Open Letter to Oakland City Council: Response to Ghostship Tragedy

Dear Mayor Libby Schaaf and Oakland City Council,

I write to you today as a mother, homeowner, and resident of Oakland (District 3). I ask that you and the city council show more understanding and alliance with those who live and work in warehouses throughout our city. I love West Oakland and feel grateful to reside in this area. My husband and I consider the murals, street art, studio spaces, underground music venues, and sculpture gardens pluses and not minuses. We didn’t want a sterile, cookie-cutter neighborhood, we chose to live where we know our neighbors are creating art, music, and dance. Today, I write to ask you to protect my community both for profit and underground.

I am a 45-year-old mother that may not fit your perception of a warehouse dweller or underground supporter. But I’ve personally survived and thrived due to the vibrancy of underground world and was re-born by art and music. I’ve lived in and attended events in warehouses since I was 17-years-old in and played punk rock in these creative spaces into my mid-thirties. And to be honest, I need this underground world now more than ever. The days after our recent election, my first inclination was to find my musician friends who welcomed me with hugs and loud punk rock. This week I will again find solace in this same community. I am what Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the President of City Council may call “lawless” or even “anarchist” (her words not mine). Because I admit I want to protect these DIY and free-form spaces where underage music lovers, yes eventually even my own daughter, can listen to music and dance till the break of dawn, without oppressive laws and punishment. I want real community, openness, and freedom, these are better terms than anarchy and lawlessness. To enjoy music till late night has sadly become a luxury, we have less space for this type of energy and life. Also consider this, many of the mainstream acts who now sell out The Fox Theater and Oracle arena started off in this world of free expression and experimentation. Dry up this world now and you won’t have music in the future and you’re revenue streams will diminish too. I’ve danced in legal nightclubs and underground warehouses till sunrise in amazing cities like New Orleans and New York, this is not a lawlessness, or strangeness, or even fringe! It’s fun, invigorating, life and happiness, and I contend Oakland needs this more than ever.

I also support these ideas shared by Jesse Townley in Berkeley, (I added the last bullet):

  • We need to pass an emergency law allowing right of return for warehouses/live-work spaces that are non-compliant with fire codes in Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro, Emeryville, San Francisco.
  • We also need some sort of amnesty for unpermitted living units similar to the ADU (Accessory Dwelling Units) amnesty last year.
  • We ask that building codes are re-zoned using examples from the NY Loft laws, this could also help alleviate barriers to find housing for unhoused residents as well.
  • We ask that the Oakland City council shows unity with warehouse dwellers and provides safety training, subsidizes materials such as exit lights, fire extinguishers, and other safety needs.

I ask you to please consider what happened at Ghostship as a freak accident and not a systemic issue, I would like to hear you use more specific language pertaining to this event. It’s becoming increasingly clear that a confluence of bad decisions, lack of oversight on all counts, including the City of Oakland, the landlord and the leader of the collective lead to this tragedy. There have been well run and safe underground warehouses in Oakland for decades. Oakland and other cities have never had to respond to a mass casualty event because they haven’t happened. Don’t vilify a whole community to show you’re doing something about safety. I know that my community of friends have already begun to self-regulate and are diligently working to improve safety, please support these efforts. This community all have their own codes, laws, and rules, it’s not lawlessness, on the contrary, these rules are there to protect the community! Ask them first hand how they run co-ops and build cities in the desert. You will be surprised at the number of rules they’ve created that apply to their specific needs.

And finally, please, please don’t let the deaths of 36 people, who lived and loved music and underground spirit, die in vain! Please don’t let their deaths give you and the city permission to tear apart a community that is grieving. The beautiful souls we lost on Friday would want their fellow artists to be protected, not trampled upon by knee-jerk enforcement. So, I demand that you stop evictions, protect residents and artists and listen to their needs! Please show good faith that you will continue to protect underground arts, not just city-funded projects, or nightlife in legal venues, or live work lofts for wealthy individuals. The diversity and vibrancy of a city come in many forms.

Sincerely,

Anita Singha
Resident of West Oakland
PS: I personally ask and implore that Lynette Gibson McElhaney stop thinking that warehouse residents embrace lawlessness and that some are anarchists. I know you’ve apologized but as of today you still choose to use this language and it’s concerning. You may have heard these words from a small minority but this doesn’t give you permission to paint a broad brush on a large majority of the community. If you want to show good faith and work with the community I know those words are not useful for coalition building.

I also ask as my councilwoman in West Oakland that you work to create a measured and helpful response to protect arts AND tenancy rights. I send this to you as a plea to understand that free expression is not the same as lawlessness. Again, reach out, attend an event, ask about how they run warehouses. For example, here is a well thought out response from Burning Man leadership, many of this community are very deeply entrenched in West Oakland and could provide answers.

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