Underground Venues Seek Safety & Survival Following Oakland Warehouse Fire

The remains of the “Ghost Ship” converted warehouse, Dec. 4.
Lucy Nicholson

The remains of the “Ghost Ship” converted warehouse, Dec. 4. 

In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, underground (and often unlicensed) spaces have come under intense scrutiny. While Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced on Dec. 6 the formation of both a fire safety task force and a $1.7 million grant to help artists secure affordable space, the reaction in other cities has been more aggressive. Event spaces in Philadelphia, Dallas, Nashville, Indianapolis and New Haven have reportedly been under greater scrutiny and could face closure. Earlier this week, residents of Baltimore's Bell Foundry art space were evicted for alleged safety violations.

While none can argue against the need for safety, these venues have for decades incubated music and arts scenes that otherwise would have been priced out of major cities. David Mancuso’s Loft parties in New York, Washington, D.C.’s Madam’s Organ and even Andy Warhol’s Factory might never have existed if they had to obtain permits. So much of today's experimental dance and electronic music, punk, metal and indie rock will lose places to perform and woodshed if the shuttering continues.

Electronic musician and Baltimore resident Dan Deacon, 35, who has lived, worked and performed in alternative cooperative spaces (including an early Bell Foundry) for the past 12 years, recalls being inspired as a teenager on a trip to Providence, R.I., where he attended a party at the underground Fort Thunder, co-founded by Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale. “I’d never been to a house that was art in and of itself,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘How do people live here? This wall is made out of bikes, that door’s a refrigerator.’ It blew my mind.”

For promoters and musicians, unlicensed venues are often an attractive proposition as well. “I made more money when I was underground,” says Jen Lyon of New York-based MeanRed Productions, which for a decade has promoted shows at venues both with and without licenses from municipal authorities. But in recent years MeanRed has moved aboveground, obtaining temporary public assembly permits, liquor licenses, insurance and security while working closely with fire inspectors. “I just got more nervous,” says Lyon, “not necessarily of the law, but of other people — like parents in the suburbs whose kids got too wasted at a party.”

But staving off liability and getting up to code isn’t always an option. “A lot of people who end up living in these spaces don’t have that kind of money,” says The Windish Agency’s Sam Hunt, whose clients include Deacon, Lightning Bolt, Animal Collective and Matt & Kim, all of whom have performed in unlicensed venues. “They’ll either live unsafely, leave the area or end up in another inopportune situation.”

Issues of safety for artists like Deacon, however, go beyond building codes. "I've felt some of the safest feelings I've ever felt in [warehouse] spaces where I can truly be myself and feel unjudged and unguarded and not worry about authority," he says. "But I've certainly felt unsafe in a  crowd after a sporting event gets out and there's 50,000 drunk and screaming fans, but no one's taking about shutting down stadiums."

While Oakland is trying to work with the arts community (at least outwardly), what you may see in other cities is "[authorities] saying 'Everyone get the f-- out of here' rather than trying to solve the larger problems," says Alexis Rivera, who co-founded Los Angeles' Club Called Rhonda and runs management company Echo Park Records, whose roster includes Todd Edwards, Chromatics and Melody's Echo Chamber. Rivera is fearful that as these venues are shuttered, artists like Edwards -- who he says plays roughly half his shows at alternative spaces both here and abroad -- may be hard pressed to find performance spaces.

In the days after the Oakland fire, a consensus began emerging among alternative space supporters. A crowd-sourced risk-reduction document for DIY venues went viral and was posted on the dance-music portal Resident Advisor. "It just started as some basic thoughts on what DIY sites can do to make themselves safer," says S. Surface, 35, an architectural designer and two-decade veteran of alternative spaces who created and now edits the growing document. "It's rudimentary things like labeling where exits are, clearing clutter and debris, making sure doors are marked."

While these attempts at self-regulation are crucial, alone they may not be enough. "I'd like to see city and local precincts actively help alternative spaces," says Ric Leichtung, 30, who runs AdHoc Presents and has booked DIY shows at the now-shuttered Death by Audio, Shea Stadium, Monster Island Basement and 285 Kent in New York (and who himself formerly lived in the unlicensed venue Market Hotel and which he called a "great experience" and is on a path to being licensed). "[These spaces] need an infrastructure for support because legalization is a costly and confusing process that's hard to navigate." 

But for Dan Deacon, no matter how municipalities come down on warehouse spaces, the alternative space movement will never be extinguished. "There are always young people who are going to create and discover these spaces," he says. "It's just the nature of it. You can displace people, but they're not going to go away."