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Oakland fire kills at least 36 in warehouse seeking to make artists feel safe

Many artists and LGBTQ members congregated at Ghost Ship because other spaces were too expensive or too hostile.

On Friday night, an Oakland warehouse hosting an electronic-music concert was set ablaze in an inferno which claimed at least 36 lives. Officials have called it one of the country's most deadly structural fires in the past decade.

It happened in an artist workspace nicknamed the Ghost Ship that doubled as a hub for Oakland’s underground electronic music community and as a home to many artists who lived communally in a floorplan that past attendees have called "labyrinthian." These artists were also living there illegally, as the property was zoned as a warehouse and not for residential living. Without proper licensing, there was no assurance that the space was fit for habitability. Reportedly, the Ghost Ship’s staircase was an ad hoc creation without a banister; these recent photos of the warehouse’s interior suggest just how flammable it all was — all pianos and wood, a sort of unintentional tinderbox.

And yet it’s important to understand why the artists who lived there called it home. Whether by choice or necessity, those who patronized or slept at Ghost Ship—and countless DIY spaces like it around the nation—congregate in such spaces because others are either too expensive or too hostile. Indeed, Oakland’s housing market is now one of the country’s five most expensive, and so many young artists are simply seeking a way to live sustainably. And the Ghost Ship’s parties functioned not just as a site to celebrate their art, but also a place where members of underrepresented constituencies, like the LGBTQ, could feel free to be themselves without the often judgmental resistance felt in more commercialized spaces.

The irony is that a space that felt so safe artistically for this marginalized community of young and often queer people could be such an ultimate hazard for their very lives.

One of those who we lost in Oakland was Cash Askew, the transgendered singer for a queer synth-pop band known as Them Are Us Too. As her girlfriend recounts, Cash went to Ghost Ship on Friday night to celebrate the music of the LA electronic music label 100% Silk with a group of her "beautiful, weird queer" friends. It was their last party.

On a personal note, I've been to so many shows in venues just like this, seeing bands just like these. This one hits close to home -- but more importantly, this one fundamentally challenges and underscores the very notion of home.

The tragedy begs deep consideration. It shines a light on the affordability and availability of housing and safe spaces for our marginalized communities be they queer, black, or just young and creative. (A new lens via which to view Donald Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ben Carson to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, perhaps, too.)

You can make a donation to the victims here. The Oakland A’s and the Raiders will match $50,000 in donations.

We leave you with a track by Cash Askew's Them Are Us Too.

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