.