DIY Artspaces, Gentrification and You By Nia Hampton
On Decemeber 5th, 36 people were killed in a massive fire at the Ghost Ship, a DIY artspace in Oakland, California. The fire erupted during a party, which the city of Oakland states it did not sign a permit for. The Ghost Ship was a warehouse utilized by a collective of artists from varying backgrounds. The city claims that they signed off on the space being utilized as a warehouse and not a residency, which it ultimately became. According to CNN and The Nation, there was no running water or sprinkler system in the warehouse but the space was full of furniture and instruments as well as a staircase made out of pallets. The space was shared by over 2 dozen artists who all split the rent. The Ghost Ship was also subject to various complaints, as the building was deemed to be in “disrepair”. The party that took the lives of 36 people and counting, was ironically one in a series of parties used to raise rent money.
As of today, firefighters are still sifting carefully through the remains of the disaster. And hesitantly so, as the warehouse is incredibly old and the remains of the victims were so badly burned that officials are asking loved ones to use dental records to identify the bodies. As the Oakland arts community mourns the lives of loved ones, through events and online fundraisers other artists are taking society to task, as this Ghost Ship fire is more than a just a random warehouse tragedy. It’s what happens when artists can no longer afford to live in the same city they helped create. “My heart is with Oakland. I love my creative fam there. I will be there this spring to live &Create with you. We will push thru. Creatives need access to resources to sustain up-to-code environments. We need more cultural sustainability in the USA. We are behind. Creatives in the states are constantly oppressed by not having enough public resources…we are forced to create in risky conditions or…or await privatized or corporate funding in order to sustain our practices. This is not OK. Our artist communities deserve better” tweeted music producer Suzi Analogue. Oakland has always been a hotbed of creative energy, especially for the underground scene, so the effects of the Ghost Ship tragedy will ripple across the world. That same creative energy is what also made Oakland so desirable to real estate developers who descended on the city’s proximity to San Francisco and made it the 4th most expensive rental market in the country.
It’s no wonder artists decided to ban together and pay rent for a huge space they could control. In a not so surprising turn of events, cities are using the tragedy in Oakland to crack down on other DIY art spaces under the guise of “unlivable” conditions. Last week in Baltimore City, the Bell Foundry a DIY warehouse, heavily frequented by the young queer POC art scene was closed down. Police officers showed up in response to a mysterious complaint that resulted in residents being kicked out of their homes in the middle of December, with no help from the city in regards to relocation. Ironically, the local government called themselves trying to help the artists at the Bell Foundry but ended up putting them in danger. Luckily the community came out in droves to support and started an online fundraiser to help the artists who were displaced.
Two days after the Bell Foundry, reports from Denver announced the closure of “Rhinoceropolis”, another DIY multifunctional art space where artists sometimes lived. Throughout the country there has been a rise in reports of “surprise” searches of DIY artist spaces. Which some artists are considering an attack on the underground culture. As cities are hit worse by gentrification, artists find themselves swallowed whole by unreachable costs of living. While we hope that the fire at the Ghost Ship will be the last of its kind, the news that Donald Trump wants to appoint Ben Carson as head of the Department of Urban Development makes this tragedy seem more like foreshadowing of what could be next.
So what can you do about it? First donate to the Ghost Ship fundraiser and the Bell Foundry fundraiser . Secondly, if you know artists living in DIY housing, see what you can do to support their movement. Encourage them to pool money together to buy their housing. I know it seems like a big feat, but in certain cities there are still properties being sold off for very cheap prices. A small group of people could yield more financial strength than expected. Lastly, go to City Hall and learn the housing laws of your community. Learn what landlords can and can’t do, learn your communities squatting laws, and if you’re really touched by what’s going on, buy a property and turn it into a habitable DIY multifunctional art space.
Graphic by Sophia Gach-Rasool.