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 suggested a cigarette likely ignited the blaze while they were sleeping.
A few hours into our stay at the Red Cross a murmur passed through the room and in strode the mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, with a handful of staffers in tow. Camera crews had gathered outside, and the mayor was getting in front of the story. The city’s housing crisis had been plaguing her administration, and perhaps out of sympathy for artists riding the latest wave of gentrification, the city had turned a blind eye to unsanctioned living spaces like ours. But a deadly fire like this clearly highlighted the inadequacy of those stopgap remedies.
We slumped in our chairs, dead tired. Schaaf looked concerned. “How can I help you?” Her heavily made-up eyes beamed with enthusiasm, but her peppiness was grating.
“Oakland loves its artists,” she continued. “You are the backbone of this city and we are doing everything we can for you.” No one said a thing.
Schaaf smiled wide, shook a few hands, and was gone. The mayor’s special assistant handed out business cards and implored us to be in touch. Again, they were doing everything they could.
The city of Oakland was born from fire. The 1906 earthquake caused a conflagration that vaporized San Francisco, sending 150,000 refugees across the bay. My great-grandparents were among them, child survivors of the most destructive quake in U.S. history. Oakland’s population doubled after the disaster. New areas were annexed to accommodate the boom, and the city’s incorporated area grew by nearly 300%. The city became denser and grander in the fashion of the City Beautiful movement of the early 1900s. Gothic revival skyscrapers rose on Broadway, and civic improvements like new parks, boulevard expansions, uniform streetlights, and sidewalks reflected business leaders’ calls for a “prompt and concerted effort to make Oakland more metropolitan.” Few of Oakland’s early plans for directed growth, however, addressed its housing supply, or how it was going to keep up with the expanding population.
Affordability was an issue after the fire, due to the opportunism begot by scarcity. An eyewitness account from F.H. Pratt of the Alameda Building Trades Council describes the rental market at the time:
“Since the great fire in San Francisco, many people from that stricken city are quartered, temporarily at least, in the cities across the bay. Accommodations must be had for them, and it is here that the opportunity of the sharks and real estate pirates comes in. Immediately rents were raised, in many instances five hundred per cent. And yet these ghouls who are now attempting to fatten on the misfortunes of others will continue to occupy the front pews at the fashionable churches and prate about the ‘unreasonable demands of the labor unions.’”
The Oakland Tribune even went so far as to blame landlords for “cinching” new commercial transplants “to such a point that they are already thoroughly disgusted with this side of the bay.”
My maternal great-grandfather, Louis J. Kruse, the son of a German gold miner, opened a plumbing shop in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, eventually growing his business into one of the largest plumbing contractors in Alameda County. But much of Rockridge’s early development was restricted by racial covenants designed to keep minorities out. One limitation of an ownership clause from the time stated: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese or of any Mongolian descent, shall be allowed to purchase, own or lease said property or any part thereof or to live upon said property thereof except in the capacity of domestic servants.”
That prejudice was persistent. As a young girl in the 1960s, my mother still recalls her parents refusing to sell their home to a Japanese family as they were moving from Rockridge to Upper Rockridge. Formal and informal redlining kept the Oakland hills white and wealthy, while the “flatlands” — areas closer to the waterfront, including downtown and West Oakland — were for everyone else.
Today, population growth and large-scale development are once again altering Oakland’s skyline. And once again, housing is scarce and rents exclusionary. Current construction projects in Oakland amount to over $2 billion in private investments, and public redevelopment plans include permanent street closures, park expansions, a new baseball stadium, and something called the “Great Pave.”
Less tangible is what these shifts will mean for locals in what has become one of the hottest housing markets in the country. Between 2012 and 2017, the median rent in Oakland increased by 51%. A two-bedroom apartment now averages $3,423, and though new residential buildings are plentiful, they are mostly luxury condos that are, by and large, inaccessible to anyone but investors.
Oakland’s future as a polished center for arts and tech innovation may be preordained, but it’s a process many residents regard as something between gentrification and cultural genocide. When downtown landlord associations are able to turn entire city blocks into corporate green spaces patrolled by private security, something is clearly wrong. Even Mayor Schaaf has advocated for vigilance in Oakland’s battle to “hold on to its soul.”
Until the fire, I’d always thought there would be a place for me in the Bay. I assumed history was enough to keep me in place. Now I see the same urge that led my forebears to abandon San Francisco all those years ago was just part of the California ethos — our implacable faith in a better life, someplace else.
Two days later, Julie and I returned to find the warehouse red-tagged for eviction, despite the fact that most of the structure was intact and many of the units, ours included, had been virtually untouched by the fire.
Weeks of scrambling commenced, during which time we were effectively squatting in our own homes. The gas lines had been switched off, but we still had electricity, and we still had keys. A red tag is just a piece of paper. We intended to hold our ground as we worked to repair the building.
