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Image: Doug Chayka

After a fire broke out at Ghost Ship, an underground music venue in Oakland, California, in the late-night hours of December 2, killing 36 people, cities from Philadelphia to Indianapolis to Denver to LA promptly shut down fringe art spaces, citing safety violations. 

The tragedy and subsequent crackdown sent a chill through urban arts communities nationwide because it called attention to a foreboding issue, one more significant than faulty wiring: “Housing Crisis, Not Ravers, Responsible for Oakland Fire,” Wear Your Voice, a Bay Area online magazine, declared, quoting stats about Oakland’s extreme gentrification. 

That political assessment resonated with Seattle’s own arts community, where musicians, filmmakers, actors, and curators increasingly struggle to find places to live and work. “Make no mistake,” Michael Seiwerath, a cochair of the Capitol Hill Arts District, says, “it’s rising rents that led to the Ghost Ship fire. Artists without an affordable place to live or work are often driven underground, and into unregulated dangerous spaces.” One local warehouse DJ, Carlos Ruiz, thinks the spaces where he performs are safe, but “the city is so expensive, any kind of DIY space has to be protected as best as possible.” 

Seattle, like Oakland, is among the top 10 most expensive cities in the country. And we’re first when it comes to fastest-growing rents, which spiked at a 6.7 percent clip last year. On Capitol Hill, the city’s artistic mecca, rents have climbed 75 percent since 2005. Rent for warehouse spaces citywide, the kinds of spaces concert or arts event organizers tend to make use of, leapt nearly 20 percent last year alone.

Ten days after the Oakland fire, on December 12, Andrea Friedman, the event coordinator for the Vera Project, Seattle’s all-ages music epicenter, gathered local artists and producers to devise an “Emergency Action Plan.” Some 50 people—predominantly young, the kind of folks who avoid gender pronouns, and not as white as Seattle stereotypes would have you imagine—showed up at the Center for Architecture and Design on Western Ave. Over San Pellegrino, sodas, and snacks, the organizers presented a detailed primer on basic safety for underground venues, including elementary tips such as: “Label the circuits on your breaker box” and “Clearly mark all exit doors.” 

Attendees also signed a dramatic letter to mayor Ed Murray. The veritable manifesto, signed by the Seattle Arts Commission—a member of which had provided the fancy space for the gathering—ended with a set of recommendations for “preserving and improving the spaces that allow our creative, passionate community members to thrive…in honor of those who perished in Oakland.”

 

One group that’s thriving right now, and makes it plain how vital the arts are for Seattle, is Northwest Film Forum, on Capitol Hill. Its lobby was packed one Friday night last December. The crowd wasn’t there to see the latest foreign film or hard-hitting political documentary. No, the hundreds of moviegoers and moviemakers showed up at the nonprofit that night for the theater’s annual holiday party, where they networked, drank, sang cineoke (cinema meets karaoke), and danced to Prince until 3am. 

It had been a banner year for the arts group as its mission expanded beyond just film to include performance art, a live game show, and regularly sold-out performances of Seattle Process, a kind of Daily Show for Seattleites. 

Standing above the crowd, on the staircase near the DJ booth, NWFF executive director Courtney Sheehan presented the latest Graci award—named after a legendary volunteer. This year the Graci went to Aaron Dean, a former Shoreline Community College student who started volunteering as a teenager. After doing everything from concessions to running films, Dean, who gave a bashful acceptance speech after Sheehan feted him, had used NWFF’s equipment and in-house editing suite to make a full-length feature film. 

While the forum is an essential local organization that adds an unquantifiable spark to the city, Sheehan allows that the local arts haven has relied in part on a benevolent landlord who keeps rents artificially low. “She is a strong supporter of the arts,” says Sheehan of the building’s owner, “and keeps rent under market value.” The same landlord rents to another local arts staple, Velocity Dance Center, keeping its rates below market as well. 

Not everyone has been so lucky. 

Housed in the Oddfellows building on Pine Street, just around the corner from NWFF, the Freehold Theater had been a Capitol Hill institution since the early 1990s. When gentrification started in earnest in the neighborhood around 2007, GTS Development bought the Oddfellows building and tripled Freehold’s rent, according to Freehold managing director Zoe Cauley. 

The theater moved to Belltown in 2008, on the same block between Bell and Blanchard that houses grunge holdovers like the Crocodile and Shorty’s. But now Belltown has been gentrified too. “The whole neighborhood is redeveloping,” Cauley says. “This is the last block that’s intact.” 

On a month-to-month lease, and in a building that’s up for sale, Cauley says her organization decided it needed more stability. And so Freehold Theater is moving yet again, to a cheaper building in the International District.

It’s going to take official policy to ensure that Seattle arts venues remain stable, says Matthew Richter, the cultural space liaison at the City’s Office of Arts and Culture, which has been tracking the stability of arts groups. 

The data shows that out of the 150-plus organizations in town, about 20 have closed over the last three years. They also found that minority arts groups, such as organizations that cater to African Americans, feel insecure about their spaces, while predominantly white groups feel relatively secure. 

Among his policy recommendations, Richter points out that the livability in the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA, includes culture. He believes HALA can nudge developers to support arts spaces by designating a series of historic arts districts around the city. And, just as the HALA measure mandates affordable housing for lower-income renters, he believes it can mandate affordable rates for cultural spaces. 

Of course, tracking the kind of DIY and underground arts spaces that the Oakland tragedy highlighted is tricky. Underground spots don’t show up in the data—
which is emblematic of the whole issue. 

“It’s really precarious and kind of a slumlord sort of deal where you’re just hoping the City doesn’t find you,” says Lauren Burgeson, a regular at the Denny Regrade experimental music club Kremwerk. This conundrum undermines Seattle’s supposed dedication to promoting the arts: The burgeoning arts community is scared to engage with the City.

 

In the letter to the mayor, the artists who attended Andrea Friedman’s emergency meeting back in December helped put forward a set of bold recommendations. In addition to spelling out the economic context of skyrocketing rents, they made a transgressive suggestion: Don’t crack down on clubs for safety violations. 

“Adversarial enforcement merely punishes our communities for their financial inability to improve code compliance,” the artists reasoned, saying, rather than increasing compliance, enforcement “drives people further underground and further away from our shared goal of improving safety.”

Drawing an analogy to Good Samaritan laws that encourage people to report drug overdoses without fear of arrest, the statement noted that by “empowering venues to become safer incrementally without fear or recrimination” rather than levying fines and delivering eviction notices, the City “could save lives…even if it means,” as artists like to do, “breaking other rules.” 

“The idea of having a relationship with the City could be incredibly helpful for many groups,” says Ruiz, the warehouse DJ and an attendee of Friedman’s artists meeting. “It could create more of a culture of facilitation where arts groups could get the help they need to not needlessly put themselves in danger.”

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