The Quasi-Conspiracy That Caused Oakland's Deadly Ghost Ship Fire

The 2016 warehouse fire that killed 36 people was a civic tragedy decades in the making.
11/05/2018 05:14 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2018

On a Monday night in December 2016, hundreds of false flames flickered in the hands of the mourners on the northeastern end of Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

They were huddled around the lake’s pergola, a curved colonnade of plaster and wood constructed in 1913 at the behest of Frank K. Mott, a five-term mayor who’d built his reputation by presiding over a crisis of refugees flowing in after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In the century since, the crescent space had become a gathering spot for drum circles, slackline practice or a sunset shared with a tall boy. But on this chilly night, it was the focal point for the town’s ongoing memorial to the 36 people who’d died three nights earlier in a fire at the warehouse called Ghost Ship.

The service was originally designed as a candlelit affair, but organizers thought better of the optics and requested that the congregation bring “flameless candles, glow sticks, flashlights, or other types of light.” Hipster parents brought their kids, who drew chalk hearts in the sidewalk and inscribed within them the names of the dead. A parade of speakers fought the constant drone of the news chopper above to tell the stories of the lost souls and what could have been. U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee sent condolences from President Barack Obama, who’d taken time away from giving the president-elect a tutorial for his new gig.

Then it was Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s turn to speak.

“This city is going to go through a lot of emotions, and one of them is going to be anger,” Schaaf began, addressing the boos the crowd had greeted her with. “Safety is about being safe from harm. Safety is also about having safe housing, to know that you are secure and will not be displaced.”

That triggered the crowd.

“Right to return! Right to return!” someone shouted, citing the city law that ostensibly allows displaced residents to return to equivalent apartments at the same rent, but in practice, is a rule without gums let alone teeth. After two uncomfortable minutes, Schaaf mentioned something vague about Oakland “showing up” and walked back into the darkness, leaving her town to reckon with the question of who was to blame.

It’s still unclear how the fire began — early reports suggested a faulty refrigerator but that was quickly ruled out; others hinted that it started in a nearby structure and spread. What’s known for sure is that something somehow caught fire in Ghost Ship around 11:20 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, and within minutes, 36 people were dead.

What’s also apparent is that the question at the heart of the tragedy — who is to blame? — lingers unanswered in Oakland almost two years later. It is why, in part, Schaaf found herself on uneven footing as she headed into Election Day.

Official efforts at redress have focused on individual culpability, and after a herky-jerky series of court decisions, trials loom in 2019. But as a civic matter, beyond the narrow interests of criminal and civil procedure, the tragedy is about more than the alleged deadly negligence of a handful of people. Ghost Ship, recently greenlighted for demolition, will live on as a monument to the interlocking forces that have formed — and deformed — modern Oakland. A kind of conspiracy was behind the fire. To see the full set of possible culprits, you have to get up close and then zoom out. 

Looking down into the remains of Ghost Ship warehouse, photographed in August 2018.
Stephen Loewinsohn for HuffPost
Looking down into the remains of Ghost Ship warehouse, photographed in August 2018.

The Master Tenants

What made the fire at Ghost Ship so deadly was that the space was hosting a concert that night. This was normal for the place — both due to the type of scene its residents wanted to cultivate and, more pragmatically, as cover charges helped pay rent — but there’s no indication that the fire started because of the mass inside.

The show was a stop on the West Coast tour for the Los Angeles-based house music label 100% Silk and had been planned, or at least presided over, by Max Harris, who worked the door that night. In photos, his most striking features are large-gauge earlobe plugs and a tattoo of a crescent outside his left eye. Dubbed the “creative director” of Ghost Ship, accounts have described Harris as being in charge of the day to day, filling in the logistical gaps left by the space’s occasionally drug-infused head personality: Derick Ion Almena.

Almena, 48, lived there and curated the space’s style. More importantly, legally speaking at least, Almena was the lease-holding master tenant. To escape that night’s concert, he’d taken his family to a hotel, where he found out about the blaze. “Everything I worked so hard for is gone,” he posted to Facebook on the Saturday morning after the fire. “It’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope ... to be standing now in poverty of self worth.”

