After Ghost Ship, Oakland Artist Community Faces Mass Evictions

Members of the Oakland artist community who are living in unregulated dwellings face an uncertain future following the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.

Danielle Boudreaux, 40, who knew Derick Ion...

Dec. 2 was a devastating day for the San Francisco Bay Area and the nation as a whole after the tragic Oakland warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives.

The warehouse, known as the “Ghost Ship,” was being used as an art studio, living space, and event venue. At the time of the fire, an electronic dance party was taking place there.

One of the central issues that arose as a result of the incident is the existence of multiple unregulated alternative living spaces throughout the city. Ghost Ship is not the only artist collective space that has flown under city officials’ radar.   

Now, residents and business owners have expressed concern that something like the Ghost Ship fire could happen again at any one of the many other makeshift dwellings in Oakland.

For example, just days after the fire, an Oakland restaurant owner named Dorothy King called public attention to a warehouse adjacent to her business known as “The Salt Lick.”

King’s Everett and Jones barbecue restaurant is located in Jack London square, a prominent entertainment and business plaza on Oakland’s waterfront.

“The city can come and take these warehouses, invest into them and get the proper permits to save lives,” said King during a press conference, according to the East Bay Times. “It’s a neat place, but it needs to be regulated. It’s a fire hazard.”

Several artists associated with The Salt Lick also attended the press conference. They spoke out against King’s claims and accused her of initiating a “witch hunt.”

Although it may seem like artist collectives are now under attack due to this one horrific accident, King’s concerns are not invalid.

Many people, even beyond the artist community, are resorting to living in unsafe conditions to escape outrageous rent prices that only continue to rise as Oakland becomes a destination city.

It’s no secret that the tech boom has pushed many people out of metropolitan Bay Area cities like San Francisco and San Jose and into more urban cities like Oakland that are considered more affordable.

The Bay Area Housing Crisis is so severe that residents are being displaced left and right, with seemingly nowhere to turn but these unconventional homes that may be dangerous and even illegal, but are one step above homelessness.

The Salt Lick affiliates and King have since joined forces to organize a fire-safety benefit at Everett and Jones restaurant, which serves as proof that the community can come together with these artist collectives as opposed to condemning them.

Why can’t these residents just work directly with the city to make these dwellings safer? The fear of gentrification is one reason.

One of the artists associated with The Salt Lick named B.G. Anaraki told reporters that he lost his roommate, his best friend, and his girlfriend in the Ghost Ship fire, but he still defended the use of these spaces.

“These illegal spaces are everything in my life. My friends live for the art we created,” he said.

He also said part of the issue is that the focus seems to be on erasing their spaces and replacing them with “white-washed” versions of what they created rather than working with them to make the dwellings safer.

A perfect example of this process is a space in West Oakland known as Sugar Mountain, which was once an underground live-work venue but folded due to landlord disputes. It recently reemerged as a $8,500 per month 3-bedroom with suggested yoga studio and wine cellar, according to an op-ed by journalist and local member of the artist community Sam Lefebvre.

“The other option for a lot of us who live in warehouses here is living in the streets," said David Montoya, a former alternative living resident who was evicted this year, according to Lefebvre.

At this point, the conundrum at hand is the need to find ways to bring these buildings up to code without evicting their inhabitants. City officials, however, seem to be rounding up local artist collectives and pushing them out rather than finding a viable solution that works in everyone's favor.  

There are ways that live-work venues can exist safely and legally, and it's already being done in New York City. New York City Loft Tenants volunteer Heather Troy reportedly said that they have a program which connects tenants of illegal spaces with landlords to bring the spaces up to regulatory standards while maintaining their multifaceted creative nature.

Although the system may not be perfect, it could serve as an alternative to mass evictions.

While the future of these live-work venues remains in limbo, one thing we know for sure is that no one wants another Ghost Ship tragedy to take place. But, kicking people out on the street is not the proper preventative measure.

Furthermore, doing so doesn't make up for the broken systems that allowed these illegal housing issues to go unnoticed. You can't blame the residents for being resourceful and creating places for themselves in a city that left them hanging out to dry.

As Oakland City Council member Noel Gallo aptly said during a public meeting last week, "It takes a tragedy for us to react, and us in Oakland we got to get our act together."

Banner Photo Credit: Reuters

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