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A Note from the Underground

On December 2, a tragic fire claimed the lives of 36 people– including artists Nackt and Cherushii– at a warehouse party in Oakland. The event received extensive media coverage and has sparked debates on rent prices, performance spaces, building code enforcement, and a host of other issues. Spaces like Purple 33 in Los Angeles and The Bell Foundry in Baltimore have already faced municipal crackdowns, resulting in the eviction of dozens of artists living and performing in these buildings.

The reaction is not unwarranted. Conditions in these spaces can be unsafe, especially when they function as both residences and performance venues. The Oakland building, known as the Ghost Ship, had no fire alarms, a makeshift staircase fabricated from wooden pallets, and only a pair of exits hidden amid a cluttered living area. The Bell Foundry had missing beams, floor holes on the second story, and an improperly ventilated heating system. Certainly these buildings do not meet the reasonable minimum threshold of housing or performance venue quality.

But often conversations aiming to solve this issue focus on the strength of zoning codes and enforcement rather than the buildings’ residents. Urban areas across the United States face rising rent prices from property development buyouts, making them unaffordable to full-time artists even if they work hourly jobs to bolster their income. Even in California, where the minimum wage is $10.50, one would need to work more-than-ninety-hour workweeks in order to reach Oakland’s median income. On top of that, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland is $2330 per month– a large chunk of change if one chooses not to split the cost and rent independent studio space. Assuming artists need time to develop their projects, rent out space for a showing, advertise their events, and conduct other ‘formal’ activities, it is a wonder that arts could flourish in modern cities.

Similar problems are emerging for the music circles here in Washington D.C. The city is already a hotbed for the nation’s hardcore and DIY punk community, in which performances frequently take place as ‘house shows’ in informal venues. The area also hosts a bustling after-hours rave scene where parties outlast nightclubs and bars that generally shutter by 4 a.m. In both cases, the artists do not draw large enough crowds to make formal venue booking worthwhile– an economic barrier to local arts. Taking into account the growing real estate development in artist-heavy northeast neighborhoods and the District’s $2266 one-bedroom rent average, it makes sense that artists are moving underground.

Moreover, the “do-it-yourself” ethos that underpins these events makes formal venues undesirable. In the hardcore scene, the ethos emerged in order to resist commodification: playing in houses kept the events cheap for both bands and patrons. The rave scene grew from the shadows of queer nightlife as police raids and extortion made it nearly impossible for gay bars to exist as more than transient institutions. “Do-it-yourself” was an adaptation to disadvantageous legal circumstances and a system of oppression. By continuing to use informal venues as performance spaces, these scenes are paying homage to the circumstances that birthed their communities. Performing in a home or a warehouse is a reminder to all participants that the event is not just a concert, but a community gathering that wears its blue-collar origins on its sleeve. And when done in properly vetted spaces, these events can take place responsibly.

This begs an important question: how can Washington reconcile its real estate development projects with its creative communities? For one, the city could recognize the need for greater access to affordable housing. The most apparent way to do that is to be more selective in permitting real estate development projects. The city could also make greater funding allocations to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The commission issues grants to a variety of organizations aiming to facilitate artists’ work in Washington. Of particular note is Capital Fringe, an award-winning organization that offers affordable spaces to artists desiring to perform.

Finally, the city can recognize the value these artistic communities have added to Washington’s cultural heritage and offer them municipal protections through zoning and noise ordinance reform. This would enable events to occur without undue intervention by law enforcement.

Ultimately, the bulk of responsibility falls on organizers to make sure their spaces are safe, legality aside. But the creative economy faces distinct challenges in this regard, and the Oakland fire brings an opportunity to systematically address them.

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