DIY Shouldn’t Suffer in the Wake of the Ghost Ship Fire

Jes Skolnik (National Tattler) talks the importance of inclusive arts spaces after the Oakland tragedy.

VOICES is a new Talkhouse series in which artists will discuss current events through their own unique lens. For each article written, the publication donates to a charity of the musician’s choosing. Jes chose the Fire Relief Fund for Victims of the Ghost Ship Oakland Fire
Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief


“Everyone mocking the concept of ‘safe space,’ and we can’t even afford to make community together in safe buildings.”
Julie Lauren Vick 

“Yet harm reduction programs stand apart…in a very significant manner: they offer care, support and assistance with a uniquely low threshold for people to receive services.”
— Peter Schafer & Michele Calvo, “The Integration of Harm Reduction & Healthcare” 

“We live with trauma locked inside. We fight against the urge to die, parched for love and cast aside.”
— G.L.O.S.S., “We Live” 

I was worried that it would happen, because I know how these things work. I’ve seen it happen too many times: criminalization as the ultimate concern troll. We — and when I say “we,” I mean the broader artistic community and my small world of trans/queer freaks — are still in shock after this past weekend’s fire at the Ghost Ship arts collective in Oakland, California, trying to mourn our dead, trying to support their loved ones and family, whether chosen or blood.

I am relatively far removed from the situation; I don’t live in the Bay Area, though many of my dear people are there. I know two of the people lost, and feel them missing from my world acutely, although we were not close. I feel numb and fuzzy — I’m having trouble even writing this piece. I can imagine the devastation of people more directly affected, and I am digging in and trying to help wherever I can. Let’s hope that this piece helps.

Pardon me if I don’t believe that authorities’ interests are actually in our ‘safety’ for one second.

What I was worried about is what happened at the Bell Foundry, a DIY space in Baltimore, earlier this week. The space was condemned and shut down by the city abruptly; its residents (who are, at this point in the space’s evolution, largely queer and of color) have been locked out of their homes and studios, unable to retrieve their belongings and given no place to go. Although Baltimore officials cite a nebulous “complaint” rather than connecting the fire at Ghost Ship to the Bell Foundry shutdown, the timing seems awfully close. Why the concern for “safety” right now? And pardon me if I don’t believe that authorities’ interests are actually in our “safety” for one second. (Why leave so many on the streets, if so?) More on that shortly.

First, let me be clear about this: I would be dead before, say, 1994, if not for DIY, whether by my hand or someone else’s. Long gone. I’d tried to kill myself twice in 1990 — the same year that I first walked into a punk show at eleven years old, nervously trailing my dad, who I’d made bring me. I was struggling with heroin addiction, awkward and weird, suffering repeated sexual abuse and assault — I knew there’d always been something “wrong” about my body and the way it worked and presented to the outside world. This sounds ridiculous to most people who have relatively normal lives. How does an eleven-year-old end up here if their parenting is good? And mine was: my parents are lovely, kind people who did everything they could to ensure that I was safe and taken care of. Because we lacked much of an economic safety net, though, there were holes, and because I was both shy and mature for my age, they left me on my own when they had to. This is how I ended up getting involved with a crew of boys a little older than me who repeatedly sexually assaulted and abused me and also got me hooked. Heroin was a means to survival for me at that time.

All of this was not my parents’ fault (they didn’t even know it was happening until I told them many years later), and it was not mine. Two years later, those boys would try to kill me and would leave me for dead. It is only because I had something by then to live for — punk — that I dragged myself home, washed the blood and dirt and other soilage off my body, put my clothes in the washer, and moved forward, step by painful step.

I still felt like a freak, but at least I could co-exist with other freaks who had similar passions.

Despite the fact that punk’s wider world often replicates the exact same systemic forces it claims to oppose, there are pockets within it made by necessity by those who have nowhere else to go. I found one of those pockets through sheer luck — D.C. punk has always been a unique space due to the city’s own character. I started volunteering with Positive Force talking to older queer punks at shows, finding friends through Outpunk and the pen pal section of Maximum Rocknroll. I still felt like a freak, but at least I could co-exist with other freaks who had similar passions.

We all found something in music, the chance to escape from our terrible bodies for a moment, an emotional connection so strong it overrode the pain that we were all in. It’s that emotional connection and the communities built around it that have sustained me, that have made me an activist, that got me clean, that enabled me to keep fighting and keep fighting and keep fighting even when I am dog-tired, like I have been for much of this year — like I have been for much of my life, really.

Because we have no money, we find ourselves in buildings that are falling apart and breaking down, looking for one another, looking for a minute during which we can be joyous in a world that would crush every little bit of kindness and love out of us if it could. Because gentrification and the housing crisis have rendered everything else unaffordable. Because some of us have government documents with names that don’t match our living selves, because some of us are sex workers or have other jobs that pay under the table from necessity, because some of us are undocumented period. Because some of us don’t have or can’t get bank accounts without all those matching documents. Because we have to settle for slumlords who take cash rent and don’t ask too many questions about our employment. Because some of us have drug possession arrests in our backgrounds.

I don’t blame anyone for staying further out on the margins.