The post was quickly derided for its callousness — a lot of people lost much more than rental property or “self worth” — and was soon deleted. Almena’s wife later said it was posted before he’d found out about the deaths. But that didn’t mean the sentiment was entirely inaccurate. By all accounts, the design and layout were completed under Almena’s aesthetic direction, and it was that vision that made Ghost Ship what it was. This, ultimately, was why Almena was the one whom the “Today” show chose to pay for an exclusive interview.

According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the East Bay Times, Almena took over the lease in late 2013, and soon took it on as his primary art project. He crammed in any and all matter of antique refuse, seemingly more concerned about expressing his own artistic sense than fostering a communal style of living. As Michael Rosen, who went to the warehouse hours before the fire, described in his recollection:

Downstairs, the space was packed with wooden pieces of artwork. There were wooden accents on the walls, a wooden ship’s wheel. The space was subdivided into rooms with walls made of aged, dried-out wood. Chairs were scattered on the sides with Persian rugs in between them.

Worries about all that wood acting as an accelerant had been expressed long before the fire. At least one previous partygoer says he offered to donate fire extinguishers, an idea that Almena allegedly responded to with disinterest. In interviews with me, people who’d attended previous events there recalled never wanting to return to the unsafe space. It makes sense when you see archival photos of the claustrophobic, kindling-rich environment.

In addition to the scattered, flammable refuse, what led to the high death toll was a lack of direct access to exits. The main chokepoint that night was on the staircase leading from the ground floor entrance to the top floor loft where the performances took place. “Staircase” is perhaps a generous characterization. It was a narrow, rickety structure made of wooden pallets; when the fire began, a bottleneck formed and the structure collapsed, trapping those upstairs. One mystery woman reportedly sat in a wicker chair at the foot of the staircase, telling people to remain upstairs, that this fire was ”the will of the spirits of the forest.”

Other exits had their own problems. A back staircase was either purposely blocked or simply unknown to partygoers, a distinction to be resolved in court. Anyone escaping that way would have had to navigate a chaotic maze of tiny residences separated by wooden slats, a “rabbit warren” where ”15 to 25” people lived at any given time. And even then, even if they’d gotten through that gantlet, they would have found the near exit fully obstructed with debris. Survivors would have had to wind through the smoke-filled, pitch-black dark to a front entrance hidden by a trio of old upright pianos

All of this, intentional or not, was Almena’s doing.

In June 2017, Alameda County prosecutors charged Almena and Harris with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. A year later, parties negotiated “no contest” plea deals to avoid a trial. The district attorney said it would save the families from the toll of a long trial, which was expected to take four to six months, while conspiracists saw it as bureaucrats covering their own asses; Schaaf was reportedly going to be subpoenaed to testify about the city’s role. The settlement terms would have allowed Almena to leave jail after roughly three and a half years, and Harris after two.

However, in August, after two days of emotional testimony from victims’ families, an Alameda County Superior Court judge felt that Almena was “not accepting full responsibility and remorse,” and, in a stunning decision, rejected the plea deal. If another deal isn’t worked out — and all parties claim future deals are off the table — Almena and Harris will be tried sometime in early 2019. If found guilty, they could face 39 years in prison.

The 2016 Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people.
Stephen Loewinsohn for HuffPost
The 2016 Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people.

The Landlord

Rent checks that Harris collected would go to Almena, who then paid the property’s sole owner since 1996, Chor Ng.

The warehouse was part of a $5 million collection of property owned by Ng and her family — according to an interview after the fire, Ng’s son, Kai, largely managed the building due to language barriers — and it included massage parlors, florists, bakeries, even a Buddhist temple. Tenants from the other locations have described Chor Ng as a “pick up the rent once a month and leave them be” type of landlord. But there’s a dramatic distinction between hands-off and criminal neglect.

While Ng is named as a defendant in the civil suit brought in 2017 by a coalition of victims’ families, she’s been left off the defendant roster in the criminal proceedings. Why? In filed documents, county prosecutors claimed that Almena and Harris deceived property owners to the point that it had become their sole responsibility. “Witnesses state they warned Almena numerous times about the obvious fire hazard in the warehouse,” the filing stated.

