Illustration by Levi Hastings

The lethal fire that killed 36 people and gutted Oakland's Ghost Ship artist work/live space on December 2 of last year inspired DIY event organizers around the country to take stock of their own safety practices. The tragedy and the subsequent national discussion forced many members of that community to consider why it remains essential to foster underground culture in cities where rising rents and cultural homogeneity make that effort increasingly difficult. Cities like Seattle, for example.

Some DIY promoters—already wary of municipal authorities—have become even more paranoid about their spaces being ruthlessly inspected by the police and fire department in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy. Some of the people I contacted for this piece chose not to comment, preferring to remain under the radar out of a sense of self-preservation.

However, longtime all-ages/DIY advocate Kenneth Piekarski (Slashed Tires solo project, Hollow Earth Radio member, codirector of the defunct Heartland punk house, former Stranger blogger) noted one simple reason why creative people live, work, and organize in spaces that might be labeled "unsafe": because they can't afford to do it any other way.

"Most everyone I know in the Seattle music community—whether they be performer, audience member, or promoter—is crammed into houses with landlords who are about to triple rent or sell their property," Piekarski said. "If we're going to continue having subcultural spaces in Seattle, the city needs to work to make affordability a higher priority, needs to have more programs that subsidize safe, all-ages, all-inclusive venues, and to make live/work spaces more possible, rather than threaten and kick people out who have nowhere else to go."

Piekarski said that another major factor why underground venues exist is because many people are, for various reasons, unable to get gigs at clubs, bars, or traditional venues. "It's either: We're not 21 or older, bookers don't care about a band unless they can draw an audience and do all the promotional work, the venue is oppressive (its name or treatment of patrons), or whatever other reason it sucks to be at a club. A lot of unestablished bands have access to perform at 21-plus venues because their audience began discovering and supporting them at a secret warehouse, or the cramped basement of a house that's soon to be developed into an overpriced apartment building.


Ghost Ship, the site of a fire that killed 36 people in Oakland in December 2016. Jim Heaphy

"A lot of us are connected to someone that was at the Ghost Ship event in Oakland, either personally or through a friend of a friend, and we're very aware that this could have been any of us," Piekarski said. "We shouldn't be forced to risk dying when having fun and being ourselves, and certainly when we just need a place to live."

Vanessa Skantze, a butoh dancer who serves as director of Teatro de la Psychomachia, a Sodo-based haven of experimental music and performance, hasn't noticed an increase in attention from police or fire officials, but the venue is located in a commercial building and is legally zoned for a live/work situation. As Skantze and her roommates live in Psychomachia, they take great care with it and always communicate thoroughly about what is "permitted and workable regarding use of electrical outlets, etc." Skantze can only remember one dangerous incident in her space, "some drunken and violent behavior... I have performed at and attended shows in numerous DIY venues in Seattle and Olympia and never felt any danger."

The most interesting underground electronic music happenings often occur after hours, usually in unconventional and sometimes makeshift venues. Chris Aldrich (aka DJ/producer Ctrl_Alt_Dlt and promoter with the Sweatbox clique), Jeremy Beledeiko (who books the No Nonsense parties), and the High & Tight crew (Cody Morrison, Joel Pryde, and Carlos Ruiz) have much experience navigating the hazards of large groups gathered in off-the-grid spaces. Since the Ghost Ship tragedy, none of these techno/house DJs and promoters has noticed increased police/fire department presence. And in their many years of throwing parties, the only complaints they've had to deal with concerned noise. Little drama has ensued from these encounters with the law.

"The only time I've seen the fire department at a show I was playing was for a party called 'Pyrotechnics' years ago," Aldrich said. "The poster had flames all over it and they were advertising BBQ. The promoters were asking for it with that branding. The [fire department] showed up early to see what was going on and even then they let the party proceed."

High & Tight used to hold marathon dance parties at the Loft in Capitol Hill, and once several years ago, they had a speaker burst into flames, but they extinguished it before it could do much damage. "We've mostly been focused on making sure that our parties are safe spaces for women, members of the LGBTQ community, and POC from any and all types of harassment," they said. "But in light of the tragedy in Oakland, we're certainly hyper-focused on making sure our events are also physically safe for all."

Beledeiko can remember some sketchy situations from many years ago in which 250 punters would cram into a 100-year-old house. He cited dangers such as "minimal exit paths (especially for the top floor), tons of decoration, and not so much communication about what to do if things went awry... I'm not sure there was a single fire extinguisher on the premises. We were all fortunate nothing bad ever went down, 'cause it was a recipe for disaster, in hindsight. Fortunately, we've progressed a lot since then and I haven't noticed any glaring issues during recent years (and I'm always actively critiquing other people's events!)."

All of these techno/house aficionados adhere to strict codes of responsibility. Aldrich pointed to hiring trained security and eliminating obstacles and debris that would hinder emergency evacuations. "A good example is when we hosted Eric Cloutier and Polar Inertia at a steel pressing plant last March," he recalled. "Since this was an active pressing plant during the day, [and] there was so much random stuff lying around—scrap metal, giant machinery, and debris—it took a long time to get things to a place where we didn't think anyone was going to hurt themselves. But it was of serious importance because of the responsibility/risk you take on when you do a DIY event. We felt good about fire safety because of the various exits available and an operating sprinkler system. I am so thankful we've never had any major instances or anything close to what happened in Oakland at any of our events."