I’m living a relatively aboveboard life — I somehow escaped arrest, again, through sheer luck, and I’ve been clean and responsible for a very long time. Plus, I have a squeaky-clean straight job (and even when I did sex work it was phone sex and I actually got a W-2! That never happens). My credit is still in the toilet. I still have to freelance-hustle to support my partner and myself some days. I know all about the myriad poverty taxes. I’m sharing this to let you know that even when you “straighten up and fly right” the damage is indelible, and I don’t blame anyone for staying further out on the margins. Some people don’t get the opportunities I did.

I’m sharing this because the world we live in is actively hostile to arts funding for any art that isn’t considered, in some way, part of high culture. With a few friends here in Chicago, I’ve been trying to open a legal, accessible, safe all-ages venue for three years. Because we’ve all been around punk for a long time, booking and playing in bands and starting spaces in other cities, we know prior mistakes, and our organization isn’t the problem — we have a solid business plan, an impressively itemized budget (and a for-real accounting whiz as part of the collective), far-reaching social networks that helped us fundraise a chunk of change to help with the opening costs. Oh, and that accounting whiz? She took out a personal loan; the loan officer told her that many banks had, post-financial crisis, stopped lending to startup nonprofits. So we’ve got just enough money, we’ve got the know-how, we’ve got the structure, we’ve got the plans. What keeps us from finding a space is our refusal to compromise on any of the details concern-trolling lawmakers would have us abide by. We want a space that’s well lit and accessible by public transportation, that abides by all safety codes and complies with ADA specifications for disabled show-goers (bathroom doorway sizes, bathroom handrails, a flat or ramped entrance, and so forth).

You’d think those lawmakers who love the arts so much would come to our aid.

We’ve been close to signing a lease numerous times. What has happened time and again is this: someone higher up in the property management firm has decided that they’d make more with the building standing vacant than they would taking a chance on a startup nonprofit arts space. Community good? If it doesn’t have a dollar value, they don’t care. In Illinois — and I suspect we are not alone in this in a country of gutted factories — commercial real estate property owners are able to suspend property taxes for buildings they own that stand vacant. For every single space, we’ve needed some federal or state-mandated compliance work done before we could move in. Every single property owner has taken a look at the numbers and either chosen a for-profit tenant who isn’t making the same demands or chosen to let the building sit vacant.

You’d think those lawmakers who love the arts so much would come to our aid. Funny — some have tried to help us through other aspects of the process, but none have gone to bat for us with property owners or responded to our asks for consideration of the property tax code issue.

Crass capitalism, weighting money over human life, obviously isn’t the only way to do things. After getting clean, volunteering at domestic violence shelters and studying the role a lack of statehood/state funding played in the epidemic-level DC HIV infection rates, I discovered a policy practice called harm reduction while in grad school. Harm reduction asserts that meeting people where they are is as necessary as changing the systems they exist within. So, necessary services are provided without judgment; one provides clean needles, naloxone, condoms, hormones, other appropriate health care and preventative measures — often in concert with lobbying for legal changes that would make the distribution of resources more fair for marginalized communities.

We absolutely deserve safe buildings, rooms that won’t collapse, places we can escape from if we need to.

We absolutely deserve safe buildings, rooms that won’t collapse, places we can escape from if we need to. All the people we lost in the fire should still be with us. But until housing policies change, redlining policies are ended, funding is made available for artists and art spaces that don’t fit the usual NEA grant specs, police stop raiding and shutting down DIY venues, non-traditional venues are given support by more mainstream venues who have access to institutional resources, property owners are held accountable for the safety of the buildings they own, laws change to allow trans and other gender-nonconforming people to be who we are and have access to the resources we need, laws change to provide safe haven for undocumented immigrants, sex work and drug use are decriminalized, the prison system dismantled, and this world becomes one in which those who are different in marked ways aren’t scared for our lives each and every day, we’re going to keep on ending up in spaces that are substandard trying to get free through our emotional connections to the music that sustains us.

Some folks, in the harm reduction model, are starting to put together ways to help one another out — those of us who are electricians and carpenters pitching in to help spaces when their landlords won’t. I am working with some other people on a private, secure emergency contact and response plan for queer and trans communities that can’t be easily hijacked by bigots and trolls the way the event page and emergency spreadsheet were during the early hours after the Ghost Ship fire. People are pulling together to share supplies and resources. There is a beginning push to urge local lawmakers to pass laws like the NYC Loft Law, which guarantees fair treatment and safety — at the landlord’s expense — for people living in spaces like Ghost Ship and Bell Foundry. Lots of conversations are taking place about how to sustainably support one another.

But further criminalization and other moralistic punitive measures? They will kill more of us than they will save. It’s true for drug use, it’s true for victims of domestic violence, and it’s true for DIY show spaces and the people, like me, who need them.

You can donate to the Gray Area Fire Relief Fund for the Victims of the Ghostship Oakland Fire, Trans Assistance Project’s fundraiser for funeral costs for the three trans women killed in the fire, and contribute to the collection of necessary resources for those most impacted by the fire. You can also donate to those left homeless by the shuttering of the Bell Foundry.

(Photo credit: Ted Van Pelt)

Jes Skolnik has been playing in punk bands for a large part of their life and is currently making solo noise as National Tattler. They are the managing editor at Bandcamp Daily, and a contributing writer at Pitchfork and other places around the Internet and in print. They’re currently working on a book about the ongoing dialogues between DIY and mainstream rock cultures. They split time between Chicago and New York. You can follow them on Twitter here.