But that excuse has gaps. At its core, the question is one of what Ng knew, and when.

We know that Ng was alerted to an electrical fire that had occurred at Ghost Ship two years earlier; a 2014 invoice discovered by the Bay’s local Fox affiliate shows that repairs totaling $23,000 were needed for a transformer that was “severely and catastrophically” overloaded. That’s likely because the power running into Ghost Ship came from the car stereo shop next door, also owned by Ng, via wires that ran through holes in the wall. Former Ghost Ship tenants mention frequent power outages, which required trips into the shop to reset the breaker, while others mention shoddy electrical equipment occasionally sparking. (Tellingly, a lawsuit by the victims’ families against the Pacific Gas and Electric utility company has been allowed to go ahead; in court documents filed recently, the Ng family tried to deflect blame onto their electrician.)

Did Ng know people were living inside and still allow for conditions without sprinklers or safety lights, and with bars on the windows? Ng’s lawyer claims she had no idea, but on Jan. 20, 2014, months after signing the lease with Almena, his then-partner Nicholas Bouchard wrote Ng an email explaining why he wanted his name struck from the document.

“He has altered the property without your consent,” he wrote. “I think you should exercise whatever remedies you have to immediately take possession of the property to prevent further damage.”

An electrical fire had occurred at Ghost Ship two years before the 2016 tragedy.
Stephen Loewinsohn for HuffPost
An electrical fire had occurred at Ghost Ship two years before the 2016 tragedy.

The Town

When I visited the warehouse last April, two industrial dumpsters were out front, holding debris still being excavated from the gutted interior. Between them sat a makeshift memorial composed of a dead tree, its spindly branches dropping from the weight of homemade ornaments with names and photos of victims. Behind, the ornate font proclaiming “GHOST SHIP” and the iconic skull remained visible on the structure itself, still smoke-stained from that December night. It’s not until you walk that space that you grasp how out in the open it was.

Ghost Ship was not hidden.

Across from the entrance is a Wendy’s — you could throw a rock from the memorial tree to the drive-thru menu board — and a few doors down is a row of single-family homes. A block away is the high-traffic intersection of Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard, it’s unmistakable from the elevated BART line nearby, and there’s a fire department 511 feet away. Ghost Ship was physically embedded in the life of its neighborhood, in a way warehouses typically are not.

The dangers of Ghost Ship were long known to the city, too. Leaked body camera footage shows police responding to a 2015 call. “One spark and it will all be bad,” says an officer in one of seven videos the San Jose Mercury News obtained of police examinations of the interior. Witnesses recall seeing firefighters attend a party there two years earlier. And yet, despite the warehouse being a known illegal quantity, building code enforcement inspectors had not been inside for 30 years. Clearly, messages weren’t getting to wherever they needed to go; a subsequent investigation by the Mercury News showed that 80 percent of unsafe building notices by the fire department went unchecked by code inspectors.

On Nov. 17, less than a month before the fire, an inspector was sent to Ghost Ship to investigate a report of an illegal structure inside. The gate was chained, so access was impossible, but the investigator still issued a violation for the trash that had piled on the sidewalk. That notice was sent to Ng, and only Ng, despite the State of California’s Health and Safety Code (HSC 17980.6), which explicitly states (italics mine): “Any order [...] shall be provided either by both posting a copy of the order or notice in a conspicuous place on the property and by first-class mail to each affected residential unit, or by posting a copy of the order or notice in a conspicuous place on the property and in a prominent place on each affected residential unit.”

Conversations with people who have lived in similar unpermitted live/work situations suggest that inspectors often send violation notices to only the off-site landlord, a tactic that keeps warnings away from those living in actual danger.

“They’re holding Derick Almena accountable, and I think they should,” says David Keenan, founder of the Oakland art collective Omni Commons, “but they’re not holding themselves accountable.” In the wake of the fire, Keenan helped create the volunteer-led organization Safer DIY Spaces, which liaisons among the city, landlords and tenants. It’s a fraught process, he says, with many frustrations.

