Thoughts on the Oakland Ghost Ship fire

Long time readers may know that fire is among my biggest fears. I fear fire in every rickety wooden space where I go to play or hear music. Most are fairly safe, with alarms, sprinklers and clear corridors. And even in those few cases where there weren’t, my attention shifted to the music, fellowship and always had a wonderful time. That’s why we go. It’s what we do, it’s what we love. We, artists, have no choice but to create and participate. It could have been any of us.

Oakland warehouse fire
[By Janna487 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

By last count, the fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland on December 2 claimed 36 lives. We at CatSynth send our thoughts and condolences to their families and close friends. I was worried for many dear friends who might have been there. They fortunately have all checked in safe in the week since, but they are grieving deeply in the aftermath for their friends who were lost. I feel for them, and try my best to remember those who perished with whom I crossed paths like Cherushii (aka Chelsea Dolan), Cash Askew, and others. But this is not my story. It is the story of my friends who knew them best. The personal remembrances they have posted are not mine to share. I did find this article helpful in understanding the victims better. Their stories are another reminder that it could have been any of us.

As we grieve, we in the arts community brace for a round of crackdowns on spaces, from both authorities and landlords. Ghost Ship was an outlier – most spaces while operating in the margins do more often than not operate with a concern for safety and cleanliness and civility. These are the spaces that are now under attack – it’s starting to happen beyond Oakland, with reports from New York, Denver, and here in SF. My own neighborhood in San Francisco was a warren of old factory buildings and warehouses that contained a thriving underground scene in the 1980s at a time when I just a kid in New York buying a first synth. I saw the waning days of that scene, with some of the last large artist-studio buildings being displaced in the past couple of years to make way for offices and condos. Fire is not necessary for authorities to displace artists, but it can certainly make it easier. But even the most safety-minded among us can’t compete easily in places when both the powerful and the populists do not value artists. New York has done better. The grim artists’ spaces of the lower east side may have long given way to boutiques, restaurants, and other upscale spaces but artists are still colonizing spaces and they have “paths to legality.” If authorities here want to help safety in a way that doesn’t show contempt for artists, a similar system of support for bringing things up to code and then operating would be useful as well.

Although I maybe starting to “age out” of some of the underground spaces of the Bay Area – even if my spirit wants to be there, my body and mind are not as enthusiastic – I still cherish many of my past experiences both as a performer and an attendee. My first time out and about in the world as Amanda was at a large warehouse space in West Oakland in 2011, and shortly afterwards I performed at a very nice space in an old factory in East Oakland as her. Some of my early shows in the mid 2000s at underground spaces in San Francisco were very informative for my solo practice today – a few of them even written up here on CatSynth, but I hesitate to link directly to them as authorities may use them in their crackdowns.

This is already a perilous time for those of us in marginalized communities, such as people of color and LGBTQ individuals. Coming together to create and enjoy, even in the edges of society, is one way we cope and thrive; and now we have to fear that may become more challenging as well. So some will forced further out to the edges. And another tragedy will happen.

It could have been any of us.

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