As we mourn the deaths of so many young people and talented artists from the tragic fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse and begin to consider next steps, it’s important to remember one thing: Oakland is a DIY town.
Rent parties, ad-hoc concerts in auto-body garages, and all-night DJ bacchanals in nondescript warehouses have flourished in the city for decades. It is one of the bright spots of living in a sprawling, post-industrial metropolis that has only recently begun to diversify into a tech adjunct for neighboring Silicon Valley. It is a lasting effect of the East Bay’s historically progressive spirit.
There are practical reasons for this DIY culture, as well. Despite a population of nearly 500,000 people — more if you count close outlying areas such as Berkeley, Emeryville and San Leandro — Oakland has long had a dearth of venues to enjoy music. When I first moved here in 1999, I didn’t know of any East Bay nightclubs that hosted live hip-hop and electronic music. To see a punk show, I had to travel out to Gilman in Berkeley. Blake’s on Telegraph usually stuck to moldy jam bands; it was a rarity when Andre Nickatina headlined there. When I went to dance to house music at 1015 Folsom or 550 Barneveld in S.F., I had to navigate a horde of kids tripping balls on Ecstasy, and heteronormative bros and gals stumbling with their Red Bull and vodkas.
Perhaps that’s why artist collectives often sidestep the steep door charges, 2 a.m. curfew, 21-and-over age restrictions, inflated drink prices, intimidating security staff, constricting stage requirements, and obnoxious drunkards who just wanna rage and could care less about who’s on stage.
“With an underground, you’re free to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can set up the space in a way that can’t be replicated on any other night by customizing your visuals, lighting, sound, the whole setup,” explained Max Gardner in an email. His techno party, Direct to Earth, usually attracted an intimate and discerning crowd more interested in sonics and excellent tracks than the “molly” stereotypes that still saddle electronic culture. “You can create a safe space for specific people in the community to come and feel comfortable being themselves with no judgment , no bro’s or bra’s making fun of them for being who they are.”
Some of the most dynamic and innovative music of the past two decades has emerged from Oakland’s subterranean nightlife. An old friend of mine, B-boy and rapper Bas-1, points out that, in the early 1990s, Living Legends formed in a loft they called “4001” on High Street. When they performed, he says, they’d charge “$3 and a pack of Top Ramen, or $3 and a box of Pop Tarts” for admission.
Years later, the experimental rap iconoclasts Anticon solidified at a warehouse in West Oakland. The producer and DJ Jeffrey “Jel” Logan still lives in the area, and he’s a familiar presence at both small nightclubs like New Parish as well as house parties. “It was great. With us, the Anticon faction, we linked up with all the Tigerbeat6 people,” he says, citing another influential label from the early 2000s. “That energy keeps going in Oakland. The kids [who were here] keep passing the torch down the line, just that communal energy of ‘Let’s have a party and everybody show love for each other.’”
Mother’s Cookies Factory, LoBot, 21 Grand, Ghost Town, Woods, and Vulcan: a few of these places had venue permits and liquor licenses, but most did not. Yet at every semi-legal party I’ve been to in the Town — whether it’s a Burning Man-style warehouse celebration near the Emeryville corridor, a “secret” rave cave in the basement of a Chinatown restaurant, a tech-house experience in Jack London Square, or a hip-hop throwdown on the outskirts of Lake Merritt — there is usually a cop car or two hovering a block or two away. If there’s a noisy event with more than a few dozen people, then law enforcement usually knows about it.
“We’ve had the police stop by some of our events and each time they’ve let me go to our original stopping time (usually 6am.) One time we even walked them through the venue while the event was going on,” writes Gardner, who adds that he hasn’t thrown a Direct to Earth event in several months. “This is probably because we had everything under control.”
He wrote that he’s heard of other underground parties getting shut down, though. “I imagine it’s because they didn’t have their shit together, they didn’t have security and they probably cut corners,” he wrote.
A preliminary criminal investigation by Alameda County district attorney is already underway to determine if the landlord or renters cut too many corners and directly or indirectly caused last Friday’s deadly fire.
But it’s important to remember that, for all the public scorn and legal scrutiny he has earned for being a scene profiteer, Ghost Ship figurehead and de-facto leader Derick Ion Almena is not the only rogue who has tried to launch a creative venue, no matter the costs.
One of the best local shows I attended was a Death Grips performance at a two-story house that sometimes doubled as a music space. As the Sacramento-based digital punk band thundered with noisy fury, I could feel the wooden floor bounce underneath my feet. What if the planks had collapsed from hundreds of revelers moshing at once? What if the thick tangle of chords spitting out electric feedback had suddenly caught fire?
Last January, DJ and producer Jason Stinnett helped organize a showcase for the Brooklyn electronic label Opal Tapes at Ghost Ship. “We did a very successful party. It went really well. We took those risks because there was something about the space that drew you in. It’s one of a kind,” he says. Indeed, the Tumblr pictures of Ghost Ship that have circulated in recent days reveal a quirky and charming wooden labyrinth. It’s easy to forget that the uniquely designed space was also a clear fire hazard.
“Sometimes, when you’re throwing an event and you know this is the only place you can do this at, you look at all the possibilities, and you don’t look at the downsides,” Stinnett says.
Stinnett has since joined Starline Social Club as a booker, and he has reached out to some of his friends who throw underground parties. “By creating Starline, we’ve taken to heart and our motto is serving and bringing people from the community, people who are POC and queer, and helping keep that line of art [that ran through] all of the old spaces, and trying to bring that into a space that’s legitimate,” he says, adding that owner Adam Hatch was a co-founder of LoBot. “If you go there, you still have a sense of Oakland.”
In the following weeks and months, there will be ample debate over whether Oakland’s DIY community can be tamed. Some editorial writers are calling for a crackdown, or at least increased vetting by the city and law enforcement on potentially unsafe artist spaces like Ghost Ship. The city is in mourning, and with so many young and creative lives lost, it’s only fair to demand some changes. “It’s going to make people living in these situations way more alert and aware about safety, ’cause this is ridiculously tragic,” says Logan.
However, there will need to be a balance struck between ensuring that creatives do not risk lives and limbs when they transform decaying properties into party houses, and allowing our arts community to flourish.
Some musicians don’t have access to nightclubs, even welcoming ones such as Starline Social Club, and not everyone has the time or funds to navigate the paperwork and regulations that a city art grants require. If Oakland attempts to shut down every party that doesn’t have the right permits, even if it’s for the admirable reason of preventing another Ghost Ship disaster, then it may inadvertently snuff out the beautiful do-it-yourself spirit that animates so much of the city’s soul.