For Oakland Artists, Uncertainty About Future of Warehouse Spaces

Firefighters at the scene of the Oakland Warehouse Fire (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

It was a jarring sensation Saturday night: From the vigil at Ghost Ship, the burned-out warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale where dozens died, I could walk to an art party, just a block away. It was open studios weekend in Jingletown, a tiny Oakland neighborhood between BART and the Nimitz, where new condos mix with old warehouses filled with artists.

Norton Factory Studios owner Walter Craven
Norton Factory Studios owner Walter Craven. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

“This is a tip jar at the bar,” said Walter Craven, the owner of Norton Factory Studios. “And we’re going to donate every dollar we make tonight to help out the people affected by the fire."

Photos of the Ghost Ship warehouse depict extravagantly decorated and cluttered rooms, and survivors described a homemade staircase to the second floor, where many were trapped. Oakland city inspectors had opened an investigation into the safety of Ghost Ship, where there were no sprinklers. At Craven’s building nearby, the studios and common spaces are clean and well lit, with backup lighting at exits in case of a fire.

“It’s up to code,” Craven said, “because we’ve engaged the city. I do know of a lot of other places, that I cannot mention, that don’t engage the city."

But artists say they often put up with unsafe conditions to secure a bigger space, or because they fear getting priced out of the Bay Area.

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“If you’re any kind of artist, you have sacrificed safety for your passion,” said Scape Martinez, one of the 25 artists at Norton. Martinez is well-known, but for years he drove from his home in Newark to Sacramento and back, to find a studio he could afford. Making a fuss over inadequate heat or fire protection, Martinez said, is just asking for a rent hike or an eviction notice. “We live in some dire times in terms of just finding space to exist.”

Scape Martinez is one of the artists at Norton Factory Studios
Scape Martinez is one of the artists at Norton Factory Studios. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

For Oakland city leaders, the fire is a wake-up call. Councilman Noel Gallo says the city will have to find the money to pay for more thorough fire inspections.

“We recognize that we should have been more assertive in the past," Gallo told KQED's Devin Katayama, "but now we’ll expedite that action."

But some in the artist community fear even a well-intentioned crackdown will end up displacing artists.

“A building gets renovated,” said artist Laura Hoke, “and instead of being rented back to artists it gets turned into condos. I just don’t want to see people pushed out of places they’ve been in for years, or decades."

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