The importance of a vital arts scene further under siege in the months since Oakland's Ghost Ship fire

I.

These places, you've probably never heard of them. They have names, though you probably don't know them.

On any given night there might be eight people in a basement, dozens in a living room or hundreds in a warehouse. If you can find the place, there might be music, but there also could be an impromptu art gallery, rave or reading.

Most likely, no one you know has performed there. But then again, sometimes they've hosted legends. Elliott Smith played one house in the '90s, and passed-down lore tells of other bands, like the Smashing Pumpkins, GWAR and Black Flag, passing through to play, party or crash.

Most bands playing these spaces, however, are local up-and-comers, lifers and small underground acts touring similar spaces across the country. They might play punk, folk-punk, hardcore or post-hardcore, but the genre distinctions are largely irrelevant. It's not the style of music that matters. It's the ethos behind it.

This is “for us, by us” — created from scratch by bare hands because no one else was doing it. All are welcome, but then again, not everyone can come. These spaces are meant to be inclusive, particularly of the marginalized and outcast, but that can sometimes require exclusion. To protect the few, you have to leave out the masses.

And yet, despite — or perhaps because of — the secrecy and insularity that exists within DIY spaces, they've become an essential part of Columbus' arts and music scenes over the last couple of decades. In addition to off-the-radar houses, warehouses and galleries, comparatively mainstream spaces such as 400 West Rich Street in Franklinton, Milo Arts in Milo-Grogan and MINT on the South Side have contributed in many ways told and untold, from acting as launching pads for careers and encouraging experimentation to simply fostering a safe place to form community.

“When people think of a DIY space, often they think of somebody's basement, or these are people who can't book shows elsewhere because their music isn't as palatable, or they have a new band and can't market it,” said Stephanie Ewen, president and co-founder of Tiny House Collective, a group dedicated to sparking discussions within the music scene as well as finding host venues for touring musicians. “But the reality is these spaces are more than that. It's an actual community. A lot of these spaces exist for particular reasons, … like to provide a space to something they wouldn't have access to otherwise.”

Take Apollo Akembe, 22, of Milo-Grogan. After starting the Melanincholy Festival in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood last year as a means of providing an artistic platform for underserved voices, Akembe was overwhelmed with gratitude for the reaction they received in the community.

“There just wasn't a lot of space for people of color. And for queer women of color, that's such an unrepresented voice specifically,” Akembe said. “I almost cried. I don't think we had any idea how big the event would be and how important it was to people.”

Or take CCAD professor Laurenn McCubbin, who said she wouldn't be the artist or person she is today without the DIY arts spaces in California's Bay Area. For instance, McCubbin had some difficulty getting her documentary about sex workers, “A Monument to the Risen,” hosted in some galleries. SOMArts in San Francisco, in fact, was the first gallery not run by former sex workers that was willing to take on works confronting the issue, she said. And even still, when those putting on the show applied for grants, they were turned down due to the nature of the documentary.

“I have done work that doesn't get accepted in galleries, not because it's not good enough, but because it's about a subject they're not interested in showing,” McCubbin said. “That's why underground spaces thrive. They give voices to the voiceless, and they give spaces to people who don't have other spaces to go to.”

Depending on whom you ask in the local DIY community, the scene is either right now at its most vulnerable or merely facing the same challenges it always has. Though many within the Columbus DIY community have said these hurdles are cyclical, many others have noted a considerable difference in recent events.

That's because on Dec. 2, 2016, at approximately 11:20 PST, everything changed for DIY communities nationwide. During a concert at Ghost Ship, a DIY arts space inside a warehouse in Oakland, Calif., a fire erupted, eventually killing 36 people. The fire sent shockwaves of pain and panic and fear rippling outward across the country.

And now those ripples have been felt in Columbus.

The beloved two-year-old DIY arts collective MINT, located on the South Side at 42 W. Jenkins Ave., announced on March 6 that it was closing. Whether the decision was related to city action taken against the space in recent months is unclear. But, if so, it could be part of a national trend.

