I once knew a space like the Ghost Ship. It may still be around, I don’t know. I visited it once when a friend had an art exhibition there. It wound around, corridor after corridor of sectioned off studios. The ceiling seemed impossibly high. It had a primitive feel to it, the quintessence of two-by-four technology, held together with nails, spit, glue, and dogged determination.
Safety broached my mind. Even before I became a facilities dude for a living, such things occupied my mental space. I remember hoping that the denizens of the space took proper precautions to protect themselves and the unique space they created. It had a lot of wood. That’s what concerned me most. Wood burns without pity.
My sister frequented spaces like Ghost Ship in her youth, alternative, self-made spaces where folks of like spirits could mingle and get their dance on. I thought of her when I heard about Ghost Ship. I was thankful that she never encountered such danger in what should always be a safe space.
Seeing their faces, those who fell to the fire, fills me with great depression. So young, so vital, so full of the energy this world needs, now gone. It simply shouldn’t have happened.
As a facilities dude, I think about what could have been done to make that space safe, to make similar spaces safe. Artists suffer for their art, an old cliche. But suffering should not include putting one’s life at risk. Suffering should not mean living in substandard conditions, prey to the negligence of unscrupulous landlords and property owners. Unfortunately, Oakland and other cities have decided that cracking down on artists warehouse spaces is the best way to deal with the issue. It isn’t.
We can work together to make these spaces safe for habitation. Install smoke detectors and fire sprinklers or at least a comprehensive series of fire extinguishers. Ensure that spaces have adequate escape routes and stairwells for quick exit. Develop low cost programs to check and improve electrical systems. Train citizens in basic fire safety. Perhaps a brigade of contractors who themselves are artists could volunteer their services to this work. Instead of investing to punish and point fingers, invest in these spaces so that they serve their artistic populations safely.
We do not and should not crackdown on artists trying to live and create. In a few week’s time, we’ll have a federal government all too willing to do the same. Nothing has come up in the news about future plans for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and our other trusts committed to encouraging and promoting the nation’s cultural life. But make no mistake, the arts will come under attack by the new Congress and Administration.
I remember very well Republican-led attacks on the NEA in light of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in the early 1990s. And Republicans continue to fight to defund CPB. In the past, folks fought those efforts with the rallying cry “Don’t Fire Big Bird.” Well, Sesame Street, astoundingly, jumped from PBS to HBO. This frees them from worry about fickle funding from the government, but it leaves its old home more vulnerable to attack. We don’t fund the arts nearly enough in this country as it is. In our warped view of the arts, we declare that they should make lots of money and if they don’t, then they’re worthless.
The arts form the basis of human existence, because humans communicate. We tell stories. Artists are storytellers. To defund them, marginalize them out of existence is to shut off that voice, those stories, and leave a void.
We lost 36 storytellers in the Ghost Ship fire last week. Let their legacy be that spaces like Ghost Ship get saved by activism and caring.
Here are some places to donate in support of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire.