What Is the Ghost Ship? All About the Potentially Illegal Space Where the Oakland Fire Broke Out
It probably seemed like a typical night out to the young people that had gathered inside the space. Approximately 100 people congregated inside an artfully decorated loft inside a run-down warehouse, ready to dance the night away while electronic acts performed. But when a fire broke out Friday night and swept through the space, claiming the lives of at least 36 people — one of the worst fire death tolls in Oakland’s history — many are questioning the safety surrounding those kinds of parties and just who is responsible.
The fire took place at the Ghost Ship, an art collective-venue-creative space that had been frequented by members of Oakland’s indie creative community for years. However, as details emerge about the night of the blaze, the under-the-radar space is now under the glare of the national spotlight as many people are wondering what the Ghost Ship actually was and how it had been able to operate for so long without drawing attention.
An Art Collective and Space for Creativity
The Ghost Ship was a mixed-use artist space inside a warehouse at 1305 31st Avenue in Oakland and had been in operation since at least 2014. Photos from the Ghost Ship’s Tumblr show a large loft overstuffed with artful decorations — reclaimed wooden furniture draped in fabric, musical instruments stacked and scattered in corners, colorful lamps hanging from beams, divided mini-rooms created out of scraps of found wood and windows. It didn’t look like a traditional music venue, instead resembling something more out of an Anthropologie catalog. There was also an outdoor space scattered with furniture.
There were also RVs located at the space, one of which was turned into a “studio/loft/nest” by an artist.
An organization called the Satya Yuga Collective operated inside the warehouse and the Ghost Ship sometimes went by the name Satya Yuga. The collective describes itself on Facebook as “an unprecedented fusion of earth home bomb bunker helter skelter spelunker shelters and indonesian straw huts rolling into valleys and down alleys.” The collective and Ghost Ship were apparently run by Derick Ion Almena, who also lived in the building with his wife Micah Allison and their children.
The Ghost Ship served as a venue for indie electronic groups and bands and hosted a regular dance party on the second Friday of every month called the Warehouse, where local Bay Area DJs would entertain the crowds and photographers would set up photo booths to snap pictures. The parties and shows weren’t expensive, often only costing $5, taken in cash at the door. Max Ohr operated a tattoo parlor inside the space and described himself as “warlord” of Satya Yuga.
“My sincerest apologies for a lack of update or public condolences for the completely unfathomable loss,” Ohr wrote on Facebook on Monday. “There are so many things I want to say here, but right now I am talking myself hoarse and scrambling to spread truth with the widest reach possible, while also comforting and trying to provide any direction for those in immediate contact. Otherwise I am utterly devastated. I am so sorry, I love you all so much.”
‘A Dump and a Death Trap’
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Allison would not comment on conditions inside the warehouse, including if the building had a sprinkler system or how many people lived there. (Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo told the newspaper that the building was “absolutely not” permitted for residential use.) But former residents told the LAT that at least 10 people lived inside the warehouse, which one former resident Shelley Mack described as “a dump and a death trap.”
The building itself was actually owned by a trust set by Chor N. Ng. According to the East Bay Express, “habitability” complaints had been made about the building to Ng, with the most recent complaint being filed in November. In October 2014, the city cited Ng because of housing and other structures that were being built inside the warehouse without permits, East Bay Express reported, citing city records.
Ng’s daughter, Eva Ng, told the LAT that the space was being leased as a studio space for an art collective and that it was not being used as residences. According to another former resident, residents paid rent to a man who lived in the building with his wife and three children, but it is unclear if that man was Ion Almena. Eva also told the LAT that she thought there were smoke detectors inside the building, but said she hadn’t visited it in over a year.
Former employees are pointing the finger at Ion Almena, who they claimed “laughed off” warnings from police and fire officials about the building’s fire hazard, according to KGO. The local network also says the Oakland Planning and Building Department said Saturday that Ion should have requested a special permit for Friday night’s rave, but he did not.
RELATED VIDEO: Officials Say at Least 36 Dead After Fire Breaks Out During Warehouse Rave in Oakland
On Sunday, authorities confirmed in a press conference that they were launching a criminal investigation into the fire.
‘It Could Have Been Any of Us’
Despite the safety hazards, spaces like Ghost Ship are not rare in Oakland or in many areas across the United States that have become homes and gathering points for artists and creative types. In a powerful essay for KQED Arts, editor Gabe Meline reflected on how many members of the Bay Area’s creative community had been in spaces like Ghost Ship.
“For those of us involved in artist spaces one way or another, the tragedy is impossible to process. I, too, have been inside a warehouse like that, we think, living, working, dancing into the night, Meline wrote, adding that those spaces welcomed people who otherwise felt beaten down by society, including “punks,” transgender people and people of color.
The sentiment was echoed by other members of the creative community in Oakland, some of who also said they were drawn to “unsafe” spaces like potentially illegally converted lofts or not-entirely-by-the-books venues because they can’t afford other options.
“It’s increasingly difficult for artists to pay to live here,” Lichen, a 31-year-old performance artist told LAT. “In order for us to create, sometimes we have to do it in places that aren’t the most ideal or safe.”
Councilman Gallo, who represents that district where the fire broke out, admitted that there are many spaces that operate without permits in the Bay Area.
“The reality is, there are many facilities being occupied without permits,” he told LAT. “They’re occurring on Oakland’s streets, especially in neighborhoods like mine.”
“We know the risks,” Meline, who lived in an artist commune, continued in his KQED post. “We know that police and landlords can shut us down at any time. We know our creative alterations to these living spaces are not one-size-fits-all. And we are all too aware of the clashes in piling personalities of divergent backgrounds in close proximity.
“The bigger risks, the more unlikely ones — that such a treasured place could become an inferno in mere minutes — those don’t always cross our minds.”