Nationwide Crackdown On Warehouses Begins

The Ghost Ship is now gone. But there’s The Salt Lick, the Death Trap and other communal collectives where artists are holding emergency meetings behind locked metal doors.

Photo: AP Photo/Juliet Linderman
Baltimore officials have shut down the arts building The Bell Foundry Dec. 5 for safety violations and evicted dozens of tenants three days after a fire at a California warehouse-turned artists' enclave killed three dozen people. 

Oakland has long been hospitable to an underground art scene that flourished in its abandoned industrial warehouses and helped put this gritty city on the world’s art map. But now its art and music underground is panicking and bracing for a crackdown.

Painters, musicians and struggling artists of all types came to live and work, to perform and dance late into the night and to be surrounded by creativity.

They tolerated the exposed wiring, spotty electricity and other dangers or inconveniences of often unregulated warehouses, as a trade-off for affordable housing and studio space in one of the country’s priciest housing markets.

Those who thrive and survive in buildings with numerous building code violations fear their lifestyles, living spaces and the San Francisco Bay Area’s vibrant art scene are endangered because of the safety issues exposed by the fire that killed 36 people at a dance party in the warehouse known as the Ghost Ship. Authorities are investigating whether a refrigerator or other appliances caused the fire.

“Everyone is really worried right now. This has ignited a lot of fear,” said Mara Barenbaum, 32, a singer and musician who spent seven years in an artist collective.

She has held strategy sessions with other artists and helped write an open letter urging the city to protect “the vital artistic fabric of Oakland” by making buildings safe and not throwing artists out on the street.

The tragedy is the latest upheaval for artists in the Bay Area, who flocked to Oakland after the tech boom made San Francisco unaffordable only to have the housing crisis follow them. Oakland rents are skyrocketing, and developers are converting old warehouses into flashy apartments.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has sought to ease the artists’ concerns but also says the status quo is unacceptable. The Ghost Ship, an old warehouse carved into artist studios and illegal living spaces, had no sprinklers, no fire alarms and was ultimately ignored by city inspectors. Its eclectic, bohemian decor of old furniture combined with piles of wood and snaking electrical cords turned into a death trap.

Schaaf said the deadly fire has triggered a flood of new complaints against buildings and the city will take “aggressive and quick action to avoid any future tragedies.” However, she also vowed to protect artists and not “push out that incredible creative community that makes Oakland, Oakland.”

Simmering tension boiled over Wednesday, when an Oakland restaurant owner called a news conference to draw attention to the The Salt Lick collective. Artists turned up and accused her of launching a “witch hunt.”

“I’m concerned they could burn down my business,” said Dorothy King, whose restaurant is next to the warehouse, which she said had weekend parties with lines of people out the door. Amid shouting and finger pointing, King said, “The city should come in and help, not shut it down.”

Oakland’s artists are not encouraged by nationwide reactions to last weekend’s tragedy.

Photo: AP Photo / Eric Risberg
Fire officials walk past the remains of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif., Dec. 7.

On Monday in Baltimore, authorities evicted more than a dozen artists from a collective known as the Bell Foundry which they deemed “deplorable” and unfit for habitation.

Officials entered the two-story warehouse and gave residents one hour to pack their belongings. The Los Angeles fire chief said city officials will discuss an “aggressive response” to illegally occupied commercial spaces next week.

There are no clear numbers on how many underground live-work spaces exist in Oakland. But interviews with over a dozen artists indicate many are scattered around the city.

At the Death Trap, a single-story warehouse covered with graffiti and murals, artist Misha Naiman opened the front door but said the situation was “too sensitive” to let a reporter inside, saying she was speaking with a fire inspector and had to hold important talks with house mates. The Death Trap used to openly promote parties on social media, but has now taken down its Facebook page.

Circus artist Fallon Burner, 31, counts about five right near the Ghost Ship in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, where she lives at one and pays $1,200 for a unit with running water, electricity, a bathroom and kitchen.

“It just feels like it could be any one of us,” said Burner, who fears she could lose her home and did want to name her collective, fearing retaliation. “It’s a space exactly like many of the artists in Oakland live in, just like the space that I live in.”

Many artists say the collectives are emotional and financial safe havens. They attract not just artists but teachers, massage therapists, taxi drivers and others unable to afford Bay Area rents. The residents include people of color, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities searching for acceptance they don’t find in mainstream society.

“There’s a magical feeling to a lot of those spaces, which kind of distracts sometimes from how unsafe they are,” said Matt Hettich, an electronic musician who spent seven years in Oakland warehouses. He moved last year out of his 3-bedroom Oakland apartment when the rent went from $1,800 per month to $3,700.

Hettich and other artists say many warehouses don’t meet building code standards but are not as dangerous as the Ghost Ship and that eliminating them would deal a crucial blow to San Francisco’s experimental art culture.

Some of Oakland’s brightest talents found their footing in the underground, including Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.

“It’s been many years since I’ve lived in warehouses and communal spaces like Ghost Ship,” the Oakland native wrote in an Instagram post. “Those were some of the best and most fulfilling times in my life, living with other weirdos, artists, activists and musicians. Spaces like this allow the strange ones to thrive, and be the people that normal society rejects.”