In response to the deadly fire in Oakland's Ghost Ship venue earlier this month, Seattle Arts Commission—in conjunction with the Seattle Music Commission, Capitol Hill Arts District, and the Historic Central Area Arts & Culture District—have written a letter to Mayor Ed Murray advocating for the fire department to work with DIY venues to ensure they're up to code rather than shutting them down for safety inadequacies. This policy would counter a trend in other American cities, which have seen clampdowns on unofficial venues.
The coalition of Seattle arts champions, which includes S. Surface, John Roderick, Hollis Wong-Wear, and Tim Lennon, cited the necessity of underground, do it yourself spaces to maintain a vital arts scene, as well as the need for affordable rents to nurture such events, which are often the only performance outlets for marginalized sectors of the population. The letter emphasized that safety is important, of course, but evicting tenants who run these loci of artistic activity is a destructive strategy—what the group calls "the violence of displacement."
Below is an excerpt of the letter, which you can read in full here (.PDF)
We recognize the urgent need for safe and affordable housing, workspace, and gathering space. As we bear witness to a rash of evictions of warehouses in other cities following the Oakland tragedy, we emphasize that reactionary shutdown of essential community spaces is not an appropriate, sustainable or equitable response. Even when the intention is to protect the public by preventing imminent catastrophe, eviction creates another emergency: the violence of displacement.
We hold ourselves and our fellow public servants accountable to the City’s own Race and Social Justice Initiative. In a city that struggles to resolve a housing and homelessness crisis in the midst of a massive construction and population boom, and where many low-income people and spaces have already been displaced, responses to public and individual safety must be driven by a commitment to support and nurture all of our neighbors. Hasty evictions come at the expense of the most vulnerable, whether or not they are artists. Historic precedent shows that abrupt building vacancies have ripple effects throughout their neighborhoods, with some areas unable to recover decades later. Furthermore, displaced people and spaces will reappear elsewhere. Adversarial enforcement merely punishes our communities for their financial inability to improve code compliance. It neither reduces noncompliant space, nor increases safety. Instead, it drives people further underground and further away from our shared goal of improving safety.
The existence of non-permitted, non-code-compliant spaces is in part driven by the economics of space affordability in Seattle, and the fact that code compliance is complicated and expensive. The Mayor has called out a “crisis of affordability” across housing, commercial and cultural space. But for many who inhabit noncompliant spaces, it is not a choice to inhabit or program unsafe space, but a reality driven by economic circumstance. To think of this as a choice is a mistake allowed by economic privilege. While many would indeed choose to live, work and gather in non-traditional venues regardless of their financial situations, it is the safety component that is too often inhibited by limited access to money. Venues are not “safe” or “unsafe” - they are more and less safe along a spectrum. Thinking of safety as a spectrum, instead of a binary state, will bring our efforts to ensure safety in line with the world around us.