In the wake of Ghost Ship, cities have renewed efforts to investigate DIY arts spaces, shutting down places in San Francisco, Baltimore, Nashville, Denver and Detroit, among others, and displacing, in the process, countless artists living and working there. These closures aren't just the shuttering of galleries; in many cases, these are abrupt, devastating moves for entire arts communities, not only interrupting hundreds of artists' way of making a living, but forcing some into homelessness.

Members of MINT declined to comment for this story, and their Facebook post announcing the closure didn't specify a reason for the decision.

But on Jan. 16, city attorneys agreed to file a civil case against the collective. According to Dana Rose, code enforcement administrator with the Columbus Department of Development, the civil case was levied against the collective for failing to apply for a change-of-use permit, which would have allowed the former meat-packing warehouse to transition to an arts studio.

The initial zoning code violation, Rose said, occurred on Aug. 9, 2016 — well before cities nationwide began aggressively targeting arts spaces.

During an inspection by the Columbus Division of Fire, Rose said, an inoperable vehicle was found on the property, which is illegal — for commercial and private property — under city code. The fire department then notified the development department that the space appeared to be in use for something other than the industrial/factory use for which it was permitted.

A warning letter was sent to MINT on Nov. 30 requesting the collective comply with the original notice to change its zoning permit. When the collective didn't respond, the development department took the case to the city attorney for legal action.

In MINT's Facebook post, the artists behind the space said the collective spirit was more important than the physical, 17,000-square-foot former meat-processing facility where it was located.

“We are excited for what the future holds and what a new and nomadic condition will afford us: to further develop our artistic and working practice as a collective entity, to continually pursue our DIY values sustainably, and to always remain abidingly fresh,” the post stated.

Whether another space will open to replace MINT remains to be seen. But the closure has already inspired many in Columbus' larger DIY scene to work harder to ensure these types of spaces have a place in Columbus for the foreseeable future.

II.

In Columbus, no DIY arts space has been targeted, historically, quite like Milo Arts, 617 E. Third Ave., a century-old school building in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood that's been a living and working space for dozens of artists since 1989, making it the longest-running such space in the city.

According to ColumbusDispatch archives, Milo was initially targeted by the city with legal action in 2000, when Columbus officials ordered the evacuation of the building after declaring it a fire hazard. But as early as 1995, the Dispatch reported, city officials had toured the building with owner Rick Mann and told him what needed to be done to meet code requirements.

Off and on over more than a dozen years, Mann and the city went back and forth over code violations, fire hazards and other issues. At one point, a warrant was issued for Mann's arrest for code violations, though the case was later dropped.

In 2007, the building was set to enter into a sheriff's sale after Mann said he had been losing $15,000 a month on the space. Some of that was due to money he had sunk into the building for renovations, but a fire in one of the studios a couple of years before that also left more damage than he could afford to repair. A year later, Hurricane Ike whipped through the city, “peeling back the roof over the building's annex and gym while scattering roof tiles from the schoolhouse,” the Dispatch reported.

In 2010, an LLC run by Mann's mother bought the building, helping Milo remain open.

“So many miracles have kept Milo going,” Mann said. “It's cost me millions of dollars and a marriage and many years, but it's been worth it.”

Today, the building is in good standing, having passed all of its inspections and obtained every necessary permit, according to Tony Celebrezze, assistant director of the city's Building and Zoning Services.

“[Mann is] doing what he needs to do,” Celebrezze said.

Mann and residents of the space said they want the rest of the community to know they're in the clear.

“We have a bad reputation from years and years ago, but we're not like that anymore,” said Evan Primmer, a resident and staff member at Milo Arts.

Milo, Primmer said, now has state-of-the-art fire alarm and sprinkler systems. In fact, every studio has its own sprinkler system — something most houses don't have. “We're actually safer than houses now,” Primmer said.

Likewise, fire marshals conduct regular walk-throughs, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, Milo finally got its full occupancy permit, which covered some recently finished studios that weren't listed under a previous permit because they were still under construction.

Despite all the work Mann has done over the years to bring the space up to code, the Ghost Ship tragedy renewed suspicion of Milo among many in the community, Primmer said. Facebook friends even reached out to her after the Ghost Ship fire, concerned about her safety at Milo.

