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Oakland organizations rally behind city’s arts community

on February 14, 2017

After weeks of rain, light from a clear blue sky filtered into the windows of the second-story ballroom at the Starline Social Club in Oakland on Sunday. Artists, musicians and community members walked slowly across the wooden dance floor, eyes fixed on the displays: bright watercolor and acrylic paintings, cassettes of albums by local musicians, ceramics with intricate natural patterns and textures, jewelry and leatherwork.

At one end of the display, a rack held coats, dresses, hats and handbags. Near the entrance, the Oakland Warehouse Coalition (OWC) set up an informational table with pamphlets about the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance (ETPO), a proposal that would extend and expand tenant protections as well as make industrial and commercial buildings converted to arts and living spaces safer and their occupants less vulnerable to unfair evictions. Up on the stage, DJ Bobby Ganush of International Freakout A-GoGo spun electronica and old soul music 45s.

All proceeds from art sales and donations collected by the Oakland Family Fund, the organization that put on the event, were to benefit the survivors and the families of victims of the December 2 Ghost Ship fire. “I had a lot of friends in the fire. Anything we can do to contribute, the better,” Ganush said.

The fire broke out during a dance party at the Ghost Ship art collective’s warehouse in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. It claimed 36 lives. The warehouse was a live/work artists’ space which was neither zoned nor permitted for residency or events. According to members of the OWC, many such spaces exist because artists and others in marginalized communities are priced out of living and working in Oakland because of the high rents and lack of affordable housing.

In the aftermath of the fire, the larger arts and music community in Oakland has been organizing relief efforts, including Sunday’s  art sale, organized by the Oakland Family Fund. The fund’s purpose, according to H.L. Nelly (who co-organized the fund along with Winston Goertz-Giffen), is to give money directly those displaced after the fire, although this event’s proceeds also went towards two other organizations: Land Action and the OWC. Land Action, founded in 2011, works in Oakland on housing rights and alternative ways of using urban land such as microfarms and tiny houses. The OWC was formed after the Ghost Ship fire to advocate for people living and working in converted commercial and industrial locations.

“Alternative living spaces are kind of on the hot seat, being scrutinized because of this fire,” Nelly said.

“[OWC] are actively trying to change legislation around alternative living spaces,” she continued. “Land Action have been doing a number of things around the housing crisis, finding the best ways to use land in the community.”

Land Action founding member Steven DeCaprio was one of the main architects of the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance (ETPO), which was put forth by the OWC on December 23 and is currently being reviewed by the Oakland City Council. If passed by the council, the ordinance would offer 180-day protections including prohibiting unannounced “flash” building inspections, abuse of the anonymous complaint system for building code violations, and other tactics often used by landlords to evict tenants from code-violating spaces. It also calls for longer-term protections such as asking the city to use eminent domain to take over properties in order to legitimate live/work spaces and to make event permits easier for arts and music event organizers to obtain.

Carolyn Valentine, an organizer with the OWC, said at the event that such protections are urgently needed for many spaces similar to the Ghost Ship. Valentine said that while the city is currently inspecting about ten warehouse spaces, they estimate three to four times that amount are under threat of eviction or have already been subject to evictions by landlords.

“Some of them are warehouses, some of them are just houses that are known to house artists. It’s kind of a bad time to be an artist,” they said.

Organizers with the Oakland Family Fund and OWC said that although much of the organizing is coming out of the arts community, artists are only one group they want to help. “The fact is there are lots of low-income people living in housing they can afford but are scared because they have no protection. Artists are definitely some of these people, many of them are people of color, many of them are queer or trans, and this is how it’s always been,” said Valentine.

“[The housing crisis] is something that’s been going on for a very long time. We’re trying to be very aware of that and not try to be the voice for the housing crisis,” Goertz-Giffen said, adding that those organizing for better housing rights after the Ghost Ship fire want to make sure  “people of color and other marginalized groups, that they have the voice they should have in this movement.”

“The takeway about the arts community in the Bay Area is that we don’t just care about ourselves,” Valentine said. “We care about our community and we’re trying to take a tragedy and memorialize our friends’ deaths in a way that’s meaningful for us and for people in Oakland all around us.”

The Oakland Family Fund, according to Nelly, gives money raised directly to those affected by the Ghost Ship fire and will try to make it available to them “as soon as possible.”

Among the artwork being sold were back patches–pieces of cloth with images silk-screened on them intended to be sewn onto the back of shirts or jackets–depicting Denalda Nicole Siegrist, one of the 36 people who perished in the fire. The patches were designed and crafted by artists Jordan Baxter-Stern and Zoë Ceja.

“Our friends aren’t lost; they’re just dead,” Baxter-Stern wrote by email after the event, reflecting on how a sale like this could benefit the arts community. “All this is just a dress rehearsal for the big show.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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