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The Deadly Ghost Ship Fire's Backlash on the L.A. Arts Scene

Think Tank Gallery executive director Jacob Patterson in his old space | Magali Gauthier
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Creativity is one of California’s most important economic assets. The 2017 Otis Report on the Creative Economy has found that California leads the nation with the most number of creative jobs, surpassing New York State, Texas, Florida and Illinois respectively. Yet, these same artists are also faced with the problem of finding a secure, affordable place to live and work. This series of posts on KCET Artbound explores the issue of affordable housing for creative workers.

The following article is an expanded version of a piece that originally appeared on L.A. Weekly. 

Less than two months after a horrific warehouse fire killed 36 people at the Ghost Ship artist colony in Oakland, Calif., city inspectors came knocking at the Think Tank Gallery in Los Angeles’ Fashion District.

On Jan. 18, two officials with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety showed up unannounced to the art studio and event space, which also was home to 17 artists. As the inspectors made their rounds, residents frantically posted in a community Facebook group to try to find out why two strangers with clipboards were surveying the property and asking to look inside their bedrooms.

This wasn’t the first time city officials had discovered people were living in the commercial warehouse space at 939 Maple Ave. For more than a year, in fact, the city had known Think Tank was illegally housing residents. But it wasn’t until the tragedy in Oakland that the city took more forceful action.

“We knew once the Ghost Ship fire happened, we were like, ‘This is it,’” says Think Tank Gallery executive director Jacob Patterson.

Think Tank warehouse space | Ethan Varian
Think Tank warehouse space | Ethan Varian

After the inspection, the L.A. City Attorney’s office served an order-to-comply notice to the property owners, giving the gallery until Feb. 13 to either acquire a certificate of occupancy or have residents removed under threat of a criminal complaint. By the end of the month, all of the artists had moved out.

In the wake of the fire, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer assembled a warehouse task force along with building safety officials, promising an “aggressive response” to illegal-use commercial spaces. The city’s DIY community has been on edge ever since, and the threat of a widespread crackdown on underground lofts and warehouse spaces has left many artists in fear of eviction.

Unlike Ghost Ship, which held shows and concerts under hazardous conditions without notifying local authorities, Think Tank worked closely with inspectors and city officials to obtain the necessary permits to host events. The gallery has put on shows ranging from a USC art student collective’s senior thesis to a 7,000-square-foot Candyland-inspired installation — all while ensuring the events met public safety standards.

Patterson says the money collected from the gallery’s renters enabled Think Tank to host the gatherings, which in turn gave local artists an opportunity to show their work for as little as a few hundred dollars or a small donation. While people lived on the property illegally, Patterson maintains the building is safe, especially compared with many similar spaces around the city.

“There’s a difference between what is legally acceptable and what is morally or ethically acceptable,” says Patterson. “And as long we’re being responsible in a common sense and safety way, then we’re OK with doing this.”

The city initially cited the gallery for housing residents in October 2015, giving it until Nov. 25, 2016, to apply for a certifi cate of occupancy, according to building and safety department spokesman Jeff Napier. Although the tenants were not permitted to stay during that time, they remained in the building until after the second citation was issued in 2017.

Think Tank Gallery art director Dino Nama, owner John Kennamann and executive director Jacob Patterson | Ethan Varian
Think Tank Gallery art director Dino Nama, owner John Kennamann and executive director Jacob Patterson | Ethan Varian

Think Tank owner John Kennamann hired a land-use management company to work toward obtaining the certificate but found it to be an arduous, expensive process. It also became clear that Kennamann would need to tear out all of the space’s bedrooms and communal areas to meet code enforcement specifications.

“There’s no way they could become compliant,” says the property's inspector, Roger Bruce. Bruce confirmed that the department has made code enforcement for commercial warehouse spaces a priority since the Ghost Ship fire, describing an “expedited process” for properties in violation.

Kennamann first invested in the space in 2010 after his teenage son Kaleb moved from St. Louis to live with him at the Brewery Arts Colony in Lincoln Heights. Kaleb needed a larger space to practice his street art without inhaling aerosol fumes, and the second-story industrial space above a row of fabric stores and dress shops seemed like the perfect spot.

Kennamann, Patterson, Kaleb and two others moved in and got to work constructing bedrooms, bathrooms and a kitchen space using the skills Kennamann had learned growing up in a family of contractors. The small collective of artists quickly grew from five people sleeping in tents on the floor to a full-blown, live-work and event operation. Within a few years, Think Tank was home to more than a dozen artists and hosted multiple events each week.

Now that the gallery is unable to rely on residents to help pay off the sublease, Kennamann has been forced to raise what he charges to host events, and to turn away many of the artists it could once support. He has transformed the space to an event-only room under the name 939 Studio, while Patterson has begun putting on a serious of “pop-up” galleries and exhibits around the city under the Think Tank monitor.

The city has issued a moratorium on issuing temporary event permits for commercial spaces, according to Napier at Building and Safety.

