The Artist Space, Oakland, and Societal Woes

The studios and art spaces and recent tragic events at the artists collective, known as Ghost Ship, have brought on hard lessons about many issues, and given traction back to previous concerns stemming from, city inspections, zoning, landlord-tenant relationships, affordable housing and even whether zoning, permitting and even gentrification. All these issues have stepped into the limelight after the tragedy in Oakland, that have killed at least 36 (at time of this writing), with many more deaths to be expected.

To understand how this situation happened, and how to hopefully prevent another situation such as this, especially in multifunctional art spaces, we have to examine the factors that came into play that resulted in the three-alarm fire over the weekend.

Not too long ago, many neighborhoods throughout the country had many neighborhoods that were affordable and attracted artists, musicians, small business owners and entrepreneurs. This coupled along with the previous real estate downturn in the 90s, led many artists, among others, to seek residence in neighborhoods that by definition were highly desirable – close to transportation, within city limits/downtown areas, accessible to stores and very walkable.

Gen X-ers and Boomers may remember what some of these neighborhoods looked and felt like 20+ years ago; Wicker Park in Chicago, Lower East Side, New York, Mission District, San Francisco to name just a few.

Wicker Park, Flat Iron Building, Chicago

In some ways, the character of these neighborhoods went on to define Gen X. As these neighborhoods became destinations for the disparate youths of the time, centers of art, music, cafes, philosophical discussions were created. In Chicago, Lakeview East was filled with alternative retail stores, ranging from The Alley, the Army Surplus and Scenes Coffee Shop (a personal favorite and destination of mine back then).

Slowly, the neighborhood was filled with more murals and street art and became an ever-changing public art space for graff artists. Musicians took to performing in the streets. New boutiques opened. The neighborhood was now not just a center, it was a destination.

People from other areas flocked to Lakeview, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Pilsen to experience the energy, and vibe of the area.

What was different became popular. Then it became desirable. It finally turned into a trend.

Now, it was not enough to come to these areas on weekends. Many sought to live and work in these areas, follow the crowds, trends, and potential opportunity. This was the beginning of gentrification in many of these areas. A lot of the residents, artists and business owners unable to afford their spaces had to move on.

I remember when Scenes finally closed. The army surplus story became hip to fashionable clothing.

Eventually, just like any neighborhood, new residents continued to move in, previous residents got older… got married… had kids.

These areas once filled Mohawk denizens, skateboarders and coffee aficionados were slowly replaced with strollers, joggers, and cubicle jockeys looking to raise that growing family.

Demand continued. More businesses closed or relocated. New ones opened. Other long time residents moved when they could no longer afford the area. This spurred on redevelopment and new construction which in turn furthered demand. Real estate values increased. Then soared.

Belmont Clark Tower - The Alley-Lakeview-Chicago.

A new development where the old Dunkin’ Doughnuts used to be, next to The Alley store, Lakeview Chicago

Many of the artists living in these areas, especially younger emerging and mid-career artists found that they could no longer live in many of the areas where they previously clustered together and had their art spaces.

Hence, they moved into new areas. Formed collectives and even shared studio art spaces and workshops to help share expenses and resources and moved further away from downtown areas, parks, the changing businesses, big box stores and franchises.

Through the years, I have been approached by many artists struggling to decide where to live, or whether to move away altogether. Many artists are in need of not only housing, but functional art spaces. They require large open spaces to paint, saw, weld, among other things, but also a functional environment to entertain, host and have a pseudo office in to create their works of art .

They need even larger spaces to inventory and warehouse their work, and to showcase to business owners, galleries and interested patrons.


Current zoning policies may not be up to date with the eclectic lifestyles of today. The zoning Code is oriented toward how a project fits into a community:  it regulates setbacks, types of uses, height, parking requirements, design (for some types of projects) and similar concerns.

For many artists, current zoning is difficult and expensive, with many viewing it as an impediment to not only their work, but their lifestyle. Artists require spaces where can operate throughout the day and evening, working with potentially a multitude of power tools with many different uses and purposes for a space, all ranging from workshops, to gallery space, to archive, to exhibition space and potential store.

Some artists find it difficult to make their personal residence into a functional artists space. In speaking to several area visual artists, most of them have stated that if they needed to make a choice between having to do their work in their personal residence, or alternatively, going to sleep in their artist workspace, many have stated their preferential for the latter.

“…you don’t need to worry whether you’re being too noisy in the middle of the night when you’re using tools. Don’t have to be overly concerned with cords running all over the place, or telling people not to move the piece of wood that you just stained and left outside. In a working artists space, these are all to be expected, but in a typical apartment, the neighbors get mad if you turn on power tools past 9, because their kid is asleep.” -Steve, street artist

It is no surprise then why collectives like Ghost Ship were created and even thrived in creative communities. Searching for functional art spaces, many artists have been attracted to both lofts and industrial type spaces to meet their needs. But in the process of finding and setting up a location can become cumbersome when permitting, zoning and lifestyle are not fluid.

Building permits are oriented towards making sure that structures are appropriate for its intended use. Commercial spaces, for example, have permits required for fire and safety. Residential spaces might require a certain amount of square feet per sleeping individual.

