To Oakland with Love

8.2 / Ghost Ship

To Oakland with Love

By Mary Anne Kluth December 15, 2016

We are just beginning to mourn an inestimable loss to the Bay Area. Like many people in the arts community, I knew a few of the victims, and my husband lost several dear friends. Friends of friends seem to have known almost everyone involved. It hurts like the loss of family members.

About ten years ago I lived in a live-work space in the Fruitvale with a community of musicians from the East Bay. Many of my roommates from this time1 still remain my chosen family.2 The particular unit we lived in was probably legally converted, but many of the warehouses our family lived and spent time in may or may not have been.

One memory is now painful: on a weekend night, we were all hanging out in the building’s parking lot, spending time together, a friend improvising songs on an acoustic guitar. We noticed a fire on an adjacent street, and climbed up to the building’s roof to see that a car was burning. My then boyfriend (now husband) remembers calling 911. Nobody was inside the car, and nobody knew whom it belonged to. There was no timely emergency response to it. At one point in the night a single OPD officer arrived and then left.  The shell of the car remained in the middle of that street, burnt out, for many days. Other cars just drove around it.

The civic indifference that rattled me ten years ago seems like nothing now. The horror that the Sheriff’s department, Fire department union workers, and other rescuers have experienced and will carry with them for the rest of their lives is impossible to imagine.  The victims were their family, too. From investigative reporting, it’s clear now that filing complaints with the city about dangerous conditions and blight did nothing. A fire station is only 500 feet away, and Ghost Ship was not even in fire inspection databases. For civic failures of this magnitude to happen due to budget constraints -- in one of the busiest port cities in the world, home to the headquarters of a growing number of international corporations -- is completely unconscionable.

On a much smaller but symbolic level, for Charles Desmarais to attempt to rally arts patronage while calling any of the Ghost Ship victims “nobodies", demonstrating his own ignorance with startling tone-deafness, points to a profound class disconnect in the larger art world. The people who gathered to dance to Cherushii’s compositions or watch John’s projections, or to have their nails painted by Kiyomi or have their bangs trimmed by Ara Jo, the community was assembled that night, as we have assembled for decades, precisely because none of us is a “nobody” when we are together. DIY culture, Desmarais might be surprised to learn, is not as obsessed as he assumes with competing with other artists to decorate the living rooms of the wealthy.3 DIY prizes cooperation and even altruism. Barrett was there to make the performers sound better. Joey Casio made it his mission to mentor anyone and everyone who wanted to learn to use a synthesizer, because his love for music and his community was expansive, not exclusive.

DIY initiates know, like so many Bay Area families know, that love makes a family, and my chosen family from the Fruitvale loves each other fiercely to this day. This love is what fundamentally connects us to all of the other families in Oakland. The entire Bay Area art family, whether it knows it or not, is connected to and comprised of low-income families, POC families, families with single mothers, immigrant families, LGBTQ families, and intersectional families marginalized for a whole spectrum of reasons, and we cannot allow politics arising from this tragedy to divide us. We must work together, and are uniting artists and neighbors to ensure that nothing like this bottomless tragedy ever happens again.4 The online DIY response to address live-work and studio safety, such as resources posted here on Art Practical, has been comprehensive.

My chosen family and I left our live-work space when the time came because we had the resources and privilege to do so. Thousands in Oakland, artists or not, cannot move whenever they want to, and have nowhere to go. Evictions and red-tagging will literally put fellow human beings on the streets in the rain in December.  How many more of the 400,000 Oakland residents, trapped by rising rents, continue to live in areas with understaffed city services and substandard municipal infrastructure? My family and I recently passed an advertisement around between us offering our old live-work rehearsal units for nearly three times what we paid for them, we were amazed that we couldn’t afford to live there together again even if we wanted to.

Oakland rents have spiked because of an unprecedented influx of resources into the region, and yet Oakland still does not have a chief of police. Since. June. City administration must do better. Reform must happen without scapegoating victimized communities. If the solution to a problem results in homelessness or displacement, it’s not solving anything. The need to organize and advocate for safe housing security and transparent, accountable city administration is dire. There is a moral imperative to collaborate and make noise until all of these issues are resolved.


  1. Darren, Mush, Peter, Ed and Michaela, Bridget and Eleanor, Chris and Katie, Jumpin Justin, Stevie Houston and Linds and new baby Ella, Neighbor Dave, Sammy, Jeremy, and others…
  2. Kimya Dawson eloquently describes how these chosen families save lives. Mine saved my life, too. 
  3. This is to call you out, Mr. Desmarais. I can see you have good intentions, and I’m not defending Derick Ion or Chor Ng. Bay Area artists need you and your voice as an ally. 

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