From the ashes
A deadly fire in Oakland sparked conversations in Reno about the City’s role in supporting the arts
“Heads up!” yelled Mike Hafey, wearing overalls, standing on a ladder. With the claw end of a hammer, he pried a wide board from a framework that had, until recently, held up a ceiling he’d installed in the warehouse he rents. The board fell to the concrete floor with a loud crack. Hafey—or, as he’s better known by friends and colleagues—“Mike Mechanic”—kept prying. Boards kept falling, and two helpers efficiently carted the debris out the door, adding it to a growing pile in the front parking lot.
The building stands among a row of cheerily painted, cinder-block facades that line Dickerson Road, a dead-end street about a mile west of downtown Reno that’s been transformed in recent years from a sleepy, light-industrial district to a bustling arts neighborhood. On the left side of the building, Hafey runs a woodworking and metalworking business called Fairly Square. On the right side—the one that was under demolition—there used to be eight sound-proof rooms. Several musicians and bands used them for rehearsals, and a few people lived in them.
While many of the neighboring art spaces and other nearby businesses welcome foot traffic and host public events, Hafey has maintained a low profile since he opened his studio in 2011—until the day in December when he became front-page news.
On Dec. 6, his warehouse was inspected by city code enforcers.
“They received complaints that people lived there, that we were having loud parties,” Hafey said. While the neighborhood is largely populated by warehouses, it also has some residences, including a trailer park, houses and apartments. But it wasn’t a potential scuff with the neighbors over noise that had code enforcers’ hackles up. It was the Ghost Ship fire.
Ghost Ship was the name of a warehouse that served as a live-work space for an arts collective in Oakland. On Dec. 2, a fire broke out there during a concert. The fire spread fast, killing 36 people. The San Jose Mercury News reported on Dec. 4, “The warehouse is one of numerous buildings in Oakland that have been illegally converted into artists’ collectives that have not been properly inspected, according to [Oakland] City Councilman Noel Gallo.”
The fire and its steep death toll sent a wave of alarm to safety inspectors nationwide. Within a week, PBS Newshour reported, “Fire departments around the country are investigating so-called ’live-work’ spaces.”
Other spaces in the Bay Area were closed. So were others around the country—including Hafey’s warehouse.
“Everyone had clipboards with signs and duct tape,” Hafey said, recalling the Dec. 6 visit from city officials. “There was 20 of them, full uniformed.”
“It was totally scary,” he said. “I felt like I was going to jail, like I was in so much trouble. They put condemned signs on everything.”
The city shut down the musicians’ side of the warehouse. The construction business side was compliant and remained open. Hafey said he was cited for “unsafe conditions, warning lights and sprinklers and such.” Among violations listed in the Reno Gazette-Journal on Dec. 14 were “combustibles such as propane tanks” and “poorly installed electrical equipment.” After some productive dialogue, the visit ended on a reasonably positive note, he said.
“They’re being very friendly,” Hafey said later that day. They presented him with a list of modifications he would need to make in order to legally reopen—including dismantling the rehearsal spaces.Why go underground?
If you’re wondering why so many art spaces around the country and at least one here in Reno weren’t adhering to safety codes, the answer is simple—money.
Aric Shapiro, who runs Reno Art Works, in another Dickerson Road warehouse a few doors down, put it this way: “Developing fine arts doesn’t work within the structure of the traditional capitalist model.” By DIY-artists-space standards—i.e. not supported by government funds, foundation money or artwork that draws a steady profit—the space that Shapiro and his colleagues work in is considered reasonably stable. Even so, while artists who work there pay rent, he sometimes has to cover a $300-400 deficit out of pocket. That’s just one example of how to run an art space. The Wedge Ceramics Studio is supported by memberships. The Generator is supported by a Silicon Valley angel investor. And the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants method of keeping a facility open is common.
Representatives from The Wedge, the Generator and Reno Art Works all said they are safety compliant, and Wedge’s Samantha Stremmel added that she took a careful look around the place in December to make sure fire extinguishers and the like were in their proper places and functioning. Still, there are spaces and events in Reno—and just about everywhere else where there’s art—that don’t meet every permitting requirement.
You might ask, why put in all this effort and why take all this risk for something that may well not earn you a living? Many would answer that art, whether or not it produces a livelihood, is essential to a community.
“Fine art, where income is not the primary goal—it’s maybe the secondary or tertiary goal—it’s about the joys and struggles and ups and downs, about the diversity of human experience,” said Shapiro.
Often, artists try to get at things behind the scenes of regular, everyday expression. Admittedly, those expressions can be self-indulgent or frivolous. They can also be profound, mind-blowing or life-changing—whether they provide sufficient income or not.Organized in Oakland
Will Chase is an Oakland resident who’s active in the Bay Area art scene.
“The initial fallout was rapid and dramatic,” he said, describing the community’s response in the days and weeks after the Ghost Ship fire. “There was a big wave of evictions and red tags on buildings.”
The day after the fire, he and a group of “artist, tenants and community activists” started a group called We the Artists of the Bay Area to share information and plan for the long-term viability of the region’s many art spaces.
