Alright, listen Burners, while the facts continue to filter out about the disaster of Ghost Ship, the Oakland warehouse space that was reduced to ashes over the weekend, the swirling commentary, tidal wave of thinkpieces & classism masquerading as concern has (once again) missed the forest for the trees. The arguments about the responsibility of the owner, the problems with having parties at underground venues, and the nature of the community at the center of the tragedy are all aggressively useless. People can talk about “what parties should be” until the K-heads wake up, but there are realities that have forced event spaces to be the way they are for decades now. Those realities involve dollar signs, not lifestyle or philosophical choices. And, as someone that has actually made a “need a fire extinguisher to save an event from burning down” hand-off at 5 am at an underground warehouse, I hope you’ll trust that this isn’t going to be your standard anti-capitalist or anti-club rant.
Underground & illegal housing/parties are a mainstay of the American party community, going back so far that I’m not sure where to begin. The best parties I’ve been to in my life, by an overwhelming margin, were outlaw events. These took place in both indoor & outdoor settings and didn’t have a license between the half dozen of them. However, this wasn’t because they decided they wanted to flip off the man, this was because they couldn’t afford to get them. The history of denying Cabaret Licenses in NYC is legendary, with LA & SF having their own exhaustive histories when it comes to illegal/outlaw parties. All of these events were thrown the way they did because the economic realities of these places demanded it.
While clubs and retail venues generally cut costs/increase profits by removing measures of harm reduction or safety, underground warehouses do so simply because they don’t have the resources, manpower or know-how to deploy these best case practices. But, after a tragedy, it’s easy to willfully misunderstand the point for your own profit. Many people have chosen to call the people in this space irresponsible, going so far as to (in very, VERY poor taste) invoke the death of Shelley Goldsmith, the young woman who died at Echostage due to the club being 104 degrees and the staff preventing rave kids from filling water bottles in the bathrooms for free.
As someone who actively attempts to deploy harm reduction stations/practices at events in and around New York City, Philly, Baltimore, and Seattle, I think blaming the attendees is despicable and could not be more wrong. The attendees demand, sometimes loudly, harm reduction services. Those demands are largely ignored. Activists in this space have spent literal decades attempting to convince venues owners and event producers to provide water, spacious chill out areas, adequate ventilation and follow fire safety procedures/equipment.
These pleas are in addition to the legion of skilled craftsmen, lighting technicians, sound engineers, bartenders and contractors that we’ve all seen tell venues that shit isn’t safe. We’ve seen event after event cancelled in NYC due to shoddy work and producers ignoring permit requirements. The Parks Dept and NYPD certainly overstep their bounds a lot, but there have been events oversold to the point where they’re not just dangerous for those inside, but disrupt greater public safety around them (I’m looking at you Unicorn Meat and Santacon). We’ve all seen clubs packed to the gills with people, to the point where you can hardly walk in the door, and no one’s successfully called for those venues to be shut down. We’ve seen drunk people fight outside of clubs or have screaming matches outside of huge bars in every city people party in. Yet somehow, these events get a pass on harm reduction and conversations about overcrowding.
Clubs engage in cost cutting and general fuckery because they love profit, as we saw at Echostage. Underground warehouses like this are lived in by people who don’t have any better option. And not just because of the cost, but because of the community they’ll be able to join. Some people will say there’s something “magical” to the sanctuary a lot of these spaces provide, and they’re right. These places are lifelines for members of alternative communities, safe spaces for the down-trodden and refuges for the rejected. This is a really important point that only a couple of commenters have made, and they’ll be linked to liberally throughout this piece:
And yet for many of us, these spaces are what have kept us alive. In a world that demands its inhabitants to be a certain way, think a certain way, or live a certain way, we gravitate to the spaces that say: Welcome. Be yourself. For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of color, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand — or can’t, or doesn’t seem to want to try.
