Firefighters work to clear the debris from a doorway following an overnight fire that claimed the lives of at least 36 people at a warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood on Dec 3, 2016. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
It’s been six days since the three-alarm fire at an Oakland warehouse that took the lives of 36 people. And what many in the DIY creative community feared would happen in its wake may be coming true: a crackdown on communal artist spaces.
Anticipating this backlash, the chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization board, Jesse Townley, wrote to Berkeley Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin the day after the fire and asked him to consider passing an emergency law that would allow the “right of return” for warehouses/live-work spaces found to be non-compliant with fire codes.
“In Berkeley we've seen the Drayage Building, a three decade artist warehouse, being evicted for fire codes. The owner demolished the building and now it's market rate units,” Townley wrote. “Unless there is a change in building codes allowing for reoccupancy, this tragedy will lead to even more artists pushed out of our communities.”
Townley, a singer who fronted punk bands like Blatz and the Criminals, has been attending shows at the dozens of warehouse venues around the Bay Area since he moved here in the late 1980s. He’s seen bands like Citizen Fish and amateur wrestling events like Hoodslam at these underground spaces. Townley wants them to stay around, and he says cities like Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco will need laws like New York City’s 2010 Loft Law in order for that to happen.
“I want to stop people from being afraid of code enforcement, afraid of fire marshals,” Townley said. “Right now it’s basically a quick jump from fire marshals visiting to an eviction, and that’s incredibly scary because it’s impossible to find affordable places.”
The proposed law is scheduled to be discussed at a meeting of Berkeley's 4x4 Committee on Monday, Dec. 12 at 10 am.
Both San Francisco and Oakland are former industrial hubs, and the glut of commercial properties left over from the manufacturing heyday has provided large, inexpensive spaces to enterprising artists. Some of these creative complexes, like Developing Environments in San Francisco, which has been around since the late 1960s, managed to avoid being shut down by market forces.
But even the short-lived collectives still managed to act as creative catalysts. In the early 1970s, avant weirdos the Residents rented an old print shop on Sycamore Street in San Francisco, in which they set up a recording studio. The group recorded some of their most celebrated albums at that location (Third Reich and Roll,Fingerprince) and filmed their first music videos.
In the 1980s, a collective of artists and punks, including hardcore legends MDC, worked together to turn the massive beer vats in the old Hamm's Brewery on Bryant Street in San Francisco's Mission into rooms where bands could practice and struggling artists could live.
“I was at an age of 22, 23, 24," MDC singer Dave Dictor says. "I’d moved here from Austin, Texas with my band, and we wanted to focus on our art, you know, 70 hours a week."
The steel tanks in the former brewery were lined with a rubber coating and otherwise completely empty. Once they were wired for electricity, bands and artists could use them for any kind of creative pursuit, or simply to bed down for the night. While staying in the Vats, MDC developed the songs that would make up their Multi-Death Corporations EP. That release saw the band pushing its technical abilities to play at breakneck speeds, as well as address much larger political topics, such as the impact of unrestrained capitalism.
There are many other stories of Bay Area alternative spaces that enabled bands to take their music to the next level, such as the Oakland hardcore band Neurosis, which morphed into the tribal-tinged doom metal juggernaut while the members lived at the New Method warehouse in Emeryville during the late '80s and early '90s.
Before the Oakland warehouse fire, landlords were looking for opportunities to shut down underground arts spaces. In the wake of last weekend's devastating blaze, artists' fear of eviction from these venues seems even more real.
In recent months, landlods have already shut down long-running DIY venues such as Sugar Mountain, Lobot Gallery, and the Creamery, later called Ghost Town, which came into existence in 1999 when then-Mayor Jerry Brown was calling for artists to come to Oakland.
Ghost Town was shut down earlier this year after the landlord evicted its dozen-or-so tenants. The inhabitants battled the owner in court and lost; the judge said they needed to be removed so the facility could be brought up to code. The tenants were not given the right to return after renovations and had to move out within five days of the court decision.
The old Creamery was upgraded in the months following the eviction, and now, one three-bedroom space inside the building is on the rental market for $8,500 a month.
With property values skyrocketing, artists worry that local governments will punish these spaces rather than help them.
“The predictably knee-jerk reaction from local governments is going to have lasting, devastating effects on arts communities nationwide,” Aaron Muszalski, the artist who designed and builds the iconic Burning Man statue, recently tweeted.
Muszalski wrote in an email that he lived in warehouse spaces for more than 20 years, but stopped after his San Francisco collective, Headless Point, burned down in 2004. (No one was injured). Muszalski says officials should be looking more closely at why artists desire to live in what he calls “warehomes” to better understand the issues.
“The housing shortage is one factor, but not the only one," Muszalski wrote. "If 50,000 low-income apartments appeared tomorrow, many would still choose warehomes. Most obviously, apartments (and condos, rental houses, and even most “live/work artist lofts”) make shitty art studios. Totally impractical. And few artists can afford to rent studio space separate from their dwellings. Especially given the current Bay Area economy.”
What cannot be denied is how these underground spaces offer something rare: community and meaning. As Muszalski puts it, "Warehomes make chosen family possible."
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