Andrew Ryce argues that, in order to prevent tragedies like last weekend's fire in Oakland, we need to support, not persecute, alternative venues like Ghost Ship.
The ensuing media frenzy has focused not just on the lack of safety measures, but also the illegality of the venue. The Ghost Ship was an artist collective space where people resided (illegally) and held gatherings and performances (illegally). This information has been repeated ad nauseam in the search for someone to hold responsible, as if the unofficial status of the space were the root of the problem at hand.
The reality is that in North America, these kinds of underground spaces are necessary. People use them because they have no other options. All around the continent, even legal venues exist in a perpetual push-pull between their cultural importance and their economic reality. No one wants to live next to a performance space or a nightclub, which makes them hard to open, especially in densely populated places like the Bay Area. It's hard to make enough money to cover rent, which makes it difficult to stay open without booking mass appeal acts.
The problem is not that people want to party in ramshackle warehouses. The problem is that in the eyes of the law, there is no middle ground between a for-profit nightclub or concert hall and an illegal performance space. For people without the money or the means, the only way forward is to go underground. If local governments were more receptive to the idea of alternative or temporary event spaces, these same authorities could mitigate the risk of gatherings in unsafe places. Instead, strict laws and antagonistic powers drive event organizers into risky areas or risky buildings. Electronic music events are seen as a decadent nuisance, while in other parts of the world they're recognized, rightly, as a cultural institution and an economic boon.
In Vancouver, where I live, we have a similar problem with nightclubs. The legitimate ones have to appeal to the masses in order to scrape by, which means most of the interesting music happens hidden away in lofts, warehouses or auto shops. Over the years, the city government has noticed a proliferation of these events, and more importantly, recognized their cultural value. As a result, Vancouver has introduced an arts event license, a cheaper and faster license that allows alternative spaces to host events, and serve liquor, three times a month, provided they pass a safety check. This is the best of both worlds. It allows oversight and guarantees venues are properly equipped, while still allowing these events to go on in the spaces that they're meant to—spaces that don't have to function as a nightclub 24/7—and where their patrons will feel most comfortable.
Comfort is an overlooked aspect in the discussion surrounding the fire. Many people go to these alternative venues because they don't feel comfortable at regular nightclubs. People who might express themselves unusually; people who are gender non-conforming or otherwise queer; people of colour; people who wouldn't feel safe in an alcohol-soaked situation with the general public. Underground events provide a haven and community for people with nowhere else to go. The list of identified victims from the Oakland fire all but confirms it. This was not a band of degenerates looking for a druggy party. It was a tight collective of young artists, trans people and students.
In the days since the fire, Baltimore police shut down the Bell Foundry arts complex, a similar live-work and events space without permits for residency. The police reacted by condemning the building and immediately evicting all the tenants, putting people on the street rather than working with them to fix the issue in a compassionate or understanding way. Already, the concept of an improvised live-work space has become a straw man in the rush to make a difference after this tragic event, the proposed solution to shut them down instead of figuring out why people need them in the first place.
There are a lot of questions in the wake of last weekend's unimaginable horror, and there are many competing answers. There is no excuse for conditions like those at the Ghost Ship: the venue was a fire hazard. But the solution to this problem is not how to stop such events, but how to make them safe. Only with recognition, understanding and funding can safety be ensured (the city of Oakland's response with a $1.7 million grant for artist spaces is a small but positive step). But if warehouse parties and underground gatherings continue to be demonized, along with the marginalized people who find solace in them, they'll only be pushed into darker corners, further away from oversight and even further away from safety.