As the death toll rises from a devastating fire that tore through the Ghost Ship arts space in Oakland, California on Friday, opportunistic publications have begun spinning. Their assessments of the tragedy emphasize the illegal nature of the space, which was neither zoned for housing nor permitted to host events. The New York Times called it a “fire trap;” the Daily Mail, always searching for opportunities to sensationalize, called the space a “death trap” and a “commune”, describing the party as a “rave” — a term that’s nearly impossible to define.
To those outside this tight-knit scene, it may seem bizarre to attend a party in an unpermitted warehouse without sufficient exits or even a proper staircase. But understanding why spaces like Ghost Ship exist — and why they’re so important — is essential as we grapple with the future of grassroots arts spaces in the Bay Area, New York, and beyond.
The party Friday was a showcase for the Los Angeles-based electronic label 100% Silk, whose artists focus on updated versions of classic house music, the genre from which nearly everything we think of today as dance music has evolved. It began in Chicago at a utilitarian venue called The Warehouse, opened by the promoter Robert Williams in 1976. DJs like Frankie Knuckles used multiple turntables to piece together disco songs into a continuous, thumping beat. This style became known as “house music,” a name derived from the venue where it was born.
From the beginning, this new form of music was demonized and persecuted by authorities and the public. “Disco sucks” became a rallying cry among mainstream rock fans, who said they simply disliked the sound of the music but often actually hated it for being effeminate and flamboyant, and for its fans, who were in large part queer people of color. Even openly gay discos sometimes turned away black patrons.
The Warehouse, on the other hand, was based on inclusivity. “My fondest memory is the mixed crowd. Racially, ethnically, sexually. That was the best thing,” Frankie Knuckles told Resident Advisor in 2012. For these people, The Warehouse was a utopian escape where, for a few hours, all that mattered was the music.
In the intervening decades, electronic music has continued to be a uniting force for a variety of marginalized groups. As house gave birth to techno and other styles spiraled out from there, the parties for these genres have become known as raves — and are often the target of police and government harassment. The connection between dance music culture and drugs like MDMA allows authority figures to condemn the subculture as a gateway to drug use, leading to widespread efforts to make raving illegal.
In 1994, the UK’s Criminal Justice Act tried to shut down rave culture at its source, allowing police to break up any gathering of more than 1000 people with music “characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” More recently, in 2010, California lawmaker Fiona Ma reacted to the drug-related death of an underaged concertgoer at the corporate rave Electric Daisy Carnival by trying to ban raves and electronic dance music altogether, before realizing that the First Amendment also protects music. These and many more attempts to criminalize dance music has led to the ubiquity of illegal venues and pushed parts of the dance music scene further and further underground, while mainstream mega-festivals with tight security home in on the straight, white, male market and distance the popular conception of dance music from the genre’s queer, black roots.
Amidst this trend, the underground has continued to become increasingly vital as a place where marginalized groups — trans, gay, black, or otherwise — can feel safe being themselves. But such parties are thrown by artists and small-time promoters who rarely have the kind of capital required to open a legitimate venue. That means those put at risk by the unsafe conditions in these spaces are the very people who already face discrimination under the law.
New York has long hosted parties like these, but over the last few years we’ve seen a transition play out: DIY venues like 285 Kent and Death By Audio, which were as ad hoc and permitless as Ghost Ship, have been replaced by legalized spaces such as the new incarnation of the Silent Barn and Trans-Pecos. Operators hope that by adhering to legal guidelines, they can retain the inclusivity of DIY spaces while creating something lasting.
What they’ve learned instead is that navigating the system without significant resources is incredibly difficult. Palisades, a Bushwick DIY venue that was opened legally in 2014, closed this year due to its failure to comply with building regulations. Market Hotel’s new, legal iteration was recently targeted by the police for warehousing alcohol without a permit in what venue promoter Todd P called a “gotcha” raid, which he suspected was intended to intimidate and perhaps even punish his organization. Market Hotel was only able to bring the space up to code in the first place because of a $100,000 grant — and they are still shut down while they await a new liquor license. If they can’t survive, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can.
The Bay Area has withstood similar pressures in recent years as economic inequality, like New York’s, has soared. California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has targeted many of the longest-running legally operated all ages venues with new regulations, pushing some much-loved spaces to the brink of closure. “Without these businesses, there’s no local music scene – it’s that simple,” San Francisco promoter Jordan Kurland told SFGate.
Oakland is now the country’s fourth most expensive rental market, and art communities like Ghost Ship’s are barely hanging on. Another local collective, LoBot, closed its doors in July after thirteen years of operation because their landlord doubled the rent. “Our fight isn’t just about losing a building, it’s about preserving the ability to raise underrepresented voices and offer a safer space to do it in,” LoBot’s Sabrina Sierra told the East Bay Express. In this desperate environment, where an entire scene risks losing spaces to gather, it doesn’t come as a surprise that collectives like Ghost Ship spring up — or that they can’t afford to invest in safety measures like sprinklers.
Unfortunately, this space seems to have been an anomaly even among arts collectives, whose leaders are usually concerned with safety even when official protocols are too expensive to follow. In a New York Times article, details about the master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, suggest he wasn’t particularly interested in tenant safety — one report describes a friend of his pulling a gun on residents. In the same report, a Ghost Ship tenant describes residents asking the landlord repeatedly for an upgrade to their electrical system, which was faulty enough that artists living in the space carried flashlights.
In the wake of this tragedy, it’s almost certain that laws will tighten and police will shut down more underground spaces, citing safety concerns. But this is a futile and counterproductive effort. When the government continually closes the few spaces that manage to make it through the labyrinth of bureaucracy to open legally, it provides young people few options but to take matters into their own hands by running illegal spaces. Young people who love music will always find a way: after nearly half a century of repression, dance music culture is arguably stronger and more diverse than ever.
Considering this, our governments and regulatory bodies should end their dangerous campaign to shut down venues and instead start working with promoters and fans to make arts spaces safe for everyone. Even better, treat the root cause of inequality: Aggressive rent control, higher wages, and widespread support for marginalized groups would take away some of the fuel that drives the creation of physically unsafe arts spaces.
As we mourn this tragedy, we can take heart in the fact that the electronic music scene was born out of, and made resilient by, struggle — and that no amount of crackdowns has been able to stop it. Far from being fearful or resigned, the response from artists in the Oakland community has affirmed the importance of these spaces for people who use art to survive in the face of lives characterized by oppression.
“If I hadn’t had people inviting me to their unconventional venues over the years I would have been dead a long long time ago,” Oakland-based musician Kimya Dawson wrote in a Facebook post after the fire. “We’re not trying to put each other in danger. We are trying to save each other’s lives.” There will always be artists and people who need spaces to come together and express themselves outside of the mainstream. Let’s not allow this tragedy to be exploited to put even more lives at risk.