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Oakland event spaces fight city over bureaucracy and inspections

Jeremy Dalmas
Qilombo, a social center in West Oakland, has been fighting to stay in their space since the Ghost Ship fire.


Events like the one thrown the night of the Ghost Ship fire used to be a regular occurrence all over Oakland. But they’ve virtually died out, because venues fear drawing attention to themselves.

Since December, the city has ramped up inspections. Last week, the Oakland Police department started requiring officers to report all unpermitted events.

But many who have run event spaces say that if the city wants to regulate them, more rules and bureaucracy will only push events further underground, and may lead to more unsafe spaces.

Credit Photo by Flickr user nadja robot / Cropped and resized / bit.ly/2lyL76L
21 Grand in 2007.

  21 Grand started in 2000 and was a founding member of the Art Murmur gallery walk. Co-Founder Sarah Lockhart says they were the first alternative art space in Uptown. Their bread and butter was music, but they also had visual art, dance, readings and film screenings. At their height in 2008, there were hosting events every couple days.

“The need was there,” she explains, “we could have filled every single night of the week. But we weren't making money, we needed to work jobs.”

After 7 years of events, one night while packing up, they were approached by the police.

Lockhart says they told her: “If we catch you doing this again, we're going to shut you down.”

But 21 Grand thought they were above board. And they wanted to be. After that night, they got shuttled from city department to city department, each one adding to a long checklist of things to do. A lot of these departments didn’t have good communication with one another.

“At the time that we had problems with city,” she explains,  “we were receiving grant money from the city to have shows.”

After 2 years of red tape and thousands of dollars, 21 Grand finally figured out that in order to stay open, they would have to retrofit the building, install sprinklers, move the front door and a bunch of other things. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They tried to move, but other spaces also would have also required expensive retrofitting, or would have been double the rent. 21 Grand shut down in 2010. The building that it was in is now an auto shop.

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
The building that 21 Grand was in is now an auto shop.

“I told the city straight up when they first started cracking down on us that you shut us down, and places like us down, you're going to push people to places that are far more unsafe,” says Lockhart.

After the fire in December, almost 1,300 people signed a letter that was written by survivors, and addressed to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Part of the letter asks the city to ‘reassess permitting policies’ and then it goes on to state:

“The importance of this last demand is illustrated well by the case of 21 Grand - a venue that did everything it could to legitimately host experimental music but was stymied at every point by an arduous city bureaucratic process.”

At city hall, Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan says that she wants to fix the specific problems that plagued 21 Grand. One idea is to make it much easier to interact with the city.

“And so what I and others are asking for,” Kaplan explains, “is a single point of contact permit that is not run by the police department”

But years after 21 Grand closed, there still is nothing on the table that deals with their biggest challenge: how does a non-profit community space with very little money either pay to upgrade a building, or afford a building that is already up-to-code to have events? And if they can’t pay, and they hide instead, is the city actually safer?

The fire didn’t create this problem, but it did intensify it. And like live/work spaces, event spaces have also been hit with inspections and eviction notices in recent months.

Qilombo is a radical social center that focuses on black and brown communities in West Oakland. They have a book store, a huge garden with chickens, a space for local healers, and their doors are open for domino games since the city closed nearby St Andrews park. There really isn’t any other space like this.

They’re different from 21 Grand, but they are beginning to deal with some of the same issues. Two weeks after Ghost Ship, Qilombo failed a fire inspection, after passing them for years.

“On the piece of paper it just said that we are not permitted to have public gatherings,” says Van Dell, one of the organizers at Qilombo.

She says she believes their property manager, who had already tried to evict them before, called in the inspection on the property himself. That manager didn’t respond to numerous calls for comment, but Dell says he showed up with the fire inspector, and afterwards told Qilombo their lease was void because of the failed inspection.

“We came to the conclusion”, she says, “landlords were snitching on spaces that they knew weren't up to code because they were negligent.”

This is hard to verify; complaints are anonymous. So it’s unclear who called in an inspection and why they did it. At worst, the system can be abused. At best, it leads to suspicion.

Councilmember Kaplan says this is a problem. “People need to be able to trust that the safety inspections really are for their safety.”

And part of the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance, which is slowly being reviewed by the city, would solve this by requiring complaint filers to leave contact information.

Kaplan also notes that inspectors are being more demanding. “I do think that there is pressure that they need to prove, now, after the fire, that they're being tough.”


The city is walking a tightrope -- balancing their responsibility to keep spaces up to code, dealing with a housing crisis, and avoiding lawsuits from the fire. But people in underground spaces are walking a tightrope of their own -- trying to recover from a tragedy while fighting to keep their community together.

“Right now the warehouse community is not holding any shows, we're not holding any art shows, all underground art and music in oakland has stopped. There are no events,” says Strauss from the Oakland Warehouse Coalition

Everyone is trying to figure out how to handle this unprecedented tragedy. And in a city that is in the middle of a real identity crisis, and is also known for doing things outside the system - this fire feels like a watershed event.

All the music in this piece is by victims of the Ghost Ship fire and people scheduled to play at Ghost Ship the evening of the fire:

Crosscurrents Ghost ShipOakland