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After the Ghost Ship Tragedy, Bay Area Artists Fear Crackdown on DIY Spaces

The deadly fire at the Oakland art space earlier this month has brought intensified scrutiny to live-work warehouse complexes, many of which are illegal or not up to code.

Firefighters inside the ruins of the Ghost Ship warehouse (photo courtesy Oakland Police Department)
Firefighters inside the ruins of the Ghost Ship warehouse (photo courtesy Oakland Police Department)

OAKLAND — Mya Byrne didn’t know many people in Oakland before moving there from New York, but she moved into a warehouse called LoBot and was soon at the center of a pulsing, thrumming underground arts center. As exemplified by LoBot and Ghost Ship — the warehouse consumed in Oakland’s deadliest fire — warehouses repurposed into live-work art spaces are cultural nuclei for the Bay Area arts scene.

The media coverage in the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire has focused on the importance of warehouses as cheap places to live while gentrification fuels skyrocketing rents. But beyond cheap rent, warehouses — called ‘warehomes’ by some — offer open spaces, opportunities for collaboration, and community around arts practices. When done right, the results are unparalleled artistic expression and community. When done wrong, the spaces can be hazardous, even deadly, as we’ve seen recently.

The national and international interest in Ghost Ship’s story has put Oakland warehouse spaces under extreme scrutiny from frenzied media coverage. Some of the attention has been in support of the arts communities, but much has highlighted cultures that general readerships and audiences find difficult to understand. The vigil held after the fire, which offered a chance for the Ghost Ship community to grieve and share support, was swarmed with television news crews seeking community members to interview and using bright lights to take photos and footage of mourners holding electric candles. San Francisco has begun cracking down on spaces, and inhabitants of warehouses throughout the Bay fear increased inspections and evictions.

Aerial view of the Ghost Ship warehouse (photo courtesy Oakland Police Department)
Aerial view of the Ghost Ship warehouse (photo courtesy Oakland Police Department)

Live-work warehouses exist in other cities, but are especially common in Oakland, perhaps a function of the relative affordability of rent in the city’s previously-industrial areas. Oakland is a haven for large-scale industrial art, served well by warehouse workshops that offer plentiful space and fire-proof cement structures. San Francisco, too, has a long history of artists’ warehouses, but because of the city’s advanced gentrification, many former industrial buildings there have been bought and razed to make way for conventional housing.

At LoBot, Byrne had an automatic venue for her music — folk-rock Americana — and was on her way to building a recording studio when the warehouse was shut down under vague circumstances in July of this year, following a visit from the landlord. The closing of LoBot was a huge loss for West Oakland’s arts community. The vitality of such spaces is amplified by an arts ecology that supports formally educated artists — through grants and residencies — and leaves the rest on the fringe, often without funding or access to formal venues.

Warehouses offer physically unstructured space to artists who can’t fit their work into a typical house or gallery, and accessible rehearsal and performance spaces for those without access to traditional venues. “Where else are people going to create large-scale art pieces?” Byrne asked. “Where else are people going to mount experimental musicals or flesh out their work in front of a live audience?”

Cindy Shih, part of the Pacific Felt Factory — a warehouse that is above ground and up-to-code—said she used to work on small paintings, but after moving her studio to the warehouse, she expanded the size of her work. Now her paintings are sometimes six feet long. “I didn’t actually go to art school,” Shih said. “So, to me, this is art school.”

Another artist whom we’ll call A — he requested to be quoted anonymously due to some extremists on the right persecuting DIY art spaces and their inhabitants — lived at two different warehomes and said many have “small bedrooms with a massive amount of common space.” In one of his spaces, the first floor held aerial silks for dance, a platform for experiencing virtual reality, space for a motorcycle shop, a sewing and crafting room, and a music practice space. Upstairs, there was an office space and on the third floor a cozy common area, large enough for meetings with an associated art collective.

Cindy Shih's studio at the Pacific Felt Factory warehouse (photo by and courtesy Cindy Shih)
Cindy Shih’s studio at the Pacific Felt Factory warehouse (photo by and courtesy Cindy Shih)

These spaces are all designed and built by those who live there, without help from landlords, but A said this allows tenants physical control over the space. Even without the capital needed to pay someone for renovations, tenants have collective buying power and pooled labor, a benefit of living with a group. Musician Sia Mozaffari, who lived for four years in San Francisco in a warehouse he declined to name because the building is zoned for commercial use, said, “If you have a vision of what you want to do with the space, and as long as you clear it with everyone else, you can execute it.”