It was late March, and rain was in the forecast. Jake and I spent long, futile nights mopping water as it gushed through the crater in our roof. After the storms subsided, we patched holes in the roof with tar and plywood — a rush job, but we thought it would please the safety inspectors if they saw we were trying. AK and 1984, both paper-based operations, had been severely impacted by water damage on the night of the fire. Their soaked stock was unsalvageable.
Our Sisyphean attempts to save the warehouse would have been almost comical if not for the way our neighbors and friends banded together. The band Green Day, who shares roots in the 1980s and ’90s East Bay underground with many of the building’s tenants, pitched in and threw us a benefit concert at 924 Gilman, the legendary Berkeley punk venue. It was an amazing show, but the money it raised was a trickle next to the estimated millions it would cost to bring the warehouse up to code.
Through it all, the city of Oakland was unresponsive and evasive, dangling the promise of a clean inspection when repairs were complete, denying it once we had made them. Our letters to the mayor went unanswered, and some speculated that our affiliation with AK Press didn’t help. After the Occupy protests, anarchists and other factions of the radical left had become persona non grata in the city; lawmakers considered their massive demonstrations as damaging to the city’s reputation, not to mention its budget. If Oakland’s economic renaissance was going to be linked to its standing as a hub for creative entrepreneurs and progressive politics, we weren’t the kind of artists — or activists — the city had in mind.
After the fire, the mayor’s office issued a statement blaming smoking, not unsafe living conditions, for the tragedy, and rationalizing the subsequent evictions as part of a process to establish “legal conversion of the unpermitted live-work units in the building as a requirement for putting the space back into use.”
Vacating the warehouse for good in the late spring of 2015 sent everyone clamoring to find new housing. People took what they could get — a room here, a friend’s place there.
AK Press eventually raised enough money to relocate to Chico. 1984 was forced to sell its printing press and moved to a nondescript business park near the airport. It shuttered soon after.
Julie and I took up residence in a nearby one-bedroom apartment. It was tiny — smaller still after our daughter was born — and the rent was nearly double what we’d been paying at the warehouse. Still, we felt lucky to have found somewhere to go, even if our new place was a bit more conventional. Our neighbors were techies who had their groceries delivered. None of them were old friends with the members of Green Day.
We didn’t see much of anybody from the warehouse, but I did see Mayor Schaaf again that summer at the victory parade for the Golden State Warriors’ 2015 NBA championship — their first in 40 years. Schaaf was perched atop a customized VW Bug made to resemble a giant fire breathing snail, dancing and waving merrily to her constituents, a gleeful M.C. Hammer at her side. The vehicle was on loan from its co-creator Jon Sarriugarte, a local “maker” and property-owning board member of the West Oakland Commerce Association who specializes in crafting decorations for Burning Man. Sarriugarte, who also served as an advisor on the mayor’s Artist Task Force on Affordable Housing and Workspaces, describes his steampunk-inspired art car online as a mix of “Jules Verne and Dr Doolittle in a hot rod car from the past.”
Coming just weeks after dozens of struggling artists had been made homeless on her watch, Schaaf was sending a clear message about the kind of apolitical, well-financed artists she was willing to endorse and, by extension, those whom Oakland values most.
A three-alarm fire that killed two people and displaced dozens would seem like a fair warning for the city to get their act together. But a far deadlier blaze would have to happen first.
When the Ghost Ship burned, it forced a reckoning with that instability. Thirty-six partygoers, mostly young artists and musicians, lost their lives when the illegally modified warehouse caught fire on December 2, 2016. Like our former home, and dozens of similar spaces scattered across East and West Oakland, the Ghost Ship was an oasis for residents who would otherwise have been unable to afford the city’s sky-high rents.
“Since the 1970s there has been this tacit agreement between landlords, tenants, and the city,” Jonah Strauss, a former neighbor and executive director of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, told the San Francisco Chronicle later that month. “It’s really benefited Oakland to have these spaces regardless of their condition because we’re harboring a valuable asset.”
In a ham-fisted response to the tragedy, the city commenced to ferreting out other unauthorized live-work spaces, displacing more people as overcompensation for its failure to protect vulnerable residents. Landlords followed suit, preemptively evicting tenants out of fear that their properties could become the next Ghost Ship.
Schaaf was roundly booed at a candlelight vigil held for victims after the fire. But the Mayor has since been careful to tread lightly between what’s good for business in Oakland and appeasing the culture that attracts it. “We’ve always been a city that has a gritty authenticity that maybe our shiny sister across the bay has never had,” says Schaaf. “And we’ve always been a city of artists, of creativity, and innovation, a more raw and cutting-edge creativity than you might find in places with different origins than ours.”
On a drizzly evening a few days after the disaster, I paid a visit to the Ghost Ship to see for myself. Memorials for the departed were clustered along the police line and the sidewalk was crowded with votive candles and balloons, liquor bottles, framed photos, and plastic-wrapped flower bouquets. People had tucked messages scrawled on yellow Post-it notes into a chain-link fence. One read in Spanish: “May God have you in your Holy Glory may they rest in Peace.”
