It’s not known exactly how many people went to the ominously named Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, on the night of Dec. 2, but 36 people — artists, musicians, teachers, aspiring visionaries of all kinds — lost their lives there during a fire. It’s assumed they were trapped or lost in the notoriously labyrinthine space that was home to artist studios and cluttered with makeshift structures, art, furniture and vintage knick-knacks.
The incident, which is the deadliest building fire in a decade, not only rocked the city of Oakland, it quickly reverberated through the arts community in North Texas. Several local creatives lost someone close to them. The artist Joonbug McIntosh, who relocated to Oakland from Dallas, lost a close friend, director Alex Ghassan. And Denton-based Kennedy Ashlyn, one half of the dream-pop duo Them Are Us Too, lost her bandmate Cash Askew that night.
The tragedy has left many local artists saying, “It could have been any one of us.” A shortage of affordable arts spaces, a general lack of institutionalized funding from foundations and the city, and a dearth of established venues that are willing to take a chance on experimental work have been the driving forces that push artists underground. Creatives find respite in warehouses and makeshift studios. These fringe spaces are flexible and nonjudgmental, and the people who frequent them are oftentimes just as welcoming.
DIY spaces were under a major threat over the last year as the Dallas fire marshal’s office began a series of surprise inspections that led to gatherings being shut down mid-event. Some of those art spaces were told they could be shut down permanently if they didn’t undergo costly fixes.
It all started last New Year’s Eve, when visual artist Eric Trich’s event was shut down at his studio in Deep Ellum, and crackdowns continued at established art galleries that weren’t zoned for performance events. In a highly publicized cancellation in May, a three-day hybrid art-performance event, co-organized by Dean Terry of the performance group Therefore, was funded by the city and then canceled by the fire marshal after the first night. Things reached a boiling point over the summer at a heated community meeting with the fire marshal and city officials.
The situation finally stabilized this fall — many spaces in violation of code quietly found resolution within city offices, oftentimes without costly renovations. But now artists are asking if the tragedy will spur a backlash locally with even more stringent guidelines and a frenzy of future crackdowns from the fire marshal.
“Any time we see significant fires … it causes us to go back and check our processes and make sure we’re doing things as thoroughly as we need to be,” says the fire marshal, Chief Chris Martinez of Dallas Fire Prevention and Inspection. “It's always a wake up call to everyone.”
He says it’s impossible to know what went on behind the scenes and what could have been prevented in the Oakland fire, as investigations are still underway. “I haven't been able to talk to anyone from the Oakland Fire Department so I don't know the specifics, but … what may have been the situation … is a lack of being able to find contact personnel. They tried really hard to find someone who could walk through with the structure, [and] they were not able to accomplish it. There may have been a number of businesses where they weren't able to look at everything. Some of those violations may not have been corrected.”
Martinez sees the tragedy as confirmation that his office is right to enforce the fire code here the way it has been. “It’s the reason why we’re doing the things we're doing, and why we enforce the code the way that we do,” he says.
Martinez acknowledges the situation with shutdowns in Dallas has gotten better and attributes the improvement to better communication between business owners and his department.
“We've heard from a lot more people that have said, ‘I've got an event coming up, or I've got a particular space that I'm looking at for future business ventures. We would like for you to come out to our location.’ And we've made an effort to go out a lot more and give feedback, things they can do to make the space more compliant with fire code,” says Martinez. “We've worked with some different venues that have had events. We're moving in a good direction. It's been very positive.”
He says he’s not changing course in light of the Oakland fire, although his inspectors will have different considerations for the holiday season: “During the colder part of the year we have to be more cognizant of space heaters, and more people are inside because you can't use patios because of the colder temperatures, so there’s more emphasis on overcrowding. We look for life-safety first: Are the sprinkler systems working, are there clear exit paths and are exit doors able to open freely?”
Inspectors will be on alert as usual for holiday gatherings, sifting through listings in local newspapers and magazines, and on social media looking for events. And they’ll be making the rounds at businesses and commercial spaces to make sure everyone is in compliance. Martinez says residences aren’t under the fire marshal’s jurisdiction unless he receives a specific complaint, which is rare.
“As far as procedures we're doing the same things we were before, it's just a renewed emphasis to do it,” says Martinez.
Kennedy Ashlyn, who lost her bandmate Cash Askew, has been in Oakland sorting out Askew’s affairs and offering support to her family and girlfriend since getting word of her death.
She says the event has shifted her perspective. “Before I was like, the fire marshal needs to fuck off and leave our spaces alone … obviously I feel very differently about it now.”
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Ashlyn was a recipient of two benefit shows in Dallas to help pay for her expenses while she’s in Oakland. She says the Oakland community has also rallied with nonstop benefits not only for victims and their families, but also for all of the arts spaces that are now being inspected and shut down by the fire marshal. The funds raised will help spaces afford to get into compliance.
“There's a lot of fire safety workshops and skills and tools happening in Oakland right now,” says Ashlyn. “I think that would be a really beneficial thing for any city.”
No stranger to the underground music and art scene in North Texas, she advises that the communities not stop operating in the wake of the tragedy but rather learn from it. Part of that is holding each other accountable as questions have been raised recently whether there was criminal negligence on the part of the “master tenant” of the Ghost Ship warehouse, Derick Ion Almena, and other tenants who allegedly knew of safety hazards and electrical malfunctions.
“Spaces need to stay under the radar and keep it word of mouth, but make sure they're in line with the fire code for safety reasons. We need to hold each other accountable, keep each other safe and try to keep each other legal when possible,” says Ashlyn. “The only thing worse than being shut down by the fire marshal is having a building burn down and losing lives.”