Oakland warehouse fire leads to crackdown on illegal artist spaces around the country

The massive fire that tore through a converted warehouse in Oakland, killing 36 people in the deadliest blaze in the United States in more than a decade, has officials examining similar illegal spaces — and the artists who create, perform and, in many cases, live in them bracing for a crackdown.

Authorities are still trying to determine what caused the Dec. 2 fire, which broke out during a concert inside what was known as the Ghost Ship, a 4,000-square-foot building that former tenants described as “a death trap with few exits, a rickety makeshift staircase, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords.”

In Baltimore, dozens of artists living in a building known as the Bell Foundry were evicted last week after the city said it received a complaint “about individuals living there in deplorable conditions.”

“The main electrical source had illegal, dangerous connections; there were extension cords used to feed multiple fixtures,” said Katy Byrne, a spokeswoman for Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “None of the electrical systems was grounded.”

In Denver, fire officials shut down Rhinoceropolis, a landmark “DIY” performance space, and evicted five people who had been living in illegal lofts on Thursday after it was deemed “unsafe.”

While the Denver Fire Department did not immediately specify what those safety violations were, a 2015 profile of the venue by Denver’s Westword gives a hint:


The space is divided into two main areas — one for living and one for performing. But that line is constantly blurred: Music and art performances have taken place in the bathroom and the kitchen, bedrooms have become art installations, and the building itself has been transformed into a haunted house. Drum kits have been set on fire, sod has been rolled out and performed on top of, fireworks have been set off inside, and car parts, glitter and food have been hurled at audiences. Anything can happen at a Rhino show.


In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney announced a citywide crackdown on spaces like the Ghost Ship.

“As Philadelphia mourns with the people of Oakland, it’s also important to examine how we can prevent similar tragedies form occurring here,” Kenney said in a statement three days after the Oakland fire. “In our city there are unlawfully converted buildings and underground clubs, and while [the Department of Licenses and Inspections] works hard to track down these hazardous locations and enforce the fire code, they can’t do it alone.”

Kenney called on residents to report illegal holiday parties “in unsafe and misused spaces.”

“Especially where there are crowds, low lighting, loud music, late hours and alcohol,” he added, “the right licenses, permits and inspections save lives.”

In New York City, the Loft Law — first enacted in the early 1980s during the booming Soho art scene — and subsequent city task forces have forced many operators of illegal living spaces to bring them up to code, and cracked down on those who fail to comply.

Those measures, coupled with industrial neighborhoods becoming more and more gentrified, mean that fewer and fewer illegal spaces like the Ghost Ship exist within the five boroughs.

But make no mistake, they do still exist.

The New York Times reported investigations prompted by the Oakland warehouse blaze in other cities, including Nashville, Dallas, Austin, Indianapolis, New Haven, Conn., and Dubuque, Iowa.

Related: Artists, musicians, teachers among the 36 victims

In Oakland, some residents are wondering if the city missed repeated warnings about the Ghost Ship.

“Officials fielded years of complaints about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the illegally converted warehouse,” the Associated Press reported, “with inspectors knocking on the door as recently as two weeks before the blaze.”

At a press conference late last week, officials said that it appeared the warehouse was not equipped with smoke detectors and had no exits on the second floor. And Oakland Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said a criminal investigation is underway.

Derick Almena in an appearance on NBC's

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Derick Almena in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. (NBC)

Derick Almena, the de facto landlord and self-described “father” of the Ghost Ship, who lived in the warehouse with his wife and children, defended the conditions inside.

“I laid my body down there every night,” a distraught Almena, who was staying at a nearby hotel with his family the night of the fire, said in an interview with NBC’s “Today.” “We laid our bodies down there. We put our children to bed there every night. We made music. We created art. We opened our home.”

Almena said that he and a group of tenants covered the monthly $5,000 rent and that he made repairs to the electrical system without permits after the real landlord refused.

Also read: Almena sparks outrage for mourning loss of venue — not victims

The warehouse, he said, was a safe place for like-minded artists who couldn’t afford space elsewhere and who “can’t pay your rent because your dream is bigger than your pocketbook.”

“Everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together,” Almena said. “People didn’t walk through those doors because it was a horrible place. People didn’t seek us out to perform and express themselves because it was a horrible place.”

As has been the case in other cities, rising home prices and skyrocketing rents in the Bay Area have forced artists to seek refuge in places like the Ghost Ship.

“It’s always been true,” Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California, told Yahoo News. “Artists have always found places to live and work that are in this situation.”

Oakland has historically grappled with socioeconomic and demographic changes while supporting the artists who have helped make it a popular place to live, Fogarty said.

The fire, Fogarty said, has “certainly led to a lot of soul searching.”

This past summer, the museum presented “Oakland, I want you to know…,” an exhibit about gentrification in the Bay Area that featured three video installations by filmmaker Alex Frantz Ghassan.

Ghassan, 35, was one of those who perished in the Ghost Ship.

Watch one of Ghassan’s videos from the exhibit below.

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