~Gabe Meline, It Could Have Been Any One Of Us
I know dozens, if not hundreds people who have lived in spaces similar to the Ghost Ship, all over the country. These places didn’t just throw great parties, but they educated and empowered their communities. They worked to teach transplants how to hustle, how to process grief, how to cook a vegetarian stew and how to seal windows, among the thousands of other trainings, days of education, self-defense classes, activist campaigns and other things they’ve bestowed upon their residents and visitors. Not because they were particularly philanthropic, but because they were needed. This is the equivalent of thinking a homeless person got good at de-escalation/conflict resolution because he likes to study, not because he’s tired of being stabbed by people he interacts with in the streets.
There was a jarringly relevant parallel made by The New Republic several months ago. They discussed the myth that millennials aren’t purchasing cars or diamonds because they’re iconoclastic and have different values. This is a myth that actually exists in the boomer/grayer generation. They honestly think that millennials don’t own cars or houses because of ideology, not because they’re fucking broke. The same metaphor applies here. There are plenty of older party people or muggles who aggressively declare that the kids are just living irresponsibly because their style demands it, and those people are stupid.
There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice.
~The Myth of the Millennial as a Cultural Rebel
People don’t choose to live in illegal warehouses or 15 to a space if they don’t have to. While there may be the odd trust fund kid at the loft, there are plenty of reasons why people don’t “choose” to, and vice/fault does not have to be among said reasons. Just because someone lives in a place different than a one bedroom apartment with a pull out couch and a three piece living room set, doesn’t mean they love crack, dubstep or fucking their way through Brooklyn. From Warhol to Skrillex, some of the most important/controversial/thought-provoking art & music in the last 50 years came out of artist spaces, legal and otherwise.
I also want to disabuse people of the notion that underground/illegal warehouses are inherently more dangerous than retail club spaces & other, more milquetoast residencies. There are plenty of resources available to individuals who are truly interested in make their space safe, and there have been some stunning successes across the country, for people who care to look. And I think we’ve all walked into a retail/legal venue or two and went “wow, this isn’t safe at all,” so please spare me the “capitalism makes everything better” rant if at all possible. Capitalism created the Triangle Shirtwaste Factory Fire, in case you needed to be reminded that safety standards were created in defiance of business leaders, not with their blessings.
For an exceptional review of how to build harm reduction principles into your space or a space you frequent, this detailed, multi-tier document by S. Surface and their collaborators from Seattle WA is a spectacular place to start, as is the evolving document at saferspac.es. If you manage or frequent an industrial or warehouse space specifically, this Medium article by Gui Cavalante, founder of the Artisan Asylum in Somerville, MA is a prettier, more shareable choice. If you want to donate or contribute to the effort to help those in need after this disaster, the Burning Man Journal has a brief round-up of the largest/matched crowdfunding campaigns here.
If you want to do some more deep diving on what happened, this article on 48 Hills has treated the artists, creators and producers with the respect they deserve. We are so quick to describe anyone partying in a non-frat boy way as worthy of scorn and any terrible fate that befalls them, from heroin addiction to rape to death by conflagration, and I for one am sick of it. Especially when it comes from other party people, some of whom so wealthy I wouldn’t be surprised if they voted for Trump on his tax plans alone.
It’s shit like this that makes some Burners so utterly repellent sometimes. I’ve watched rich people argue with people living hand-to-mouth about how they “just had to find the money” to go to Burning Man, totally ignorant of the person’s lived situation and the essential impossibility of taking 2 weeks off and paying for the supplies needed to live off the grid. This kind of tone deaf attitude about the requirements of making the Hajj to Black Rock is what prevents so many people from attempting to experience it. While plenty would say that turning people off to BM is a good thing, doing so by richsplaining a festival to people struggling and striving to make real art is not the way to do so. The same thing is happening here.
There is significant work to be done to make the spaces that serve as refuges for ethnic, sexual or cultural minorities safer and less vulnerable to fire and other environmental threats (don’t get me started on what happened to artist spaces in the wake of Hurricane Sandy), but shaming those same minorities for not being wealthy enough to afford safe housing is not going to make them any safer. This is Terry Gotham, see you on the dance floor. I’ll be checking it for clearly lit fire exits and untreated wood.