Kennamann says he doesn’t feel victimized by the city’s actions because he understands the risk he took by allowing people to live in the building illegally, but wishes city officials would make it clear to artists how they can bring DIY spaces into compliance.

“No one will tell you exactly what you need to do,” he says. “It costs a lot of money just to figure out what you need to do, and the answer I have now is the same answer I had in the beginning.”

“Unfortunately, we’re not consultants,” Napier says. “Our code enforcement inspectors and all of our staff are helpful. We try to help [applicants] along the process and push them in the right direction.”

Guidelines from the Building and Safety Department describe a 10-step process for obtaining a certificate of occupancy and list a phone number for an Adaptive Reuse Task Committee, consisting of members of the Mayor’s Office, fire department and Building and Safety Officials; the group “has been assembled to guide, assist and facilitate ARP (Adaptive Reuse Projects) through their design, entitlement, permitting, construction and inspection processes.”

Since the Ghost Ship fire, the city has adopted a policy of strict code enforcement to address illegal-use warehouse spaces, making safety its top priority. In addition to Think Tank, five other underground event or live/work spaces have been reportedly forced to shut down after receiving citations under threat of a criminal complaint from the city.

L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who represents the L.A.’s downtown 14th District, filed a motion on Dec. 9 asking for Building and Safety and the Los Angeles Fire Department to prepare a report on what they “are doing to ensure that buildings that serve high occupancy and/or event spaces are safe and up to fire/building and safety codes citywide and explain what current procedures are in place, and what steps are being taken to ensure we are proactive in our safety efforts.” A representative from Huizar’s office said the report is not yet finished.

L.A. Deputy City Attorney Mike Dundas confirmed that the City Attorney is currently investigating a number of underground live/work and event spaces identified by the fire department and building and safety.

As rents skyrocket and the city’s housing crisis continues to intensify, many are left wondering whether L.A.'s burgeoning arts scene can sustain itself.

“It’s really up to the city planning department to decide what’s more important: the infusion of jobs and the economy, or maintaining this identity and this connection to arts and culture,” says Art Share L.A. director Cheyanne Sauter. “What is that balance and what does that look like?”

While the city has encouraged the construction of multi-use spaces in the downtown area, large developers are the ones best equipped to take advantage of the zoning ordinances. Over the past few years, the historic Arts District has seen an explosion of high-end live-work condominiums that are more amenable to venture-backed tech startups than working artists. Rents in the area can be as high as $3,500 for a 1,000-square-foot loft, versus the $750 to $850 per month that artists paid at Think Tank.

After being forced out of the gallery, most of Think Tank's tenants have been able to pool together and find new homes throughout the city. But it’s not just the affordable rent that many will miss about the collective.

Think Tank Gallery executive director Jacob Patterson in his old space | Magali Gauthier
Think Tank Gallery executive director Jacob Patterson in his old space | Magali Gauthier

“It brings you into a network of other creatives,” says resident and Think Tank Gallery art director Dino Nama. “I’ve seen a lot of people come in here and then shoot off into amazing things. It’s an inspirational space.”

Live-work warehouses are often the first places artists stay after coming to L.A. Nama says Think Tank has helped recent arrivals make connections, collaborate on projects and even build businesses with others in the community. This entrepreneurial attitude stands in stark contrast to how many artists feel these spaces have been portrayed by news outlets and received by the public.

“It’s after an event like [Ghost Ship], where you see the totally misconstrued reaction and the utter misinterpretation of what was actually going on,” says Isa Beniston, an artist who rents studio space at the gallery. “To realize that we are not the norm and that this upsets people — what we’re doing scares people.”

Many artists feeling the effects of this backlash have been engaged in conversations about what they believe actually constitutes a “safe” space. Artists, especially those of color or a part of LGBTQ communities, often don’t feel welcome at traditional venues or office spaces.

Queer artist and activist Zeph Fishlyn, who lives in a DIY space in Oakland, says it can be difficult to find venues that are welcoming to queer and transgender performers and audiences. “There’s an economic issue, but there’s also the issue [of finding] a space that’s welcoming of what you’re offering and the types of performers that will be coming up,” says Fishlyn.

For some artists like Fishlyn, a converted warehouse that may lack a sprinkler system or clearly marked exits feels safer than a bar or conventional work environment where they might be marked as outsiders. (The Think Tank property has sprinklers, exit signs and fire extinguishers.)

Beniston says many residents at Think Tank lost friends in the fire and that the tragedy still lingers within artist communities in L.A. She feels anger toward the people in charge of Ghost Ship for putting so many in danger but relates to the need to seek refuge in underground spaces, even if they don’t meet city enforcement standards.

“I forget sometimes because I’m in a space like this that other spaces wouldn’t accept me,” Beniston says.

“If you can make a socially safe space and a physically safe space, that’s what this city needs," says executive director Patterson. “But unfortunately doing both of those things at the same time is very difficult.”

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