Ghost Ship Fire: Victims of the Free Market

Some of the fire victims. — KALW photo

When I got the news of the Ghost Ship fire, I sent a panic text to my son who lives in Berkeley.  He’s the same age as most of the victims.  He’s in the arts scene.  He might have been there.  It was the same trembly, sinking feeling I had on 9/11, when my other son was at NYU and living in Lower Manhattan. Thankfully, they’re both safe.  For now.

The lives lost in 9/11 were victims of terrorism.  The lives lost in Ghost Ship were victims of the free market. Three layers of free markets, actually.  There’s the above-ground free market in housing. That’s where rents in Oakland have tripled over the past three years, and even moderate income people can’t buy a house.  Then there’s the underground free market in housing, where slumlords masquerading as long-haired cool-vibe benefactors enable live-work death traps for money. And then there’s the third free market, the one for labor, where starving artists have to take day jobs at crappy wages that price them out of the above-ground housing market and condemn them to the warehouse ghetto, or to the streets.

Cities like Oakland want an arts scene, desperately.  Too long defined by news about drive-by shootings and gang wars, Oakland in recent years has reveled in the new cachet of its muralists (until one was shot and killed) and its downtown First Friday scene and its vibrant, diverse, and envelope-pushing creative arts communities.  Until Ghost Ship.

Now the telephones of local eviction defense groups and tenant lawyers are ringing off the hook with tenants in warehouse spaces begging for legal help against a sudden tsunami of eviction notices.  Owners that had profited for decades from off-code live-work arrangements are afraid of the post-fire lawsuits. City inspectors that did nothing while obvious fire traps multiplied now race to red-tag anything that doesn’t look kosher. If this continues, Oakland will no longer have an arts scene.  The arts scene will have moved to Martinez and Pittsburg and Brentwood, or it will have been snuffed out as its protagonists give up in despair.

If a city wants an arts scene, it has to carve out a market-free space.  That’s right, not free-market but market-free. The free markets in legal housing, underground housing, and labor produce shameless exhibitions of luxury at one end, and shameful underworlds of poverty and death on the other. It isn’t only art that gets throttled here, it’s family life, children, health, dignity, hope.

There are solutions. Right in Oakland there are specialists like Thomas Dolan, an architect whose firm specializes in developing live-work spaces. Creating safe, legal live-work spaces isn’t rocket science.  But it requires public funds, and it requires creative flexibility in a governmental bureaucracy that’s geared to the conventional real estate market. How many cities today have funds, and the political will, to subsidize live-work spaces for young aspiring artists who haven’t yet sold their first creation and are working at minimum wage day jobs?

Another market-free angle is to support young artists in a decent manner. In Norway, a friend tells me, aspiring artists (including the whole range of creative endeavors) who demonstrate serious commitment to their craft can get stipends from the state, equal to the average wage of a factory worker.  Reviewed annually, the stipends go away if the artist either stops working at art or starts making money.  With those stipends, young people can afford to live in safe and legal housing while working full time at their art. What a concept!

By either approach, communities are saying that art is too valuable to be left to the mercies of the free market. If a community can do that, it can have a sustainable thriving arts scene.  If the community cannot create a market-free scene for the arts, it will have a thin overlay of market art, art for the affluent, while the lives of its most spirited young talents go up in smoke.




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