The Underground Faces the System.

Consequences of the Oakland Fire

The recent tragedy at a warehouse in Oakland, California has put a secret youth culture in the global spotlight. It cringes under the uncomfortable scrutiny, while mourning the loss of its friends. And yet there’s more at stake here, the danger of a crackdown on their way of life. As with anything secret, once revealed, will it ever be the same again?

The Oakland Ghost ship was part of a global network of artistic luminaries who seek acceptance away from the constant scrutiny and restrictions of “The System.” They are artists at heart, in a civilization where there is little approval of the artistic lifestyle. While the art may be valued, the artist is not. And so, like all things that exist on the fringes of The System, it finds a way to survive against the odds.

Why don’t they conform to the rules? Well, because the rules literally do not apply to them. There are no concessions for artists. It is next to impossible to afford rent in urban centers where the arts thrive. So they migrate to the abandoned, polluted industrial sections of cities. They are the nobility of these urban backwaters, where they live in dilapidated buildings. These empty, expansive spaces are a blank canvas which they eventually fill with their outrageous creations. There they live in relative freedom until gentrification sets in. Artists boost the reputation of these areas until buildings are sold to developers, which then prices the artists out of the neighborhood. The artists not only improve the quality of an area that eventually benefits the owners, but they risk their lives every day doing it. It’s a vicious, ironic circle.

Artists should thrive on attention. The better known they are, the better the market for their work. But in this day and age, the obscurity of their lifestyle is a plus. Free of scrutiny from landlords and city officials, they spend their days in the throes of creativity. If landlords are aware of what is happening in their buildings, as long as rent is paid, it’s to their benefit to turn a blind eye and let the artists increase the value of the neighborhood. That is why this secret culture is called The Underground.

And this leads to the real culprit of the Oakland inferno. It’s easy to cast blame on the building owner, or the lease holder. But the real cause is The System, which doesn’t include a niche for an artist’s lifestyle. To be an artist is to be a rebel. And it becomes necessary to find alternative ways of making money, which usually involves a wider community of those who want to participate in a social network.

Many years ago, I moved to Los Angeles. I ended up living in one of these warehouses in downtown. This was right at the cusp of gentrification, when the homeless still burned fires in trashcans. What is now called the Artist District was still empty streets of grime, graffiti and blowing trash. The building I lived in was different than the modern artist collective because it was created by artists from the previous generation. They were from the Rolling Stones era, and to them, gentrification had already taken over, and their glory days were past. They made fun of the youth underground, which was my generation. But somehow I ended up running the place, and leading it to a new day of glory.

What I found was an ongoing war between the building owner and the guy ruling over his urban empire in the building. The owner wanted the rent paid and the operator wanted to create and be left alone. I created a business plan to conceptualize how a space like that could create a win/win for both of them. Most of these spaces rent out their nooks and crannies to other artists, and form collectives. This often leads to disaster, as this lifestyle attracts intense personalities that tend not to mix well. Another way to make rent is to throw parties. The space I ran made a lot of money as a film location. I’ve even seen some people make rent and bills by growing marijuana. Back when it was illegal, it was easier to make money after costs, because it sold for much more. Nowadays, Airbnb has been a lucrative means of making ends meet.

I found the quickest and more enjoyable way to bring in the dinero was the party route. These underground events are speakeasies where a community of like-minded individuals can gather and dance all night. There are very few rules. You can even choose to run with scissors, or risk life and limb to dance on the bar. It’s like Neverland, a trip down the rabbit hole into an alternate reality. I used to get a kick out of breaking glass just because I could. The risk involved here is the attention of many cars parked in the neighborhood, and disturbing the neighbors with noise. But this is why they are in industrial areas. If loud music plays all night and no one is around to complain… is it really happening? Plus you can create an economy by giving all the cans and bottles to the local homeless who take them in for cash.

But there are costs involved. Some use volunteers to staff the parties. I wanted to provide income for the talent, production, door people, and security team, so I paid everybody. Everyone who comes to these parties wants to get in free, because we rely on a wider community of artists, and yet the all-important cover charge is supposed to be the main reason for the event. The door people need to be strong and not let anyone in for free, thus paying them well gives them the incentive to guard your money. I always said to let anyone who was broke pay on a sliding scale, even if all they had was $2. It takes a brave soul to enter a deserted urban wasteland. Turning them away with no reward for their quest was just inhuman.

There was a time when artists had patrons, but today many are considered to be homeless or vagrants, and really, this needs to stop. I imagined turning the building into a private club with various levels of membership, one of which was a patronage level. There would be monthly dues based on one’s level of income, and once these dues were paid, they would be able to gain access to all parties, and even get a discount on any art they wanted to buy. It could have worked in a place like that, because it was established, and very popular. I couldn’t realize my dream, however, because I got sick from living in a polluted environment, and had to leave. There is a formula for throwing an underground party. I took my knowledge on to other venues and developed the rare skill of mediating disputes among art collectives, as well as applying the formula for events.

If you include The System in this plan, all chances of income go out the window. The System seems designed to eliminate The Underground, and so it remains just that, underground. After paying to apply for a permit, inspectors would descend on the establishment and more than likely shut it down and force everyone to move out. Provided the permit is granted, the permit would have to be purchased, and a fire marshal would have to be hired to attend the party. Not only is it a major bummer to have some dude from The System there defeating the entire purpose of having a domain unrestricted by the rules and judgements of our elders, but the fire marshal has to be paid upwards of $200 an hour. There goes any chance at making any kind of profit whatsoever, not to mention, paying anyone to work the party. For the interest of basic safety, there is a bare minimum that could be applied, such as installing exit signs, and having fire extinguishers in every room. But unless the landlord installs sprinklers, or you set up a hose in case of emergency, you are gambling with lives every time you have a party.

The inherent danger of the whole thing has come to light with the horrendous tragedy of the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire. I retired from warehouse life a number of years ago due to the inherent danger. I’ve had a friend or two die every year, and my own health has suffered tremendously. Yet I understand why we take these risks. It’s the cost of artistic freedom. I would rather die young having achieved this freedom than live my life as a slave to The System. If I can help reveal a cure through my unique perspective, then perhaps all those toiling years can be worth something to humanity.

Instead of cracking down on the entire underground, perhaps the cities in which they reside should begin to recognize the value of this culture, and bring it to light in a more tolerant fashion. The city of Oakland alone is rich with these secret cultural treasures. They are literally bringing value to entire neighborhoods. So why would the city want to push them out? There needs to be an acceptance rather than condemnation. Oakland has an opportunity to put itself on the map by leading a campaign to embrace the people who embody its unique and powerful charm.

Perhaps a concession would be better than making it impossible for artists to survive as a community. Making it more accessible, rather than inclusive and secret would be the better route. Why alienate the artists? It’s sheer folly. Artists are one of the most important aspects of civilization. I would suggest that the city should pay to bring these buildings to code. It would allow the artists to come into the public eye and offer their lifestyle to the wider world around them. Bringing it out of the underground into the light is an evolution, and it would mean embracing the practices of the youth culture. Tragedy can then be learned from, and allowed to create an avenue of change for the benefit of all.