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Ghost Ship Fire Shows Risk-Reward Mentality of the Underground Music Scene

A Q&A with a former nightclub owner

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In the aftermath of Oakland's Ghost Ship fire tragedy, many are still looking for answers. We know the warehouse was home to a vibrant underground music scene, a collective that at any given time ranged from resident musicians and artists, who lived there on a semi-permanent basis, to partygoers visiting for the first time on a weekend night.

What outsiders may not realize is that spaces like the Ghost Ship grew out of manufacturing's general decline, which left large vacant mills dotting the urban landscape. Property speculators buy cheap, with visions of rebuilding, redeveloping, and creating vibrant communities not unlike what existed at the Ghost Ship.

But the risk-reward gamble - in which some landlords seem to largely ignore fire code safety and related property concerns - may turn out to be too steep a bet. On condition of anonymity, a former East Coast nightclub owner shed some light on what's at stake.

In the Q&A below, the former nightclub owner brings us back to the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island, which took place roughly 14 years ago, in 2003.

Does the Ghost Ship remind you of the Station Fire?

In terms of tragedy, yes. In the Station fire, 100 people lost their lives, and more than 200 were injured. I'm sure what happened at the Ghost Ship will stay with the Oakland community like it has in Rhode Island. But there are a lot of other things as well. I see the same type of rallying by local government, in which the government disclaims responsibility. We saw that after the Station fire. I read a report that the Ghost Ship had 10 code complaints. But it's the force of those write-ups that matters in terms of real safety.

What do you mean by the "force" of code complaints?

In Rhode Island, fire marshals have what they call "field notes." Those are different from actual citations. Field notes are just forms letting a property owner know that such-and-such needs to be fixed. Fire marshals might call or swing by months later to check up, as appears to have happened in Oakland, but a citation gives a property owner a limited amount of time to meet the fire code or get shut down. The Ghost Ship hadn't been shut down prior to the fire. As for the Station in Rhode Island, it had several serious code violations, like chained exits, that weren't cited. This contributed to the Station's death toll. I understand the Ghost Ship may have had near to nonexistent emergency lighting, stairway problems, and lack of exits. These are exactly the things that get people killed, given how quickly a fire spreads once started.

What about capacity limits?

There are two things to understand. First, it's a business, even at warehouse shows. Raves and concerts are basically run by young promoters hoping to make a few bucks. Big crowds mean more money. They won't turn anyone away. The second part is that a ton of people packed into a room raises the coolness factor. No one thinks about danger. They're all having a good time. Property owners tend to turn a blind eye. The shows generate money and the rent gets paid. They also put warehouses on the indie scene map as a place to rent space. Underground shows amount to free advertising for landlords.

Given your experience, do you feel there was a way to avoid this tragedy?

At the end of the day, the Ghost Ship fire was a tragedy, and the nature of tragedies is that they are somewhat unpredictable. But with a bit more accountability - like actual citations from the government, as opposed to warnings - you can reduce the likelihood of a tragedy from happening. Either way, the goal should be to make conditions reasonably safe. And, if not, you don't open for business.

Everyone now knows how unsafe conditions were in the Ghost Ship. But this knowledge comes after-the-fact. Unfortunately, nobody did much of anything about these safety concerns prior to the fire, and people died because of it.

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