Artists struggle for sense of community 1-year after Ghost Ship Fire

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For years, Oakland has been an epicenter of a vibrant - .and underground - artistic scene.

With rents high and spaces at a minimum, musicians and creatives have been drawn to spaces that are hidden from the main view. The night of the Ghost Ship fire was no different: Dozens had gathered in an unpermitted Fruitvale warehouse to paint nails, chat with friends and dance to electronic beats created and performed by their friends.

But after the Ghost Ship fire, where 36 of those guests died when they couldn’t escape fast enough, many artists are now struggling to find places to gather. Some of the parties have moved above ground, others are kept even more under wraps, and some young creative-types say they’re out of the scene altogether.

But without this vibrant scene, even if it isn’t in plain view, Oakland won’t be the same, many say.

“Our music isn't mainstream,” said Chris Treggiari, an artist whose friend, Alex Ghassan, was one of the 36 people who died Dec. 2, 2016. “We tend to look for spaces that accommodate that, which means that sometimes they are a little off the beaten path maybe not the normal concert venue that you'd be going to.”

Treggiari explained that these underground warehouse parties were a refuge for the fringes of society, and an “important place for people to come to as a community.”

But ever since the deadly tragedy, that vibe hasn’t been the same. Several artists have been kicked out by their landlords, who had once turned a blind eye to their unpermitted living situations. At least one group of artists who used to live in the Death Trap have been evicted, for example, and they are now trying to establish a new, legal place to live nearby.

It was hard to find these spaces even before the Ghost Ship fire.

“It was becoming increasingly difficult before the fire and after the fire it's been made almost impossible,” said David Bernbaum, whose brother, Jonathan, a video artist, was killed in the fire. “There was already this underground universe of hidden parties...which was already in peril before the Ghost Ship fire, and every month or so one of these places would be lost to eviction.”

And now, these special venues, which were already in limited supply, are even more scarce. Finding housing and space to live and work is tough for many in Oakland, and for many struggling artists, nearly impossible.

“One of the reasons that the event happened there the night that it did was that it was an act of desperation,” Bernbaum said, “because there weren't other places to have the parties.”

He said that he is pretty much out of the party scene altogether since his brother’s death, and in general, parties are “not like they used to be.”

For example, some events are still held above ground now at permitted clubs and venues, like an a permitted nightclub in San Francisco, appropriately named "Underground SF" on Haight Street, where electronic music played and people danced to the techno beats in near darkness. The group promoting the event had ties to the KatabatikSound, which Bernbaum's brother was a part of. 

Other parties are held in secret – no more publicizing them on Facebook, as was the Ghost Ship party featuring the band, 100% Silk. There’s a great fear by many that too much exposure will threaten the close-knit artist community’s existence and the city or landlords will crack down and kick them out.

Treggiari politely refused to discuss where he gets together with his friends, though he insisted he still does enjoy weekend gatherings with friends and music.

“These places are underground, they're different, they're catering to a different type of crowd,” he said.

But where? He won’t say: “And yeah, we'll keep it that way.”