After the Fire: The Bay Area’s Creative Arts Community Responds to the Ghost Ship Tragedy

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Agela Scrivani’s sunburst hair stands out on a street of warehouses painted muted shades of grey and beige in West Oakland. She does not have a doorbell; visitors have to phone her to come downstairs and open her door. The Oakland-based artist has lived here for eight years.

Angela Scrivani - Photo by Eric Arnold

Angela Scrivani – Photo by Eric Arnold

Scrivani agreed to meet with SF Sounds at a critical time for the creative arts community; dozens of live-work spaces and hundreds of people are facing eviction—a direct result of December’s deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire, which killed 36 people. Scrivani and her housemates received  an eviction letter from the landlord, terminating their leases for illegal subletting, two days after the fire. Scrivani wrangled a last-minute reprieve after a friend of the landlord’s agreed to do an inspection (finding just one suspect extension cord, plugged-in to a low-wattage lamp). But when her lease expires March 1st, she might have to leave the city where she was born and raised.

“It’s tough to keep up with my own mental clarity within all of this. Everyone worried about being evicted for years, but the fire just amplified the situation,” she says in her living room surrounded by plants, paintings, and blank canvasses. “My landlord said that the Ghost Ship fire was the reason [for the eviction], but this housing crisis has been breaking down our community for years. And we are just tired of coming to a place, creating something beautiful, and having to leave it because we can’t afford it anymore.” Pointing out her window, she adds, “Just look at that monstrosity.”

Scrivani is referring to the massive ground-up construction site across the street. The gutted dirt lot is the size of three football fields and the future location of 171 townhomes. Two- and three-bedroom units list between $615,000 and $860,000;  most have already been sold.

Photo by Dina Boyer

Photo by Dina Boyer

The moment carries an ominous weight to the conversation. Scrivani, who works as a curator at Warehouse 416 (a progressive Uptown Oakland art gallery owned by her family), has always believed that what made artists special was their ability to see the possibilities of empty spaces. But when she looks out her window today, she is sadly reminded of her own looming displacement and the encroachment of gentrification around her neighborhood.

“Artists simply can’t compete with buying or renting [places like]these,” she says. “A lot of people are terrified to talk right now, for good reason. Landlords don’t want to make renovations. People are fearful their homes will be inspected and tagged.” Her next comment cuts the deepest:  “So far, we have gotten a lot of empathy, but no real action from the city.”

A month after California’s deadliest modern-day fire, some are still looking for reasons why the tragedy happened. There are those who blame an absentee owner (who paid over $26,000 in code enforcement fines between 2005 and 2014). Others point to a leaseholder who allegedly illegally sublet makeshift living spaces and reportedly ignored safety warnings for years. Lax city inspections have also been criticized, as have people willing to live in substandard housing in order to be part of a DIY creative arts scene.

Courtesy of OaklandGhostShip.com

An interior photograph of Ghost Ship before the fire. – Courtesy of OaklandGhostShip.com

After the fire, the national media spotlight turned its attention to Oakland; dozens of major media outlets parachuted in to cover a story which was already well-covered by local media. On December 6th, Oakland’s interim Director of Planning and Building, Darin Ranelletti, told KGO-TV city records indicated the Ghost Ship site had not been inspected in 30 years.

Following that disclosure, Ranelletti’s voice became noticeably absent from the press (multiple attempts to reach him were not answered); Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that language regarding the frequency of inspections of commercial buildings on Oakland’s city website was modified from “mandatory annual inspections” to inspections “approximately” every two years.”

If the city was attempting to limit its liability to stave off possible litigation—by having officials maintain radio silence and surreptitiously scrubbing its own accountability procedures—those clumsy tactics don’t appear to have fooled anyone.

On December 23rd, San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who represents the families of two of the Ghost Ship victims, Griffin Madden and Michela Gregory, filed the first of what could be several lawsuits related to the fire. The wrongful death suit charged the building owner, Chor Nar Siu Ng and her daughter, Eva Ng; master tenants Derick “Ion” Almena and Micah Allison; promoter John Hrabko; DJ Golden Donna, who hosted the tragic event; and the landlords of two neighboring properties. Alexander also filed complaints against the city of Oakland and Alameda County—precursors to full-blown litigation.

Photo by Dina Boyer

Photo by Dina Boyer

The Ghost Ship fire heightened the anxieties of an arts scene already under pressure. In September 2015, the SF Art Commission released a survey which found that 70 percent of the city’s artists had either been displaced or were facing displacement. In the months leading up to the Ghost Ship fire, that pressure has only increased: several hubs of Oakland’s DIY art community have been shuttered, including Ghost Town Gallery, LoBot, Rock Paper Scissors, and the 25th St. Collective. Two weeks after the fire, Qilombo, a radical, people-of-color-centered community space along the San Pablo corridor in West Oakland, received an cease-and-desist notice, after two years of fighting their landlord and the city.

In nearby Richmond, 30 artists were evicted from Bridge Storage and ArtSpace over safety concerns within a week of the fire; building owner Jeff Wright told the SF Chronicle the move was prompted by the city’s adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy. Burnt Ramen, another Richmond live-work warehouse known for its punk rock concerts, was red-tagged by the city on December 16. Meanwhile, San Francisco building inspectors are reportedly looking at live-work spaces in the Bayview and Hunters Point.

Unfortunately, the blast radius of evictions from artist spaces extends beyond the Bay Area; according to the Chronicle, cities including New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Philadelphia, Dallas,  Indianapolis, Baltimore, New Haven, Conn., and Dubuque, Iowa are either revising their live-work policies or have already started red-tagging spaces since Dec. 2nd.

In the Bay Area, fear of displacement is an all-too-common thread within the arts community. Few of the more than 20 people connected to the contemporary arts scene were willing to go on record.