A big reason has been the city itself. Oakland has a long history of inspector malfeasance. In 2011, a civil grand jury was so “appalled” by the department’s “pattern of arbitrary and excessive fees, fines and abusive actions by building supervisors and inspectors” that it recommended revoking its authority altogether. The picture painted by the report, as well as by those who have worked with inspectors in the past, is that Ghost Ship wasn’t some lone problem that slipped through the cracks but the normal state of affairs that happened to take a bad turn. 

“The inspectors aren’t well trained, but they know enough to shut down a building,” says Jonah Strauss, founder of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, an advocacy organization born of worries about a city crackdown on live/work spaces after the fire; his own space became unlivable after a lethal fire in 2015.

The climate created by feckless-yet-hardass inspectors who tell landlords to “fix it or get shut down” exacerbates the strained relationship that many renters already have with their landlords. If tenants are on handshake deals instead of official leases, there’s no real recourse to dangerous conditions, other than moving out and hoping to luck into the Bay Area’s last affordable unit. “What are you going to do, call code enforcement and say, ‘I have a major issue in my home and my landlord won’t fix it?’” Strauss says. “They’ll come through and issue a notice of violation that includes discontinuance of residential use.”

One example is the tale of 1919 Market St. For decades, it was an artists’ live/work warehouse that was effectively, if not officially, condoned by the city. Rumor had it that former Mayor Jean Quan held a party there. But that arrangement changed in 2015, after tenants in the space complained to the city and on YouTube about the dangerous conditions. The city slapped the owner — who’d been happy to collect rent from the tenants — with a bunch of violations. But rather than fixing the problems, the owner sold to developer Danny Haber, who demolished the warehouse. (He did so without permission, it later emerged; a recent lawsuit also alleges that toxic spillage from the demolition leaked into nearby houses.) Over 100 residents were displaced from the space.

The choice seems simple: Say nothing and live in danger, or complain and lose your home.

“Of course, the tenants don’t trust the city. The landlords don’t trust the city. Nobody trusts the city!” Strauss says. “It’s justifiable not to trust the city.”

The Ghost Ship warehouse was a few doors down from a row of single-family homes and across from a Wendy's, not hidden away in
Stephen Loewinsohn for HuffPost
The Ghost Ship warehouse was a few doors down from a row of single-family homes and across from a Wendy's, not hidden away in the city.

The System

Matt Hummel has an old button that reads “Let Oakland Shine.”

It’s an advertisement from 2002, put out by the Rental Housing Association of Southern Alameda County as part of a campaign to urge Oakland to vote “no” on Measure EE. The measure introduced a “just cause for eviction” ordinance which, if passed, would shift the status quo from landlords evicting tenants for any reason at all, to only being able to evict for 11 specific ones (not paying rent, disorderly conduct, illegal activity, etc.).

The measure promised a dramatic shift in power, and it was countered with an insidious campaign. As described in a 2002 East Bay Express piece, “literature put out by Measure EE’s opponents has raised the specter of junkies and sex offenders invading properties and becoming impossible to evict.” The scare tactics almost worked, too — Measure EE passed by only a little over 1,000 votes. It was expected to be a huge blow to property owners’ power, and to Hummel, the slogan on the button summed up a certain mindset that had recently taken root in town.

“‘If we don’t kick out the people we have, Oakland will never get better,’” Hummel says, parroting the subtext of the campaign against Measure EE. “The citizens of Oakland are not who the owners of Oakland wanted. It’s who they got.”

Hummel has seen this ideological shift play out in real time.

He originally moved to Oakland in the early ’90s and found himself living in the East Oakland warehouse known as The Vulcan. It was about a mile east of what would become Ghost Ship. The total cost to the tenants was $900 a month, split three or four ways depending on who was around, a price that afforded shelter without necessitating working 40 or more hours a week. This led to a thriving artist community. Free time, or “boredom,” will do that. Paintings graced the walls, metallurgic sculptures guarded hallways and live performances took place in the wide-open space. They even had a pirate radio station.

After a few years, Hummel moved across town to another warehouse a few miles west. It had once housed the factory for Mother’s Cookies, a local independent success story until Kellogg’s bought it out in 2008. The rent at Mother’s was $300 a month, which included utilities and a pantry stocked with food. If someone wanted to share a room with their partner, he or she had to pay an extra $100. This was life in Oakland’s “vacant” warehouses.  

