Oakland Warehouse Artists Unite to Stay Safe — And to Petition City Hall

Artist Rose Kelly practices with a fire extinguisher at a training sponsored by We the Artists of the Bay Area. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

In the Bay Area, artists and makers are banding together because they’re spooked.

“This stuff makes me feel, oh my god, I have to go more underground,” said one San Francisco artist at a recent fire safety event. She wouldn’t give her name, for fear of attracting attention -- like the two recent safety inspections that came after a complaint from a neighbor, despite her live/work space being legal.

“I don’t want to come from a place of fear. And now we’re all kind of like, oh my god, are they going to come and get us next.”

While artists in the Bay Area have spent the past month mourning the 36 people killed in the Ghost Ship Fire, they’ve also been organizing to protect unconventional, sometimes illegal, studio spaces. And they have good reason to worry: one artist group estimates that cities and landlords have shut down 20 artist and maker spaces nationwide in the past month.

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It's a Catch-22 for some: those living in warehouses can't ask city departments for help with safety upgrades without alerting the powers that be to their existence. So they’re turning to grassroots organizations working as underground safety consultants.

David Keenan, an organizer with the DIY Safety Group and the Omni Commons collective
David Keenan, an organizer with the DIY Safety Group and the Omni Commons collective. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

“We tried to create an intake,” said David Keenan, an organizer with the DIY Safety Group, a coalition of artists, makers, contractors, and electricians. “Someone would email (us), saying, ‘Oh god, I’ve got this notice of inspection tomorrow, I’m trying to make it safer, can you guys help.”

Keenan said the safety group then sends out experts to fix the problems -- experts who know the minutiae of the fire code. "Your fire extinguishers aren’t tagged right," he says, "or they’re at the wrong height -- or they’re not there.”

Another group, We the Artists of the Bay Area has been providing similar help.

We the Artists of the Bay Area gave away free fire extinguishers and smoke alarms at a recent event
We the Artists of the Bay Area gave away free fire extinguishers and smoke alarms at a recent event. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

A few days ago, a steady stream of artists stopped by a West Oakland studio to pick up free fire extinguishers and get trained on how to use them. We the Artists had posted the giveaway on its Facebook page.

“You know when you’re living on the edge, behind the curtain in some of these spaces, your responsibility is almost tripled as far as life safety,” said Dave X. He had rigged up a propane stove to burst into flame so tenants could practice using a fire extinguisher the right way.

Dave X talks fire safety with artist Rose Kelly
Dave X talks fire safety with artist Rose Kelly. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Dave X manages events with fire and fireworks at the annual Burning Man festival. We the Artists, he said, is doing a kind of harm-reduction program to make legal and illegal studios safer.

“I hate to liken it to a needle exchange,” Dave X said, between demos. “But in a way it kind of is. People living in the fringe come to seek out safety services where they can, without exposing themselves to the repercussions of maybe going to a city agency to ask for that help.”

Still another artists group, the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, has proposed a moratorium on evictions, and is asking the City Council to vote on it at their meeting scheduled for Jan 25. [UPDATE: The meeting has been moved to Jan. 23.]

Jonah Strauss co-founder of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition
Jonah Strauss, co-founder of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

"Our most at-risk and marginalized tenants are low-income people of color, immigrants, working class people, queer people, transgender, artists and musicians," said Warehouse Coalition co-founder Jonah Strauss at a recent city council hearing. "These folks are crucial to maintaining our civic and cultural and racial balance, and we owe it to our people to keep Oakland diverse and protect them."

A welcome sign at the Omni Commons collective in North Oakland
A welcome sign at the Omni Commons collective in North Oakland. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Even the most safety-conscious artists and makers have felt under attack. DIY Safety Group’s David Keenan is also an organizer with the Omni Commons, a group of maker collectives that recently bought an old Italian clubhouse in North Oakland. He showed me around the sprawling space, built in 1934. One room was cluttered with computers (the hacker collective Sudoroom) and lab equipment (the biohacker collective Counter Culture Labs). Keenan explained how the group did all its own code and safety upgrades.

“This is an exit sign with what’s called bug eyes,” Keenan said, standing in a doorway equipped with an exit sign plus battery and emergency lights.

Next to the doorway Keenan pointed to a DIY exit map, made by the collective, saving the five thousand dollars they'd been quoted for the service. “And they’re stamped and signed by the fire marshall, everything’s to code. The exact inches of the text. The colors of the stairs, the fact that this is a non-reflective plexiglass panel that’s exactly a ¼ inch thick.”

An evacuation map signed by the Oakland Fire Marshall at the Omni Commons
An evacuation map signed by the Oakland Fire Marshall at the Omni Commons. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

But just before Christmas, a senior Oakland building inspector threatened to revoke the building’s status as a meeting and maker space after misreading an old insurance map showing fire hazards in the neighborhood.

“I would say it’s an act of bad faith by the building official,” Keenan said, “who basically had an agenda, probably based on a fear of liability for the city; a knee-jerk reaction to shut down all assemblies.”

Keenan challenged the inspector's reading of the map, and won the dispute.

Oakland officials say they’re still fine-tuning the balance between safety and protecting artists and makers against eviction. “We’ve learned a lot from that,” said Assistant City Administrator, Claudia Cappio, referring to what she called "the Omni Commons screwup.”

“Part of it is making sure that our on-the-ground folks have really consistent and clear direction from us,” Cappio said. “That’s in process.”

City officials around the Bay Area say they have to be extra conscious of safety after the deadly fire in the Ghost Ship warehouse, the inside of which Oakland fire officials had never inspected. “Safety first is a really big principle in all of this,” Cappio said. “And not to overreact, but there is an increased level of scrutiny.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Oakland Warehouse known as the Ghost Ship
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Last week, Mayor Libby Schaaf issued an executive order that puts a high priority on avoiding eviction. City inspectors are ordered to give landlords with illegal units 60 days to come up with a safety plan, and more time to make necessary improvements, as long as there’s no immediate threat to tenant safety.

“While this executive order will not make everybody happy, it is a clear path that we believe does the best job of maximizing both safety as well as our need to preserve housing and creative space.”

Schaaf says the city has money from a housing bond and other sources to help landlords pay for safety improvements, so long as they can guarantee that rents will remain affordable. And she’s backing a measure from City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan that would provide tenants more relocation money if they are evicted due to code violations.

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The executive order, Schaaf says, is a direct response to the lobbying of artist and maker groups. The question now is: will landlords join the effort?

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