But when individuals transform a space into a multifunctional space, or flex spaces, to incorporate various purposes as needed, the lines become blurry. Though official flex spaces have been around for many years and in demand, they may not fit the needs of all artists. Though zoning and permitting are necessary to ensure the safety of residents, these institutions also must not make the process overly arduous for the applicant as well.

An artist’s live work space. Photo credit Annie Spratt.

In speaking to several artists from a collective in New York, who all wished to remain anonymous, they spoke discussed how many of them are working second or even third jobs to make a living and pay bills. Worrying about, nonetheless, even trying to come up with funds to address needed permits and work required for a space are sometimes not feasible, nor even in their minds at all.

“I worry whether I’ll have enough pieces sold at my next show to keep the lights on, only to go home and get ready for my overnight gig to make a few bucks to spend” says one of them. “ -“Angel”, artist

Thinking about whether an outlet is so many feet from another one is just ridiculous.”

Perhaps, this begs the question as to why and how cities should approach these art spaces when creating guidelines for a demographic that is hard pressed professionally and financially where building codes, safety issues, and guidelines are not even considered.

Until the investigation at Ghost Ship is concluded, it is difficult to say who is responsible and what caused the fire. But some individuals, who spoke off the record confirmed how Ghost Ship is not a unique instance, and that there are many others that exist simply because of affordability. It’s a difficult decision when many are continuously faced with limited resources and need to between having a roof over their head, or an artist workspace, which provides for their living.

The interior of Ghost Ship.


So how does the landlord fit into the scenario in any of these instances? Typically, landlords are responsible for making sure that a space meets the local criteria for safety and intended use.

Though whether or not the landlord was knowledgeable about the failure of recent city inspections at Ghost Ship, or knew of residents living at the location is yet to be determined. However, there have been many other instances of landlords illegally utilizing spaces in ways that do not meet local permitting. I myself have seen squatter nests, where broom closets were rented out as bedrooms, individuals living in mechanical rooms and basements – all of which are extremely unsafe, unhygienic, unacceptable, but also illegal.

So why do they do it?

In the instances that I have seen at least through my years of real estate in Chicago, most of the time the incentive was financial. A few dollars to rent out an illegal closet as a bedroom, another few dollars for mattresses on the floor in the basement add up to more profit for a landlord.

Not all instances should be attributed to financial incentive. There are times landlords are not knowledgeable about circumstances at a property. This is especially true if they live in another area, state or even country.

As a landlord, typically it’s in your best interest to be proactive, whether you live in the area or halfway around the world to be knowledgeable about your investments, conditions of the premises and potential violations that need to be addressed. Many hire property managers to handle such responsibilities. Others perhaps rely on friends and family. Whatever the choice, as an investment, this not only keeps your future costs down, but minimizes your liability should any incident occurs, such as a fire.

Tenants, additionally, should be proactive in approaching their landlord about addressing issues diligently, especially safety concerns.

However, many artists living in spaces such as Ghost Ship, are hesitant to contact anyone regarding potential hazards, and are even more apprehensive about approaching the landlord due to potential backlash; maybe even losing their space.

This forces a strained system where these artists work on a quid pro basis; willing to overlook certain building violations, if their activities are overlooked in return. Whether or not this was the case at Ghost Ship, it has been reiterated by many others living in similar like conditions.

To prevent future tragedy like Ghost Ship from occurring again, will take proactive measure from all sides. Cities will need to reassess zoning and permits to assess how they can be more compatible with the lifestyles of today – not just for artists but for the ever changing face of business, as more individuals work from home, utilize smaller nontraditional office spaces, and the increased need for multifunctional spaces that continue to grow.

Continued feedback from both landlords and tenants are also essential to this process to hopefully end the current quid pro quo system that allows for the existence of potentially dangerous environments while addressing affordability for residents.

Even then, there will continue to be those that look to deceive the system, whether for financial gain or other motives.

Perhaps, the answer lies in a more basic but more difficult aspect. How can disciplines such as the visual arts, performance, music and other creative fields survive in a world that typically doesn’t have an equivalent ROI for graduates in comparison to other careers? Columbia College in Chicago has taken measures to stop the large decline in enrollment they have seen in the last few years.

It seems that artists may have an uphill from the get go. As many have told me through the years, and after the events in Oakland, they’re not looking for special treatment. Rather, their careers and lifestyle are not fully understood, and because of that, their options for suitable artist spaces compatible with their needs are very rare. This is the generically the how and why there are so many spaces like Ghost Ship, or the Bell Foundry (which was recently closed this week by the city), exist throughout the country. Finding the balance that is both safe and beneficial for the city, landlords, and artists alike will take time and a lot of discussion to strike a balance.

Originally written by Sherwin Sucaldito to be used on his personal real estate site – Realty Evolved.


Sherwin L. Sucaldito, REALTOR®, GREEN, ABR, CRPM
The Institute of Luxury Home Marketing
Green REsource Council, GREEN
Accredited Buyer’s Representative , ABR
Certified Residential Property Manager, CRPM

© 2016 Sherwin Sucaldito, except images which belong to their respective owners.