Who’s Burning Down Oakland?
After a fire destroyed the only place I could afford to live, I knew it was time to leave for good
My wife and I were sleeping when the fire began. We were startled awake by the muffled sound of our neighbor, Jake, banging on our door. “Everybody out!” he shouted. I stumbled downstairs and could see the hallway outside was filled with thick white smoke. The alarms, which had been too quiet to wake us, were audible now. As sleepy tenants headed toward the exit, I climbed back up the stairs to our loft where Julie was getting dressed. I grabbed a backpack, and filled it with my computer and hard drives, keys, wallet, and cellphone. Together, we joined our neighbors outside on the street. It was 3 a.m. in West Oakland, and the warehouse we called home was on fire.
I wasn’t totally surprised. It was 2015, and the former armory was full of people living in customized wooden lofts, which were well-built and impeccably cared for, but not exactly zoned for residential living. Most of us were artists with day jobs, and our live-work units made it possible to maintain a practice without the overhead of renting a separate studio. In addition to its tenant painters, writers, butchers, and barkeeps, the building also housed two local businesses — AK Press, a respected anarchist publisher, and the worker-owned 1984 Printing — which formed its ideological core. As the flames rose above the warehouse’s imposing brick facade, our disheveled group watched in awe. We were alive, which seemed like enough. We should have also bought renters insurance when we’d had the chance.
By daybreak, the blaze had been contained, but there was no way to estimate the extent of the damage. The authorities weren’t letting us back in, so we made our way to the American Red Cross on Broadway where volunteers fed us Carl’s Jr. breakfast sandwiches and helped us register for $100 emergency gift cards.
Details about the fire slowly emerged over the course of the morning. It had started in 669 24th Street, another converted warehouse that shared a back wall, then it jumped to our building where it spread quickly across the rooftop and into the central atrium. Daniel Thomas, a mixed media artist, and photographer Davis Letona had been killed at the source. Evidence later…