The narrative of the starving artist is a compelling one. They are nomads who live colorful lives and despite whatever conditions they may find themselves in, they survive and thrive. It’s a romanticized narrative; living in a way that defies social conventions on being happy. They are on the margins of society; misfits and oddballs. They have interesting and cool style, they create beautiful art and they’re seemingly always having a good time. They are envied, if only slightly, for figuring out a way to do what they love to do for a living. Corporate titans steal away from their structured lives, if only for a moment, for artistic interests and to have a piece of what these artists have.
But for all the charm that being an artist is, the reality is not. There are lucky ones who live with some semblance of comfort, but for others being an artist is a day-to-day venture. Places to create and perform are limited or out of reach. Non-conformists and outsiders can’t find spaces where they are accepted. Running out of places to go, communes and venues like Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse become actual homes (even more so with rising rents).
The Ghost Ship fire reveals a host of issues stemming from gentrification and bureaucracy. Warehouse lofts, DIY venues and artist communes are part of the underground arts scene serving as a safe haven for artists and marginalized people. They are the result of individuals who society failed to help and were unfortunately left to fend for themselves.
The famous 285 Kent in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, which closed in 2014, was a place for everyone and anyone. Over the course of its eight years, patrons and artists praised the venue for its diversity and willingness to book acts across genres and class. It was gritty. It was dirty. It was a good time. Big and small acts alike came through its doors with some preferring its rebellious yet steady nature over other well-established venues in New York City.
Animal Kingdom in Chicago was a DIY venue that was an old house started by Kelly Nothing in 2012, a recent college graduate trying to create an all-ages DIY space to throw shows. She initially wanted a to get a warehouse, but no one took her seriously. Not only was Animal Kingdom a music venue, but also a housing for artists who performed there, including Nothing.
Even CBGB, perhaps one of the most important clubs within the punk and rock scene, started as a place for country, bluegrass and blues in the 1970s. Since its closure, it has been recognized as a historical landmark with one of its awning in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the other being auctioned off for $30,000.
The demise of these places and so many others alike are usually not because of building codes or violations. For the most part, funds simply aren’t there to help maintain the infrastructure. 285 Kent closed because of renovation costs and uncertainty whether the owners would renew the lease. Animal Kingdom was shut down because of neighbor complaints. CBGB was closed down because of a rent dispute. Pure Joy, another all-ages venue and collective in Chicago has attempted to legitimize itself, but has been continuously met with roadblocks from officials, coupled with the little funds they’ve been able to accrue.
SUB Mission, an independent art and music gallery in San Francisco that stood strong for twelve years finally shut its doors in 2015. The building was in need of repairs, which they made plans for, but the $360,000 city-estimated cost and the $15,000 the city wanted for permits was too much for the venue to fork over. Txutxo Perez, SUB Mission’s founder, told SF Weekly that the slow process was a way to “give you the runaround [until you run out of money].”
In 2013, 5Pointz, the famous block of warehouses sprawling with graffiti in Queens, New York was painted white overnight, effectively erasing twelve years of art from over 1,500 artists. Jerry Wolkoff, the warehouse owner, decided to build high-rise buildings instead to capitalize on the real estate boom. In a The New York Times article, Wolkoff said that graffiti is temporary and there are other legal places to graffiti. Supporters begged to differ. In the same piece, Eric Felisbret, author of “Graffiti New York” said it was “a slap in the face” to white out the art before clearing out the inside of the building.
These places follow a tradition in artistic communities of creating spaces for themselves through their own efforts. They are not always technically the best places nor the safest for that matter, but they provide a refuge for artists and patrons alike, and are respected in their communities.
There is one artist, however, who is saying that rising rents aren’t necessarily to be blamed for the fire. In an interview with KCBS, Chuck DeGuida who runs Jingle Art Studios expressed that if a little more effort had been put in by all its residents, Ghost Ship would’ve been a safe place. On the other hand, Carmen Brito, a resident and survivor of Ghost Ship told the Mercury News that living in the warehouse was the “lesser of two evils”— meaning that living in dangerous conditions would win over being homeless.
In the aftermath of events like this, we all are left wondering how we can prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf pledged $1.7 million to fund existing and new venues for artists. However, Los Angeles Chief Attorney Mike Feuer is said to be planning a crackdown on illegal residences to avoid another tragedy, a solution that doesn’t solve anything and creates more problems.
DIY venues will probably never stop popping up. As long as there is a need, they’ll be around, lasting for a few years to only disappear at a zenith. It’s a cycle that is perpetuated by neglect and necessity. Meredith Isaksen, a poet and professor at Berkeley City College, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that the ingenuity and perseverance of Ghost Ship is the thing that this country was built on. “It could have been any one of us.” But for all the complaints about lack of arts support, in his KCBS interview DeGuida says, “It’s like, well, when did you go buy something from an artist?”