By Steve Stajich
The Oakland fire at a building known as the Ghost Ship was the worst fire in modern California history, with 36 lives lost by count of the investigation so far. The fire quite naturally prompted immediate responses from local governments including Los Angeles concerning the illegal use of warehouse spaces as places for people to live. But like most immediate responses, the situation and those responses are prompting even more responses. Already on Monday, a group of Oakland activists mixed chants of “Honor the dead!” with “Fight for the Living! in protesting for a moratorium on evictions in the Ghost Ship aftermath.
None of the Ghost Ship victims living in that building were there because they had chosen a path of being outlaws or rebels. It’s true that many were artists, and chosing the making of art as a career rarely defaults into the ability to provide yourself with resources to chose a completely safe place to live. Instead, where you lay your head at night might be in a building where people are living because there is no better or safer place to go due to the costs of city living.
Whether the post-Ghost Ship climate brings about any lasting change in the availability of affordable housing is yet to be seen. What is happening now is that California cities are looking at buildings with safety and other code violations with renewed vigor.
Just two weeks ago, this column discussed the need for retrofitting of buildings in Santa Monica to make them less prone to collapse during earthquakes. It became clear that while enforcement of retrofitting sometimes plods along, the dangers posed by buildings that are not as strong as they could be in light of a serious earthquake remains a constant because to do the work requires cost from landlords. And a sustained gusto on the part of all involved to face the fact that earthquakes will happen and we need to be ready.
As you might expect, the Ghost Ship fire has opened investigations of dozens of buildings in the Bay Area. That’s what tragedy does: It pushes our better selves into action. The Los Angeles City Attorney has sued the owner of a warehouse converted into lofts. Call it a crackdown, it’s surely a crack pouring light into the consciouness of city officials in California cities.
A similar reaction is occuring since a Chattanooga Tennessee school bus crashed into a tree and killed six of the 35 young students on board in November. Early investigation has focused on the speed the bus was traveling and the driver, who was involved in a minor crash in September. But the bus was like many school buses that travel every day carrying their precious cargo of children… a tin box without seatbelts capable of folding like an aluminum beer can at speeds over 30 miles an hour.
It’s a bit too easy to say that we know potential danger when we see it and then won’t pay or endure taxation to reduce the dangers. Who knows what the cost of a truly safe, reinforced school bus might be and how it might impact the cost of educating our children. School bus drivers will continue to be human beings looking for work who shoulder an enormous responsibility because modern life doesn’t allow for all parents to drop off and pick up their children at school day after day. And some of those drivers, careful as they might be, will ultimately make tragic mistakes.
In a similar way, city officials can examine a building with illegal tenants and know in their hearts that a fire would mean devastating tragedy. But are they given the resources to relocate those tenants, or to in some way assist landlords in a costly conversion of a warehouse into a loft living space?
We create systems and we strive within those systems. Too often we mistake moving on or relocating a problem as a solution. Then a trajedy strikes and now we are haunted. More “Ghost Ships” are still out there, sailing each day in what we might call the waters of our systems and efforts. There are many messages, but perhaps the most stridently voiced is the message to follow through, solve and resolve. Every life trapped in a burning building or a wildly careening school bus is somebody’s child. In this season of celebration that so often coaxes us to greater humanity and even love, we might easily recommit to the idea that perhaps none of us has a safe roof over their heads until we all have that same protection.