Essays

The Ghost Ship Fire and the Paradox of a “Creative City”

We can read into this tragedy the disastrous head-on collision of two conflicting obligations that the “creative city” imposes on itself and its residents.

A view of the carcass of the “Ghost Ship” building after the fire on December 2, 2016. Memorials, like the ones seen here, have popped up around the site. (photo credit Dina Boyer, and used with permission)

Dozens of San Francisco Bay–area artists, musicians, homeless people, at-risk youth, and members of the LGBTQ community worked, lived, or simply hung out in Oakland’s enormous, unregulated warehouse space known as the Ghost Ship, which rapidly burned to the ground on December 2, 2016, killing 36 people. And yet, those who frequented the Ghost Ship described it as a safe haven and an underground gathering space for a diverse assortment of creative people fleeing conventional housing turned unaffordable by the hyper-inflated Silicon Valley real-estate market. One of the Ghost Ship’s surviving residents summed up its sanctuary-like status, saying, “It was a known community house, a place for the creative class to support each other, gain momentum, hash out projects, and just be joyous. And this is the most tragic outcome.”

We appear to be confronted with two very different sets of criteria regarding what can be considered a “safe space.” One is rooted in alternative populations seeking respite from the omnipresent social factory and its all-pervasive marketplace; the other is based on municipal fire-code regulations intended to prevent the type of tragedies that the Ghost Ship now signifies.

Oakland’s building regulators had not been inside to inspect the warehouse in more than 30 years. Meanwhile, only one of those who died actually resided in the building; all the other victims had been attending a Friday night electronic music performance and dance party. Most of the dead were in their 20s or 30s and included musicians active in the local electronic scene, a freelance movie director, a sound engineer, a light-show producer, several painters, a poet, a philosophy student, a yoga teacher, and an up-and-coming young lawyer with degrees from MIT in physics and philosophy. Many of those who called the Ghost Ship home were similarly involved in music and the arts. Collectively, they created a virtual micro-city composed of makeshift living spaces built from repurposed plywood, shipping pallets, and fabric scrims linked together by a labyrinth of twisting pathways that meandered through accumulations of antique furniture, paintings, windup clocks, vintage radios, and musical instruments. One space was dominated by an entire recreational trailer. Like some delirious DIY museum, every part of the two-story, 10,000-square-foot building was filled with city-salvaged bric-a-brac, the whole thing powered by dozens of snaking electrical cords, which are now being considered as a possible cause of the fire. (For a description of Fort Thunder, a similarly labyrinth-like, DIY artists’ space in Rhode Island, see Brian Chippendale’s compelling piece, “The Paradox of Life-Affirming Death Traps.” )

The destruction of the Ghost Ship reminds me of another, far smaller and much less tragic incident from 2001: the burning down of Dan Peterman’s multiuse cultural space at 6100 South Blackstone Street on Chicago’s South Side. Peterman’s space — which was home to Baffler Magazine, a woodshop, a bicycle repair center, artist’s studios, and an outdoor organic garden — was rebuilt a few years after the fire as Experimental Station. Both it and the Ghost Ship, as well as many such places across the country, were located right on the point of abrasive contact between two different kinds of urban space, but also between two different and conflicting models of the so-called “creative city” regeneration paradigm. On one hand, we have a metropolis that represents itself as a place of creative industries and knowledge production. On the other, we have the actual precarious living and working circumstances of those whose coveted cultural labors are captured and celebrated by “creative city” policy promoters. On another level, both of these fire-gutted spaces were also located, as with many similar DIY communities, along the physical and legal periphery of their host municipalities. The multipurpose artists’ space that gave birth to Experimental Station was situated at the outer edge of the massive and hegemonic University of Chicago. Peterman was in constant dispute with the university’s administration, as was the surrounding African-American neighborhood, itself a community that was essentially denied access to the school’s privileged, near-Ivy League green campus. Similarly, the Ghost Ship warehouse was one of many aging industrial-era structures clustered within the primarily immigrant and Latino Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland.

The Ghost Ship represented a type of outlaw urbanism that has been at work for decades in those parts of cities that have been abandoned by capitalism. This negligence is found in both the postwar reformism of social democracy and in the now stagnating and chaotic neoliberalism that replaced it. In other words, we first encountered urban failure in the welfare-state model that led to inhuman urban renewal projects, mass segregation, and a deteriorating infrastructure. This massive policy defeat was followed by that of the neoliberal “society of risk,” which has for three and a half decades promoted a profound lack of security and accessibility, especially for precarious populations, including “creatives.” Now this, too, is in crisis, as indicated by the nationalist, xenophobic, and outright authoritarian populism that has been revealed by the recent US elections, Brexit, and similar outcomes across the developed and developing world.

