Erika D. Smith

‘Why did you live this way?’ What other choice did we have?

Oakland warehouse fire as seen by first responders

The fire erupted Friday night during a dance party at the warehouse that had been converted to artists' studios and illegal living spaces.
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The fire erupted Friday night during a dance party at the warehouse that had been converted to artists' studios and illegal living spaces.

Little by little, we’re getting answers about the Ghost Ship – just days ago, a thriving, underground artist colony and now a sad, burned-out husk of an Oakland warehouse encircled in crime scene tape.

As of Wednesday, we know that there’s no evidence of arson, that the fire started on the first floor, maybe sparked by an old refrigerator.

We know that the warehouse’s jury-rigged staircases, irresponsibly made of flammable wooden pallets, led to the first floor, but not directly to the exits. It’s one reason people, blinded and suffocated by thick smoke, couldn’t find their way out. The fact that there were no sprinklers is another.

And we know that the death toll stands at 36 and will remain there, despite fears that more bodies of young musicians, sculptors and poets, some of whom died in each other’s arms, would be found.

It’s heartbreaking, but mourning isn’t enough. Oakland and other rapidly gentrifying cities across California must do more to prevent people from feeling like they have no choice but to live in an unsafe place like the Ghost Ship, while also finding a way to preserve these super-cool artist colonies and also make them safer.

It’s a tall order in this real estate market, but it can be done. Just not if the discussion begins and ends with assigning blame over this fire.

Was the warehouse owner’s fault? What about the opportunistic and sketchy property manager, Derick Ion Almena? Or could it be the city of Oakland, which clearly dragged its feet in responding to years of complaints about code violations?

These questions will no doubt be answered in time, but there are other, arguably more important questions that need answers, too. Carmen Brito, a young woman who lived and worked at the Ghost Ship, spelled them out to reporters in a haunting interview that’s still making the rounds on Facebook.

“It was everything in my life that was beautiful and gave me joy (that) I watched burn in front of me. And people are asking, ‘Where’s your permit?’ ‘Where’s this?’ I’m like, really?” she said Monday, her voice rising. “You can go three blocks and you can see rows and tons of people who are homeless. Nobody wants to talk about the people who have been forced farther and farther out.

“San Francisco can’t house artists anymore because it’s so expensive. … And they’re asking us, ‘Why did you live this way?’ What other choice did we have?”

Indeed, when a tiny, one-bedroom apartment is going for $2,500 a month, and a huge space in an artist colony is going for an affordable $500 a month, what choice did she have? What choice does any starving artist working part time for minimum wage have?

The answer isn’t to crack down on artist colonies that have sprung up out of necessity, demanding that the owners of these warehouses bring their buildings up to code immediately – or else. That tactic, more than likely, will result in the artists getting evicted and ending up homeless on the streets.

That’s certainly the fear right now in Oakland, as well as Los Angeles.

Instead, cities should begin to value these DIY, underground creative spaces just as much as they value tech incubators. Artists give urban areas character – remember Sacramento’s Art Hotel and the murals that have sprung up around midtown – and elected officials would be wise to do everything in their power to keep them around.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced $1.7 million in grants to do just that. The money will go toward a two-year pilot real estate acquisition program to establish affordable spaces for artists. The East Bay Community Foundation’s Community Resilience Fund also is awarding grants to address some of these affordability issues.

On a more grass-roots level, several architects in the Bay Area are talking informally about forming a nonprofit agency that would use volunteers to make improvements to existing artist colonies. Included would be anything that doesn’t require a permit, such as installing lighted exit signs above doors, putting up building maps for visitors, or installing fire extinguishers and making sure tenants know how to use them.

Imagine what a difference even those little things would’ve made at the Ghost Ship.

Compared to Oakland, Sacramento has the advantage of being proactive instead of reactive. Underground artist colonies are all over the Bay Area, tucked away in warehouses filled to the brim with old furniture, instruments, space heaters and hot plates, never to be vacated because the options for living elsewhere are far too expensive.

Sacramento isn’t that expensive yet. But it’s coming. Rent for low-income residents jumped 12 percent in September compared to the same month a year ago, according to survey group Yardi Matrix, and in August, about 96 percent of all apartments were rented.

To prepare, city officials should consider ways to carve out a spaces for artists in the central city to ensure they aren’t priced out of the market any more than they already have been. Maybe these spaces are warehouses. Maybe they’re the type of co-working hubs that drive tech entrepreneurs. Maybe they’re like the Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street.

Whatever they look like, Sacramento, perhaps more than any other large city in California, needs artists. We’re staid. We need artists to thrive.

What happened at the Ghost Ship was horrific and unspeakably sad, but it doesn’t have to happen again in any California city.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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