Unlike the 47-square-mile city across the Bay — which fought to stay flat as long as it could, before caving to vertical rise in the late ’60s — a significant part of Oakland has consistently been filled by short, squat warehouse buildings. As the western terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad and home to the Port of Oakland, the city saw warehouses begin popping up in the late 19th century for storage and to house manufacturing concerns. The warehouse that became Ghost Ship was built in 1930 and, according to The New York Times, “sat amid factories, mills and beer gardens established by the neighborhood’s many immigrants.”

But in the early 20th century, as University of California, Berkeley, economic geographer Richard Walker described in his 1997 history “Oakland: Dark Star in an Expanding Universe,” “deindustrialization before deindustrialization” took hold. The Great Depression gave Oakland “its fair share of Hoovervilles and hobo camps,” and post-World War II disinvestment led to a “sudden and decisive shrinkage of Oakland’s manufacturing base.” Robert Self writes in American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland:

Between the 1950s and 1960s, operating expenses increased and older facilities in Oakland declined in profitability. Despite the precipitous drop in property values in Oakland, industrial land there was still far more expensive than in suburban cities, which encouraged plant relocation.

Deindustrialization continued throughout Ronald Reagan’s reign as head of California, then the country. Left behind were vacant warehouses to be filled by those who traded safety and legality for affordability. Poor minorities had no other options, while artist enclaves made deals with landlords. For the latter, it was a win-win — landlords collected income on something that was just sitting there, and people got to live how they wanted on the cheap.

But deindustrialization also left holes in Oakland’s downtown. In 1999, then-Mayor Jerry Brown unveiled his “10K Plan,” an urban planning effort to bring 10,000 residents into the downtown core within 10 years. Brown offered himself up as an example, purchasing and refurbishing an industrial warehouse near downtown as his residence. Other autonomous efforts, like the street art collective known as Oaklandish — before it swerved into its current business as an Oakland pride apparel brand — took up the mantle as well, invading the desolate core with viral marketing celebrating the city’s history.

While Brown’s campaign wasn’t a complete success, it worked well enough. Word trickled out about Oakland’s great secret: It actually wasn’t that scary. Money from the first dot-com bubble that didn’t lodge in the exorbitantly priced San Francisco wormed across the Bay. The price on housing rose, and as it did, landlords culled their low-paying tenants and replaced them with those making tech money; Measure EE was an attempted defense against this round of evictions.

Eventually, for Hummel and his roommates, life at Mother’s took on a different form. As prices around them rose, landlord resentment grew. “Our landlord became pissed because we had so much space for the price we were paying,” Hummel says, whose collective at Mother’s paid a total of $2,000 a month for 7,000 square feet. “They took it personally. They felt that we were literally stealing from them every month that we paid them rent.”

After years of fighting, Hummel “gave in” to a small settlement and moved to a place in the hills. In 2017, Mother’s Cookies changed hands again for a record $9.86 millon. Its “history” section doesn’t mention anything that occurred in the building after 1949.


As the breakup of warehouse collectives continued, so did the more general displacement of low-income renters throughout Oakland, either through force of eviction — even with “just cause,” the entirety of law is firmly on the side of property owners — or by tenants moving on their own, no longer wanting to live under the cloud of murky rights. Whenever one left, a wealthier tenant took his or her place, and the city soon became entrenched in a fight between tenant classes: Real Oakland vs. the Tech Gentrifiers.

“The dot-com-ers were getting angry because they couldn’t get to sleep, and it became neighbors fighting neighbors,” Hummel says. “Landlords definitely preferred the new tenants to the old ones.”

Here’s how a 2006 East Bay Express piece, titled “Hipster Invasion,” put it:

This is success, right? Well that depends upon whom you ask. The downtown art scene’s rapid growth already has led to bitchy infighting among its founders, and cries of “white invasion” and “gentrification” from the black residents who have lived in this hood for decades.

Then came the U.S. housing crash.