“Within two weeks we were 50 people—within three weeks we were 75,” Chase said. “We had a task force set up to provide people with help with inspections, legal advice, even construction. We have a team that would go out and help people get their space up to snuff.” By now, he casually uses the acronym “WABA” like it’s a household word.
According to the group’s website, “WABA is working with Oakland city officials and community organizations on immediate safety measures for DIY housing and work spaces.”
“The first month was super freaking intense,” Chase said. “We had a lot of people cranking on all cylinders. It was pretty incredible. … Since then, things just sort of calmed down. The numbers of spaces has been reduced, and people have gone more underground.”
In the longer term, the group’s goal is to circulate far and wide what he called “a tool box, a how-to kit that can be exported to other cities, like Reno and any that are going to experience similar problems.” The group has at the ready “all the info you would need to learn about zoning,” Chase said. Its web page serves as a hub to connect those who want to offer goods or services with art spaces that may need them. It also has advice on topics such as “How To Survive A Surprise Inspection Of Your Living/Working Space,” and “Free Safety Audits for DIY Spaces.”
“Here are the resources you need to run a space, have a space, own a space, whatever, run an event,” Chase said.
The group also wants to maintain relations with authorities in Oakland and nearby cities. One question that’s front and center on Chase’s mind: “What is the model for an administrative policy that does the hard work of bridging the gap between tenants, landlords and the city?”
“Landlords have to have some sort of incentive for supporting the creative class,” he said. “So they have to have spaces up to snuff. … Event permitting needs to be more accessible. These underground parties and events are really important to the community. If [arts groups are] not going to get a permit, they’re just going to go further underground. It’s like teenagers and sex. Tell them that can’t have it, and they’re gonna.”
WABA’s efforts are spreading to other regions. There’s already a “We the Artists of Los Angeles” chapter, and New York is next on the priority list.Local partnerships
So, is there a “We the Artists of Reno” doing similar work? Sort of.
“We are that group,” said Reno Art Works’ Shapiro. “Pan [Pantoja] and me and Mike Mechanic and Artech. We are that group. Pan calls it the Artists Infill Project.” It’s not a formal coalition, more like an inclusive community of creative people who have each other’s backs when necessary.
Hafey has found, for example, that, “Plenty of people have reached out and offered to help, which is very nice. There’s a very nice community of people here. General contractors offered. Engineers offered. People offered to come down and work.”
The day his warehouse was ordered closed, he called Alexis Hill, the city’s arts, culture and events manager.
“I needed her to be an advocate for the arts,” Hafey said.
Hill said she was honored that he’d called, because she wants to be seen by the art community as a resource. She considered offering Hafey a temporary, city-owned loaner facility, but she didn’t find one in short order that would be a good fit for his needs.
“Unfortunately the wheels of government move so slow, but I’m working on it,” she said.
The city does have some longer-term plans to help support artists. One proposal on the table is to simply lower the fees for arts organizations to hold events or performances in city-owned facilities. There are some more ambitious proposals being considered, too.
The Reno Arts & Culture Commission held a day-long retreat Feb. 3, with the goal of developing its strategies for supporting artists. Nothing has been set in stone yet, but ideas that came out of that meeting include seeking new sources of grant funding for the arts and figuring out how to reopen the Lear Theater. The commission is also in the early stages of considering different version of an “arts hub,” a city-owned facility that could include, for example, free or subsidized studio space or rehearsal space.
“I think that it’s time to take a pulse on the community and see what they need,” Hill said.
The commission is currently wrapping up a year-long study on what local arts organizations say they need from the city. Results of that survey—along with a statement on the economic impact of the arts on Reno—are expected in June. A likely next step is to solicit community input on arts needs, using the same process the city used to gather public opinion about the new Virginia Street Bridge. People commented at public meetings, online and via forms.
Annie Zucker, executive director for Sierra Arts, which conducted a similar survey back in 1982, listed some examples of the types of things such studies could reveal.
“There’s a lack of rehearsal space in Reno,” she said. “There’s a lack of affordable work spaces for artists. There’s a need for office space for nonprofit organizations.” Classrooms could be another possibility. Affordable housing could be yet another—albeit a distant one. Gathering community input is just phase one of what will be, if implemented, a years-long process.
“They want to see that things are progressing to help arts and culture, because the bang for your buck on investing in arts and culture is a lot better than a lot other investments you can make as a city,” Hill said.
Hill and Zucker both noted that artists from other cities have relocated here in recent years, often citing the camaraderie and the cost of living as draws—low compared with larger cities and very low compared with Oakland or San Francisco. Both hope and expect that trend will continue, or even pick up, and both believe that’ll benefit Reno culture.
On Feb. 7 city officials visited Hafey’s warehouse to conduct another inspeciton.
“There were two of them this time, not 20,” he said. They observed that he’d torn down the wooden structure inside. Then they removed the “closed” sign and gave him the go-ahead to reopen. He was planning to return to business as usual—well, mostly.
Becasue the facility no longer has sound-proof rehearsal space, it’ll be used in some different kind of capacity than before. And while he still likes to keep a low profile, Hafey’s as much a part of Reno’s community ethic as anyone.
When asked what he’s taken away from the whole process, he said, “I feel like I could be help to someone trying to do something like this.”