After the devastating warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives earlier this month, hundreds of people stopped by the four-block area cordoned off by police. Crews worked for five days straight on recovery efforts, while makeshift memorials grew by fences surrounding the site of California's deadliest structure fire since the 1906 earthquake.
Several neighbors and others who had regularly seen the warehouse building known as the Ghost Ship said they knew little to nothing about the arts collective that resided there for years. Oakland's Fruitvale district is home to many arts collectives in warehouses and other old buildings, but the Ghost Ship was not well known to its largely Latino immigrant neighborhood, say artists and residents alike.
"I passed by the building plenty of times, but I always thought it was abandoned," said Victor Lopez, 24, who had lived for years on the same block as the Ghost Ship. "Now it's shocking to me that people stayed there."
"I never knew what was going in the building," said Karen Benjamin, a Fruitvale resident who frequents the Wendy's restaurant across the street from the warehouse. "When I heard the conditions people were living in and lives lost, it touched my heart in a sad way."
Just steps away from the charred remains of the Ghost Ship, large murals decorate buildings on Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard, a major intersection in the neighborhood. Clothing and grocery stores, restaurants and other mom-and-pop businesses line the crowded streets.
Maria Sanchez walks through that area frequently talking to small-business owners and residents. As manager of a local business district improvement program, Sanchez makes sure streets are clean and free of graffiti. She brings together artists to create mosaic murals and colorful paintings at parks and other communal areas.
"It’s a lot of artists here in the Fruitvale district. I think this brings us together, because we don’t need to talk, just expressing (ourselves) doing art," said Sanchez, a native of Mexico who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years. The nonprofit Sanchez works for, the Unity Council, organizes the popular Dia de los Muertos and other cultural events that promote the Fruitvale.
Sanchez said although she didn't know much about the Ghost Ship, the warehouse was one of many arts spaces in the area, which have multiplied in recent years. Many artists coming to the Fruitvale appreciate the neighborhood's diversity -- including African-American, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern communities -- and lower housing prices compared to cities like San Francisco, she said.
"San Francisco is impossible to pay rent, and here in Oakland it's more affordable," Sanchez said.
Local artist Favianna Rodriguez, who lives two blocks from the Ghost Ship, said artists have repurposed various warehouses and other old buildings from the Fruitvale's industrial past, particularly on the border with Alameda and along the BART train line.
"You see them, they are very frequent," said Rodriguez, co-founder of the Eastside Arts Alliance & Cultural Center in the nearby San Antonio neighborhood.
While some arts collectives are well organized and engaged with the surrounding community, others remain more insular and functioning under the radar, Rodriguez said.
"This institution in particular, the Ghost Ship, was not very engaged. A lot of people didn’t know what that place was," said Rodriguez, who grew up in the Fruitvale. "But I think it's important for cultural centers to be involved with the community because that’s how places are kept safe."
Rodriguez said when arts spaces are open to outsiders and welcome feedback in their decision-making, that helps create accountability and prioritize safety. Rodriguez wants to help artists run their own safe venues while building community -- avoiding the conditions that led to the Ghost Ship fire.
"I think the role of these spaces is to create thriving communities where artists can do their work in a safe environment, where they can build community but also contribute to the local culture that is Fruitvale," Rodriguez said.