Erin McElroy examines the history of Bay Area evictions for the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and says the current housing crisis can be directly linked to the foreclosure crisis of 2008-2009, especially in the East Bay. “The damage was more severe in Oakland than in San Francisco,” says McElroy. “There was a massive loss of residents in single-family homes, and of tenants of color.” According to the AEMP, between 2010 and 2014, the city lost 4 percent of its black population. That trend has only continued in the years since.

From a disaster-capitalist perspective, it makes sense that investor focus would be on Oakland. As a system, development tries to find the biggest difference between cost paid and price sold. San Francisco’s leftover capital from the first dot-com boom kept it relatively stable during the crisis, but in Oakland, where predatory lenders had targeted minority neighborhoods to exploit their dreams of cheap stability, post-crash foreclosures skyrocketed. As a report on Oakland’s foreclosures before and after the housing market collapse details:

Between 2007 and 2011, 1 in 7 Oakland mortgages entered default, with 1 in 14 eventually lost to foreclosure. [...] The vast majority of foreclosed properties were located in the East and West Oakland “flatlands,” diverse areas shaped in part by a legacy of racial and economic segregation.

As was the case in many parts of the country, investor groups were ready with bundles of cash to snatch up properties at the dirt-cheap prices. Longtime landlords took buyouts, and the new property owners began trying to recoup on their investments. Step one was getting rid of any tenants paying “below-market value,” an ever-shifting standard that their own purchases had jacked up. And once they got rid of those tenants, thanks to provisions in the state’s Costa–Hawkins Act of 1995 — which could be undone this year with a “yes” vote on California Proposition 10 — they could reset the rent to whatever they saw fit.

Nobody can afford housing, especially folks of color. No one is making enough money to pay rent, so you have people living in sketchy-ass situations because landlords are fucking sharks. Living here is living in an environment of such scarcity all the fucking time. Sharmi Basu, an Oakland-based electronic artist

Oakland entered the age of serial evictors. William Rosetti, who sat on Libby Schaaf’s Housing Implementation Cabinet, has issued over 4,000 eviction notices since 2008. The aforementioned Danny Haber, accused of hiding properties through shell companies and LLCs, has been criticized for transforming distressed buildings that once housed low-income tenants into condos and apartments for the rich. “Building housing feels like the ultimate entrepreneurial thing to do,” Haber told San Francisco magazine in 2018.

For better, and many times for worse, that entrepreneurial spirit spread to independent landlords. They’d scour old leases for ways to get past “just cause,” or simply made conditions miserable enough that tenants moved out on their own. Either was considered a success. “Any landlord who has any chance of pushing out tenants and is in it for the money is absolutely going to do that,” Strauss says. “Laws are irrelevant. Capital is a very real draw, and it has turned good people into bad, and made bad people worse.”

When Cody Blanchard moved to Oakland in 2005, it seemed like the Wild West. “People were living in all kinds of crazy places,” he says. “Just doing what they wanted, and building these weird living spaces.” He began playing in bands, but unlike San Francisco — where the music scene mostly took place in “proper” venues — the East Bay was a motley collection of warehouses and backyards. Blanchard is one of the founders of the indie rock band Shannon and the Clams — whose latest album, “Onion,” has a number of songs about the Ghost Ship fire and its fallout. He estimates he’s played over 40 different such places over the years. He lists a few: First Church of the Buzzard. LoBot Gallery. Ghost Town.

Over the years, he’s noticed the number of spots shrinking. Landlords sold outright, “moved back in” under the provisions of the state’s Ellis Act or “renovated” so they could jack up the rent. With no affordable options, “a lot of people just moved somewhere,” he says, “LA, the Pacific Northwest, Sacramento.” Blanchard’s own situation became tenuous, and he soon followed the exodus.

Blanchard flew back to Oakland the day after the fire. “I think I saw everyone that I met in the week I was back,” he says. “It was really intense.” In between memorials, he heard stories about friends’ living situations; in the Bay, every conversation turns to that topic if you give it enough time. He found out that some friends were in a building owned by an octogenarian landlord who’s not in peak physical condition. They’re worried about what will happen to them when she dies.