Because the spaces are so large, they also become venues for performance art. “In the main gallery [at LoBot] we had a 23-foot ceiling, so you could do anything,” Byrne said. Warehouses can host performances and art without being concerned with the imperative to turn a profit. Byrne said that in urban areas, there has been an influx of culture that devalues ‘outsider art,’ a term she’s loathe to use because she said she feels very much “on the inside” of it. She said warehouses often become the go-to for performances that would otherwise be held in small theaters, a type of venue severely lacking in the Bay Area.

The warehouse where Mozaffari lived hosts concerts, art shows, and spoken word poetry. One of his favorite events was a large Thanksgiving dinner the tenants hosted for all of their friends in the Bay who didn’t have family celebrations to attend. Their giant industrial kitchen allowed them to cook for as many people as could attend.

Byrne said that Lobot nurtured a community often pushed out of the mainstream. “In our current time and place,” she said, “and speaking as a trans woman especially, they offer a degree of protection from the outside world.” One of her first performances in the Bay, held at LoBot, was a music show with a lineup including three trans women. She said that not all warehouses are utopias, but “there’s a particular culture here that values that diversity and allows for shows that would never happen anywhere else to happen.”

The diversity of artists involved in spaces like these nurtures collaboration and the intersection of ideas and craft. LoBot housed filmmakers, a private chef, leather workers, carpenters, printmakers, painters, installation artists, sculptors, musicians, poets and, electronic art makers. The resulting atmosphere made cross-pollination inevitable.

Inside the Pacific Felt Factory warehouse (photo by and courtesy Cindy Shih)
Inside the Pacific Felt Factory warehouse (photo by and courtesy Cindy Shih)

Mozaffari said that before living in his warehouse, he avoided collaboration, but being among other artists taught him the value of working on other peoples’ ideas. A band emerged from his warehouse, and eventually they built a recording space in one of the rooms.

The downsides of living in a warehouse are many. It poses the same problems as any large group house — sharing bathrooms, the possibility of group drama, and so on. Because the lease is typically commercial rather than residential and thus the tenants are living there illegally, landlords don’t take care of the space. To advocate for their own safety, in the wake of Ghost Ship, some makers and artists have begun demanding more rigorous fire safety measures. Spike Kahn, Director and Founder of Pacific Felt Factory, has, with the help of the San Francisco Fire Department, organized a safety training session on January 3 for anyone interested.

Kahn said that cities are allowing developers to wipe out warehouses and artists’ spaces through gentrification. Many who live and work in warehouses also fear the crackdown on warehouse spaces post-Ghost-Ship — one that’s already begun in cities nationwide.

The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland (photo via Wikimedia)
The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland (photo via Wikimedia)

“Art is free expression and the moment when you start quashing warehouses and any space where an artist can have that space to work, it disrupts the healthy balance of social expression and social consciousness,” Byrne said. “You’re pushing people further and further out.” After the Ghost Ship fire, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a $1.7 million budget to support artists’ spaces, but Byrne says that amount of money is just a drop in the bucket of what is required to support a struggling artistic community. One warehouse in the Bay could easily sell to a developer for that sum of money.

If cities truly want to support the arts, Kahn said, they need to use public policy to help sustain these spaces — offering landlords incentives to rent to artists, and perhaps establishing something similar to New York’s Loft Law, which has helped bring buildings up to code without evicting tenants. It’s challenging to make warehouse spaces safe without interfering with artists’ creativity and autonomy, but they are essential, vital elements of the Bay area’s art ecosystem.

Since LoBot was shut down, its members have bounced around, some sleeping on couches, some moving away from the Bay entirely. Byrne said LoBot was the only place she’s been that truly felt like home. She has struggled to complete the art projects she began while living there and doesn’t know how she will find a place to meet both her living and working needs, a risk for all those whose warehomes are threatened.

“Art is messy; art is dirty; art is raw; art is real; art is visceral and bleeding,” Byrne said. “If there isn’t a space for that to happen … I don’t know what happens.”

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