One week after the deadly inferno at an illegal warehouse party in Oakland, it’s still easy to find parties just like it in other cities. In Brooklyn, New York on Friday morning, dozens of people entered this non-descript warehouse for an after-hours party. The location was secret, sent out by text the night before. Organizers promised progressive house music from 3:30 A.M. until at least 9:30 in the morning.
Inside, people danced in trance-like states, drinking alcohol sold at a makeshift bar and smoking cigarettes and joints. A search of New York City Buildings Department records show the location is zoned as a factory. According to a spokesman from the department, there may have been violations related to fire safety, proper lighting and the fact that there was only one way to exit the building.
The deaths of 36 people including artists and musicians sent fear through the underground arts scene. Brooklyn artist Jessica Langley says that doesn’t mean artists will stop living and working out of illegal spaces. She says she’s lived in such spaces in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York and doesn’t think anything will change after the Ghost Ship fire.
No one knows the precise population of this world, but “Mark” – a Brooklyn artist who did not want to be shown—believes it is in the thousands. “It certainly feels like all my friends…it’s huge,” he said. Mark’s two bedroom house is illegally subdivided into five bedrooms and at any given time he says there are a handful of people sleeping on the floor in the basement. “They’re poor and where are they gonna go? I’m not gonna kick someone out when they don’t have a place to live,” he said.
Since 2011, urban rents have shot up 42 percent in New York City and 63 percent in Oakland, according to Rent Jungle. “So many artists are paid in exposure,” said Mark. “I have exposure. What I don’t have is the capacity to buy a sandwich.”
The tragedy in Oakland sparked a crackdown on spaces similar to Mark’s. There have been evictions reported in at least half dozen cities, including Baltimore, where artist Nicole Helegda said, “Artists aren’t living usually here by choice. They’re living here because we have to. We can’t afford our student loans. We can’t afford to live in an apartment and have an artist studio.”
Mark says he knows the risk of his own illegal space and accepts them. But he’s taking a new look around with an eye toward fire prevention while hoping cities will do more to keep artists safe. “Artists are as important as air,” he said. “You really think you’re going to enjoy your life in your city without us there to make it beautiful?”