Most agreed that transparency would help move the conversation forward, but they also indicated they were afraid of being targeted by landlords and city officials and/or had concerns their comments might draw negative attention to their respective communities.

At present, several concurrent narratives are unfolding. Some politicians, like Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, have been accused of lip service as a city nervously waits for the results of internal policy review.  During a vigil for fire victims, Schaaf was booed off the stage, after she told the audience, “You will not be displaced in the place you call home.” She has also been criticized for appearing to take credit for a $1.7 million arts grant, announced by the city the week after the fire, which had reportedly been in the works for a year.

The second narrative, which contradicts Schaaf’s assertion that there will be no “witch hunt” of artist spaces, suggests that the city is stepping up inspections, with or without due process.

A third narrative revolves around the response of the creative community, which has included the forming of new artist advocacy groups, such as We the Artists of the Bay Area and the Oakland Warehouse Coalition; the collecting of 10,000 signatures for an petition advocating a moratorium on SF evictions; a proposed tenant-rights ordinance in Oakland; memorials ranging from benefit concerts to altars; and increased emphasis within the DIY community on practicing safety precautions and navigating zoning code regulations. A few brave community members are even fighting back against what they see as undue harassment by the city.

David Keenan, an organizer with Oakland community center Omni Commons, is one such advocate for artists facing the threat of eviction since the fire. For the past three weeks, Keenan has visited two to three different live-work locations every other night to advise folks on how to create safer living spaces.

Perhaps non-coincidentally, the collective Keenan organizes with has also been placed in the code enforcement crosshairs. After receiving an anonymous complaint against Omni Commons a week after the fire, city inspectors found no violations of fire codes, and no evidence of residential use. But just five days after passing inspection, a second anonymous complaint prompted Oakland’s acting building official, Tim Low, to urge the venue’s shutdown.

Repeated attempts to contact Low went unanswered, however, email correspondence reveals Low’s stated reason was a curious reading of an obscure map of the building from 1951, which appears to erroneously conclude the building used to sell heat stoves. Low’s interpretation of a 65 year-old map could mean the displacement of 12 organizations who call Omni home, including feminist co-op Art Bison Design; radical film and video collective Liberated Lens; and Timeless, Infinite Light, a small press focused on contemporary poetry.

When asked what he made of Low’s interpretation Keenan says, “No one can overrule these decisions, because no one is above these guys. They are deliberately going after legitimate community centers and places of lawful assembly that have passed all of the proper inspections.” He adds, “It shows how building officials can unilaterally decide that a space was [originally]built for something other than what it’s [currently]used for.” Keenan believes Low is “acting independently” and should face sanctions.

It’s  unclear whether Omni’s conundrum foreshadows future crackdowns of volunteer-driven non-profits or reflects a personal vendetta. However, Qilombo’s letter from the city instructed organizers to stop “holding public gatherings,” without citing any specific health or safety concerns or detailing how to bring the space up to code.

Attorney James Cook, who works with civil rights defender John Burris, believes that an argument could be made that this is a civil rights issue. “The 14th Amendment requires due process whenever you are talking about taking away someone’s property, and these evictions can bring up constitutional issues especially in the Bay Area, where they often disproportionately affect people of color or protected classes.” This interpretation is often referred to as “just cause,” which also happens to be the name of an affordable housing/tenant rights-focused non-profit with offices in Oakland and SF.

A few weeks ago, Cook presided over an introductory meeting with members of the artist community at Burris’ office in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. He anticipates a follow-up town hall meeting, aimed at discussing concerns of landlords, in late January. In the meantime, some arts advocates have taken it upon themselves to let the city know that the issue is not going away quietly.

Sarah Sexton, a booker for Starline Social Club and founder of OIM Records, lost several close friends in the fire. The tragedy, she says, has become an ironic source of inspiration. “It has gone from being just another night out on the town, to where you are grateful for every face that you recognize in the streets,” she says. Managing the heartbreak of the loss has not been easy for her, but Sexton is moving decidedly forward by organizing benefit concerts around the city.

When asked what lessons she has learned from the past few weeks, she pauses for a moment before saying, “The fire changed how we relate to each other. [Oakland] was already a tight- knit world, but there was a big overlap with all of the different scenes. In some ways, the fire allowed for us to break down barriers and see how much we care about each other…
I think people can feel that.”

This general sentiment of hope also seems to be the driving force behind new collectives and advocacy efforts which have seemingly emerged overnight from the fire’s ashes. Liana Sananda of We the Artists says, “The creative community is being framed as unlawful and not contributing to society, and that has to change.”

While the long term sustainability of these fledgling organizations remains to be seen, their formation represents a testament to the sheer will of the people.

So too does the 10,000-signature petition against red-tagging collected and delivered to SF’s Department of Building Inspection by Julie Mastrine. Spurred by her sister facing eviction, Mastrine saw an opportunity to draw attention to what she believes was an unfair practice.

“I feel that my case was well-received and I know that the sympathy is there,” Mastrine says, adding,  “I just hope that this sympathy translates into an environment where artists are not worried about getting evicted. The next step is really in the city’s court.”

At press time, Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan agreed to host a special assembly meeting January 4 to present a draft resolution which proposed, among other things, an “emergency moratorium on evictions.”

Angela Scrivani - Photo by Eric Arnold

Angela Scrivani – Photo by Eric Arnold

Back at her West Oakland warehouse, Scrivani reflects on the past month of meetings, memorials, and conversations she’s had with people. “There is a lot of great organizing and things coming out of this, but I feel as if I have been in the center of a tornado and spun out. Eventually, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to fight this hard to live here?’ I want to follow my passions, but can’t live in a city where this is allowed. And I am just not sure if our community can survive living in this desperate
situation.”


Additional reporting by Eric Arnold

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