And yet, within these same ostracized metropolitan zones where the urban outlaws of the Ghost Ship sailed, there also gathered those populations that the revanchist city — as the late Neil Smith called post-gentrified, gated municipalities such as the Bay Area and New York City — preferred to keep out of sight: the poor, the homeless, the addicted, and the socially spurned. Therefore, while local governments might apathetically ignore building and fire code violations, or only provide police forces who, rather than attending to the protection of the community, are focused on the management and containment of semi-employed surplus populations, these host cities continue to benefit in direct and indirect ways from these informal “creative” zones.

Once gathered within these overlooked urban spaces, the converging young and marginalized artists, musicians, queers, dissidents, and even startup entrepreneurs find themselves forced to invent (or reinvent) alternative micro-social living environments founded on an ambivalent or outright contentious relationship with city policymakers and the capitalist marketplace as a whole. But in a twist, it is through these very same DIY regenerative processes that the paradigm of the “creative city” incubates its underlying entrepreneurial value. (Art historian Malcolm Miles offers an excellent critique of the “creative city” paradigm.) By turning a blind eye towards such mixed-use cultural spaces, the municipality gains an inexpensive engine for the production of innovative cultural commodities and services that are central to the “creative city” economic model. In addition, city governments gain the added reward of concealing homeless and other unwanted populations by partitioning them out of sight from more stable and wealthier neighborhoods.

And of course, they are out of sight, but only until the moment when this volatile amalgam of government neglect, poverty, police suppression, and underground cultural experimentation is forced into the light — often through a catastrophe such as the one that befell the Ghost Ship.

As of this writing, a few weeks after the Oakland warehouse blaze, we find news reports vacillating between assigning responsibility for the fire to the building’s artist homesteaders or blaming it on the rampant urban gentrification that led them to choose such precarious living conditions in the first place. This is certainly an advancement of sorts, when the mainstream media finds it impossible to ignore the role of income inequality and residential displacement as they report on such avoidable public disasters. Artists in the Bay Area and beyond are also anticipating pressure to abandon or be evicted from these remaining affordable spaces at the outer margins of the metropolis. One can only speculate about what impact this creative-class expulsion will have on the so-called “creative cities” paradigm going forward.

Which bring us to a larger framing question involving the paradoxical pressures artists are being subjected to within a hyper-deregulated neoliberal economy where the circumstances of risk and reward are becoming all the more delirious thanks to capital’s current political crisis. The tragedy of the Ghost Ship may come to be viewed as a turning point in the decades of struggle against gentrification — or perhaps not. But we can see that this disaster signifies the extreme and dire conditions confronting marginalized populations, including many artists, as all aspects of life and work are subsumed by the allegedly normalizing chaos of the marketplace.

In other words, we can read into this tragedy the disastrous head-on collision of two conflicting obligations that the creative city imposes on itself and its residents: on one hand there is the demand for a steady supply of creative products and services, but these are generated by precarious workers who, on the other hand, will increasingly collide with the dictates of capital for ever-compounding rates of profit, as theorist David Harvey has pointed out. These profit rates are most easily realizable — in fact, they might only be ultimately possible — by way of such mechanisms as real-estate schemes, credit bubbles, and other desperate financial methods that in turn leave even less informal space for those who attempt to survive on the outer margins of the global 1% city. There is no doubt that informal cultural enclaves such as the Ghost Ship will be replaced by regulated “creative” zones that are too costly for most artists and musicians to live and work in, leading to still more luxury residential sectors like Soho, Tribeca, or Chelsea. And those artists most likely to survive in the aftermath of such total gentrification, aside from the few who profit directly from the art market, will be capable of scaling up their practice to establish a “normal” relationship with society until they become almost indistinguishable from the creative city itself, even if the urban regenerative model once rooted in what was no doubt a set of sincere reformist impulses can now live on in name only. After the creative city comes the “creative city.”

We see now the adversarial city that we have helped create. It is a precise replica of itself: a repetitive loop as conceptually redundant as it is historically empty. Oh, the mysteries of the creative class! We have seen the enemy, and they is us.

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