“Her son will get the property, but he doesn’t care to be a landlord, so he’ll probably sell,” he says. No one knows what will happen after that, but to the tenants, it feels as if her death will bring about their own displacement.


 

It’s important to consider the artist warehouse scene’s place in the broader environment of low-income housing. While warehouse artists do face specific pressures — California’s newly legalized cannabis industry, in its search for open indoor space, has brought another round of warehouses evictions; to defend it, in March, the city passed a law prohibiting cannabis companies from operating in spaces currently occupied by live-work residents — focusing solely on them misses their effect on the rest of a city’s low-income population. This is due to the odd market quirk wherein artists, vulnerable to the very economic forces that created the conditions for their fragile bohemia to thrive in the first place, are in many ways instruments of their own demise.  

As a 2017 paper by Scranton professor Meghan Ashlin Rich summarized, artists have long been used as tools for gentrification:

[T]he influx of arts-themed development helps raise property values and spurs re-colonization of the neighborhood’s large industrial buildings, making it difficult for artists to find legal, affordable live/work spaces in the district.

The narrative is the same from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Highland Park, Los Angeles. Artists move into the cheap (and technically illegal) places, use the blessings of low rent and free time to create art, boost the property value and get booted when they can’t afford living there anymore. But this high value also infects the properties around it, and soon enough low-income tenants — largely working-class people of color — are pushed out, too. Yet, even while they’re participating in the same fight against gentrification and property valuation, the artist class — mostly white, generally young — have privileges that set them apart. For instance, to Jaime Omar Yassin, a local activist and writer, it’s telling that the Ghost Ship master tenants even had the $9,000 needed for a security deposit back in 2013.

“Already it’s off-limits to many who’d want to live like that,” Yassin says.

Yassin spent years revitalizing the abandoned Miller Avenue Library — a historic Spanish Colonial style library from 1914, originally built with Carnegie money — less than a mile from Ghost Ship. With neighborhood assistance, his group turned the neglected space into a free lending library and community garden. The Oakland Police Department ultimately evicted them from the building, but they continued using the space outside. “We made it so that anyone who walked in wouldn’t step on a board with a nail, wouldn’t be able to start a fire, wouldn’t trip over a bunch of stuff, wouldn’t fall into a hole,” he says. “We didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Eventually, when Yassin and company couldn’t keep the space safe anymore, they shut it down. The building burned down in February.

The day after the Ghost Ship fire, Yassin went to see the media spectacle himself. As he wrote, while dozens of reporters trained their cameras solely on the warehouse, “thousands of Latino Catholics began their scheduled annual procession for the Virgen de Guadalupe” from a nearby church. But rather than any of the journalists slightly angling their camera to capture the event, they “shrugged” at the sight. “They ignored it, and it’s telling that they ignored it,” says Yassin. “In their frame of mind, those people were not part of the story.”

Yassin mentions Hasta Muerte, the nearby coffee shop recently in the news for its refusal to serve police. Previously, the building was occupied by Lucky Strike Electronics, a predominantly-POC establishment that got busted for running an illegal casino. “Maybe some people were drinking and smoking in there,” he says, “but that’s what they were doing in Ghost Ship.” Rather than continually ignoring violations, as happened with Ghost Ship, the city quickly shut down Lucky Strike. “When the city wants to take a building they consider dangerous, they seem to knock it out in a year,” Yassin says.

Sharmi Basu, an Oakland-based electronic artist who performs as “Beast Nest,” was asked to play a show at Ghost Ship nearly a year before the fire. It was billed to her as a super-secret “cool new spot” with enough space for a big crowd. Most importantly, it was a space, an increasing rarity in town. “So many got shut down that year,” Basu says.

But while setting up for the gig, Basu got a weird vibe. The stairs were hidden and too narrow for two people to use at once. When they needed power for instruments, rather than plug into an outlet, people drilled holes in the floor and walls and ran cables through them. The situation was sketchy, but more than that, to Basu, its whole aura was bad.

“Everywhere I looked, there was Asian and South Asian memorabilia and expensive antiques,” Basu says. “The space felt so karmically bad. It felt like the people here had the colonizer’s mindset.”

