En Moda and Botanica Tres M’s in Fruitvale. Photo by Elizabeth Holzer.
To neighbors, the informal artist colony and underground venue known as Ghost Ship was a blemish or a curiosity — a source of late-night noise and decorative clutter on the periphery of East Oakland’s predominantly Latino Fruitvale district.
A mural on the car-stereo shop next door depicts a street sign for adjacent East 14th, the name replaced by nearby International Boulevard twenty years ago. Around the corner are a women’s boutique, En Moda, and a purveyor of religious goods, Botanica Tres M’s. To the south are pastel-colored single-family homes in the California bungalow style.
Before a fire eviscerated Ghost Ship on December 2 — claiming the lives of thirty-six, all but one of whom were attendees or performers at an electronic music event that evening — Fruitvale native and EastSide Arts Alliance cofounder Favianna Rodriguez wrote in a statement that “none of my neighbors knew this venue.”
Oakland’s unsanctioned arts venues and homes use secrecy for security and cultural cachet. The trouble, longtime activists observe, is that the insularity instills a sort of cultural myopia: suddenly spotlighted and embattled this past month, many warehouse-dwelling artists neglect to recognize the struggles for housing and creative expression that precede and surround them.
The disaster and its ongoing aftershocks (selective city code-compliance crackdowns and landlord panic or opportunism) spurred a countervailing avalanche of mutual-aid among warehouse residents and sympathizers, including loud demands for legislative relief. But none of the fundraisers this writer found — cumulatively, over $1.5 million dollars in relief funds — explicitly support those businesses neighboring Ghost Ship, which sit smoke-damaged and shuttered by inspectors from the City of Oakland.
Which begs the question: Will the people surrounding the warehouse residences and venues in Oakland’s flatlands — largely low-income people of color disproportionately displaced and subjected to substandard shelter at least since the Black Panthers demanded fair housing in 1966 — benefit from the wellspring of financial support and political will?
Tony Rossi Sons Florist, Fruitvale Avenue. Photo by Elizabeth Holzer.
One attempt at an affirmative answer is the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance, written in response to the fire by Steven DeCaprio, a formerly homeless musician who founded the housing’ rights organization Land Action, with input from activist consortium Oakland Justice Coalition. “Of course I wanted to write it as inclusively as possible,” DeCaprio said. “This isn’t just about protecting artists. It’s about protecting communities.”
That’s also the message of prominent civil-rights attorney John Burris, whose office has been contacted about hundreds of evictions throughout the Bay Area since the fire. “We gotta use this energy to reexamine