Beledeiko focuses intently on what he calls "people-flow" during his nights—which often has the by-product of "creating a good vibe." He ensures "that venues we use are equipped with sufficient egress for the expected attendance, and that our sound system/gear is placed in a way not to interfere with that. During one event, our venue had a main entrance with inward-hinged doors, so we paid to have them swapped. None of our parties have any sort of decoration, so that's not so much of a concern, but we do make a point to know where the venue's extinguishers are located (and that they've been inspected), regardless.

"The spaces we use are strictly no-smoking, and [if we didn't catch it first] our crowd would quickly put a kibosh on anyone who attempted to smoke. Sometimes this means being adamant with overseas artists who do so as a matter of course during their sets back home, but we make no exceptions. (They can just put on a long track and go outside if need be!) In the event of a problem, either I, my partner, or our hired security is nearby the main lighting and we're able-bodied/able-minded enough to perform an evacuation."

Mollie Bryan's new art gallery Mokedo dabbles in after-hours electronic-music shows, as well. Her building—a metal warehouse with some carpet and drywall—was built in 2011 and has well-lit exit signs, fire alarms, an extinguisher, and a huge garage door that acts as an alternate exit. She also stocks items "that people might need for their health and safety, like snacks for diabetics, free water, vitamins, etc."

A former employee of Northwest Art Alliance, Bryan has much experience working with the fire marshal's office, the city, and the parks department. "They actually send out a fire marshal to the opening morning of each event to check to make sure everything is up to code before you even open, so I am pretty well educated in the fire codes and safety laws—and, more importantly, why they exist. If you put on any event, you need to consider the health and safety of your guests, first and foremost."

High & Tight laid out a seven-step program for venue safety:

(1) Always meet with all staff ahead of time and make sure we have a plan in place for both fire and medical emergencies.

(2) Make sure there are at least two possible exits from a space even if it means knocking out a window, climbing a ladder, and dropping a story.

(3) Bring our own fire extinguishers and place one behind the bar and one behind the DJ booth (and make sure there is one in each room).

(4) Bring our own first aid kit and make sure all staff knows where it is.

(5) Have a mic hooked up to the mixer in case we need to stop the music and address the crowd with instructions.

(6) Make sure we know where the nearest ER is and some member of staff has a car nearby and is sober enough to use it.

(7) Somehow make it known that if anyone is too horribly impaired, we will either get them a car or somehow get them home if they find one of us.

After the Ghost Ship fire, the Seattle Arts Commission, the Seattle Music Commission, the Historic Central Area Arts & Cultural District, and the Capitol Hill Arts & Cultural District released a joint statement citing the growing affordability crisis in Seattle that affects artists' ability to find places to live and work. They also issued several "safe haven law"–type recommendations about how the city could work with DIY venues to increase safety measures and avoid a Ghost Ship–like catastrophe.

Some of those recommendations included having the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections and the Seattle Fire Department create a "shared grading system to rate life safety at venues," earmarking dollars specifically for life-safety improvements (and including underground venues along with nonprofits who receive these funds) through the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. Other recommendations included allowing the Seattle Fire Marshal's Office to engage with venues "who do not meet the minimum requirements of Seattle Fire Code" safely and without fear of eviction and legal repercussions.

In a statement on December 30, Mayor Ed Murray's office said it was directing city staff to work with "city departments, including the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, the Seattle Fire Marshal, and the Office of Arts & Culture, to review the recommendations."

In the statement, the mayor also said: "It is the duty of the City to ensure the public safety of all of our residents, and our public safety officials respond when they receive complaints directly from the community. When we receive these complaints, the City invests time to educate venue operators and owners to help them become code compliant. We do this cognizant of the fact that we have to achieve public safety while preserving affordable, accessible places for our arts and music communities to congregate."

Despite the city's best intentions, many of Seattle's underground venues and promoters are still leery when it comes to dealing with fire marshals and city inspectors. "If you look at it as someone who knows zero about building codes," Piekarski said, "how a municipality deals with things, it's intimidating when it becomes an issue." Most of the promoters interviewed for this story have relied on instincts, experience, common sense, and observing their peers' methods to ensure their events are safe. However, Teatro de la Psychomachia's Skantze said she consulted with the Shunpike arts organization for fire code information. "We have an accessible fire extinguisher and a second exit out onto the roof, if need be," she said. "This building receives consistent inspections, and I am insured personally for the space."

However stringently officials may intend to crack down on underground events in the wake of Oakland, the importance and preciousness of DIY spaces endure. Aldrich mused that these sites have "been the cornerstone of the development of techno and been the canvas for so many magical experiences that I have had over the years, but [it] clearly comes with more risk than your standard club event. The most questionable scenario that I found myself in happened over the summer at a one-off warehouse event where I was DJing," Aldrich said.

"The warehouse was separated into four different areas, three rooms downstairs and another one upstairs in a loft area where I was playing. Right at the base of those stairs was a bottleneck area where you could barely fit two people if they passed shoulder to shoulder. This was also where the only bathroom was, so it was constantly flooded with people. I'm sure every single person who came to that event thought about the horror that would happen if a fire broke out, but [the promoters] certainly didn't turn anyone away because of this safety hazard," Aldrich recalled.

"I believe people will be reconsidering some of the spaces they choose to go to now as a result of the tragedy in Oakland."

Additional reporting by Amber Cortes.