Following the fire, Basu co-founded a relief fund for the families and loved ones of the victims, as well as tenants displaced by the destruction of their housing. To Basu, it was important that these efforts come from within the community itself — from people who knew, loved and dated the victims — as opposed to outsiders. “There was a group [using the Ghost Ship fire] to get the city to understand why they needed more funding for artists,” Basu says. “But I was like, who are you talking about? You’re talking about white artists.”

Basu mentions the fire at the Oakland halfway house on San Pablo Avenue on March 27, 2017, a few months after Ghost Ship. Four people died there, and over 80 people lost their homes. At least one person was pushed back into living on the streets, where he was shot and killed within a year. Compared with Ghost Ship, it barely made a blip in the news. “People don’t care when poor black people die because they can’t see the economic benefit of that person existing to begin with,” she says.

When I ask Basu whom she blames for the fire, she mentions the previously detailed culprits. The tenants in charge, the landlord, the general system of oppression. Then she comes back to one particular moment that still infuriates her. It was a few nights after the fire, in a moment shared with thousands of others huddled around Lake Merritt’s pergola, when the town’s mayor spoke to the grieving crowd.

Libby Schaaf “supports so much police violence in the city, prioritizes the influx of techies moving into the city, and holds the hands of all the landlords who are constantly turning over buildings and evicting people without reason,” she says. “Nobody can afford housing, especially folks of color. No one is making enough money to pay rent, so you have people living in sketchy-ass situations because landlords are fucking sharks.”

She pauses.

“Living here is living in an environment of such scarcity all the fucking time.”

Edwin Bernbaum, who son died in the Ghost Ship fire, helped start Vital Arts, a nonprofit to help provide safe and affordable
Stephen Loewinsohn for HuffPost
Edwin Bernbaum, who son died in the Ghost Ship fire, helped start Vital Arts, a nonprofit to help provide safe and affordable housing and performance spaces for artists.

Beyond

Edwin Bernbaum was convinced he was going to die. An avid climber, he’d taken time off Peace Corps work in Nepal to scale the Himalayan massif of Annapurna. In the middle of his trek, he got caught in an avalanche.

“I came to the edge of death, but rather than being a negative experience, there were a number of positive realizations and insights that came from it,” he tells me about the experience, many decades later. “But where I came right up to death, my son came up to it, and passed through.”

Bernbaum’s son, Jonathan, was 34 years old when he died in the Ghost Ship fire.

Wanting something positive to come from the loss, Bernbaum connected with his old friends, Thomas Dolan and Beth Jay, and together they organized Vital Arts, a nonprofit he hopes will help solve one of the root causes of his son’s death. “We have to make sure places are safe,” he says. “Ghost Ship was one of the last ones, and a lot of people knew it was a dangerous place, and said they wouldn’t go back.” He pauses. “But unfortunately, Jonathan went back.”

Bernbaum hopes to sell businesses and cities — Oakland, but also San Francisco, Berkeley and the other municipalities that make up the greater Bay Area — on the financial prospects of such an undertaking. He mentions the synergy between tech and the arts, how one of the reasons Apple succeeded was because of its unique aesthetic sense, and how it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep the region affordable, as that’s what makes it hip and exciting, and thus a lure to the world’s best and brightest workers.

I ask Bernbaum whom he blames for his son’s death.

He mentions Derick Almena’s troubling history and the rumors he’d heard about Max Harris blocking the stairwell. He calls Chor Ng’s claims of not knowing that people were living there “a bit of a dodge” and isn’t quite clear why the city isn’t going after her, too. He’d heard about the firefighters who partied there, the police who examined the building and the inspectors who never got the message, or just didn’t care. Then he pauses and wipes away a tear.

“But there’s nothing we can do to bring Jonathan back,” he says. “I’d rather not dwell on it.”

And then he opens his laptop and, beaming with pride, shows me the art to which his son devoted his life.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clear up some imprecise Oakland geography. The old Mother’s Cookies warehouse was not in the neighborhood of West Oakland, and former Mayor Jerry Brown’s residence was not in Jack London Square.  

Rick Paulas wrote a novel set in Oakland.

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