After Ghost Ship, it soon became clear that Oakland’s housing crisis was exacerbated by fire in more ways than one. On March 27, 2017, a halfway house in West Oakland went up in flames, killing four residents and displacing over 100. Overcrowding was faulted, but like Ghost Ship, the landlord of 2551 San Pablo Avenue was never held accountable, despite long-standing complaints of rodent and bedbug infestations, lack of heating, electrical issues, and trash accumulation. Tenants had been fighting repeated eviction attempts, and safety inspections had revealed numerous violations, including a citation for a malfunctioning sprinkler system issued just three days before the blaze. After the fire, many of the surviving victims were back living on the streets.
Then the arson attacks started picking up. At least nine intentional burns have occurred at new housing developments in the East Bay since 2016. Almost all have resulted in the near-total destruction of the kind of behemoth luxury complexes that have come to epitomize gentrification. When a 105-unit Emeryville project known as “The Intersection” was torched — for the second time — on May 13, 2017, speculation quickly turned toward anti-gentrification activists being responsible.
By summer, the 328,000-square-foot Alta Waverly project in Oakland’s much-hyped Uptown neighborhood was nearing completion. Yet its exposed wooden frame wrapped in flammable insulating material left it vulnerable. When it caught fire on July 7, the flames were hot enough to be detected by a National Weather Service satellite.
We were living a few blocks away at the time, and the familiar smell of smoke triggered unwelcome memories. Embers fell like snow as I walked to work. Arriving at the scene, I encountered an inferno of breathtaking proportions. Towering flames were licking what was left of the six-story structure as throngs of commuters and neighborhood evacuees gawked. A battalion of firefighters wrangled water hoses; construction workers took in the scene as their workplace evaporated.
In the days that followed, a large ATF mobile command unit could be seen on site. Valdez Street was cordoned off as a crime scene, but no suspect was ever brought to light. Soon the debris was cleared away and construction began anew — not only on the decimated Alta Waverly, but for a new complex breaking ground in the parking lot across the street. It almost felt like builders were rebutting the desperate act of vandalism by doubling down on productivity.
Today the entire area is almost unrecognizable, its formerly low-slung blocks of parking lots and auto repair shops replaced with corridors of glass and marble. Previously empty sidewalks are occupied by parklets with Lime scooters and sandwich boards announcing that units inside are “NOW LEASING.”
But the arsonists have not been discouraged. 2018 would see the parade of destruction continue, first with the April torching of a 180-unit, 265,000-square-foot complex in Concord, then another enormous West Oakland blaze leveled the 126-unit Ice House project in October.
Most recently, a near-completed North Oakland loft project at 919 Stanford Avenue burned under similar circumstances on July 25, 2019. When I visited the site a week later, a neighbor speculated about the arsonist’s motivations: “It’s the gentrification — people are fed up with being pushed out,” she surmised. “I suppose it brings some kind of satisfaction.”
Other than a few blurry frames of surveillance video, the identity — or identities — of whoever is responsible for the attacks remains unknown.
As the years passed, our fire began to feel like a forgotten blip in the city’s accelerating saga. Tragic if you knew the people, or if you’d ever even heard of it, a minor predecessor to bigger things to come. We went on with our lives.
Every now and then, I’d get an email about a lawsuit brewing against the building’s new owner. Danny Haber, a San Francisco developer, had made his fortune converting SRO hotels into overpriced dormitories for tech workers, and after acquiring both 674 23rd Street and 669 24th Street, he quickly got to work revamping them into luxury apartments. The Armory Lofts, as they are now called, feature “macro” living spaces that squeeze four bedrooms, a kitchen, and a communal area into less than 1,000 square feet. Roommate matching services are available.
But punks on an email chain are not exactly legal eagles. Though our case for the right of return seemed straightforward enough, people had trouble organizing. We were all too busy working, living too far apart now, and pro bono representation is hard to come by. It felt like flailing.
When I lost my job in 2018, we started looking seriously at leaving the Bay. If even my salary at a well-financed media startup hadn’t been enough to save money, what was the point? Besides, the three of us packed into a one-bedroom apartment wasn’t working. So that summer, like countless other refugees from the Golden State, we made the move north to Oregon. Now we live in Portland where it rains 154 days a year.
Back in Oakland, a highly publicized manslaughter case against two former residents of the Ghost Ship was stalled in jury deliberations before the judge declared a mistrial in September. In that decision, Max Harris was acquitted, while the other defendant, Darren Almena, will be retried in March 2020. A successful prosecution could bring some closure to families who lost loved ones in the tragedy, but because the building’s owners — let alone city inspectors — have yet to be held liable to many the whole thing feels like victim-blaming.
I’m reminded of the forgiveness implicit in another Post-it note stuck to the fence that night I visited the Ghost Ship in 2016. It read, in English this time: “God bless you No matter what.”
This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.