“I had to write a long declaration listing everything we've done here: the surprise inspections, the extinguishers, just on and on. We are not Ghost Ship. We are probably one of the safest buildings in the city,” Primmer said. “[Ghost Ship] definitely made an impact, and I feel really fortunate that I work here so I know all the inner workings and I was able to lay out the facts so they could stop the fearmongering.

“It's a new beginning, a new day for us, and I want everyone to know that.”

III.

After Ghost Ship, similar suspicions surfaced about the safety of 400 West Rich, a commercial do-everything space in East Franklinton that's home to 101 artist studios, four music studios, 16 offices, a co-working space and more.

About a week after the Oakland fire, eight members of the Columbus Division of Fire visited the multi-use facility, said Chris Sherman, director of 400 West Rich Street.

“They're trying to open doors, and this is a locked facility — people can't just walk in — so I go and introduce myself,” Sherman said. “They explained they were going around to some of the arts spaces in town due to the tragic fire in Oakland, and I said, ‘I understand, let's take a tour.'”

Sherman recalled the fire inspectors acting surprised to find the space filled with fire exits, signs, sprinklers, permits, etc.

“That's a perception, too. Not only with this space, but lots of spaces around town,” Sherman said. “Perception is a big hurdle for the arts community regarding these types of spaces.”

After Ghost Ship, Sherman, likewise, found 400 West Rich at the center of a burbling online witch hunt of sorts. People were tagging the space on Facebook in long screeds, or sending Sherman screenshots in which others were “questioning the legitimacy of this building.”

“The hysteria had started,” Sherman said. “The following Sunday or Monday, I was finding myself doing damage control on Facebook. And, of course, it was coming from our own tenants, too.”

That even his own tenants weren't clear on 400 West Rich's code compliances and overall safety was revelatory for Sherman.

“It motivated me to go over the safety plan of the building [with tenants] and to let people know where exits are and to update the evacuation plan,” he said. “It made me realize, like, ‘Wow, if someone is on the second floor and something were to happen, maybe they wouldn't know what to do.'”

But this feeling of being targeted goes beyond building inspections, Ewen said.

“The city is always looking into [DIY spaces]. That's not a new thing, and it's not a thing people are just now aware of,” Ewen said. “It's always a concern when you're running a DIY space. It's more that we're on guard now. A lot of what's happening politically is spurring this idea that safer spaces, or spaces meant for marginalized people, are somehow too politically correct or too sheltered.”

In recent months, many in the DIY community have found themselves getting strange friend requests on Facebook from people no one else seemed to know. Some suspected they were coming from city officials or the alt-right, which has also gotten involved in trying to shut these art spaces down, according to some reports, including a Dec. 15 story on Vice Media, which traced the push to activity on 4chan's “Politically Incorrect” (/pol/), an online political discussion board that is increasingly influential in white-supremacist and right-wing circles.

In light of the threats, DoDIY.org, an online site cataloguing global DIY spaces, was shut down by creator Neil Campau on Dec. 8. “I have no intention in letting [the site] simply become a tool for authorities,” Campau wrote. “If you're a cop combing this site looking for some folks to evict or some vile human looking to call the cops on folks listed here, fuck off immediately.” (Campau reactivated the site in January.)

Gray Clark, a 25-year-old non-binary poet who runs local open mic The Other, found themselves feeling targeted in this way, and the effect was spooky, they said.

“I didn't even initially think about the ripple effect — the crackdown in Columbus — until it happened,” Clark said. “But it was kind of terrifying.”

If that sounds a little like a conspiracy theory, Clark understands.

“The fear is legitimate,” they said. “It's really exhausting to exist in a world where you're othered, and I can't emphasize enough how tiring it is as a trans person. A lot of the world doesn't think your gender is real. They don't view you as a person who exists, and, for some people, they don't want you to exist. When people are saying these things to you, it gets to you.”

Sherman said he was told by the fire department this exact thing was happening.

“I was told directly [by the city] after Ghost Ship that, ‘We're looking at these spaces from Facebook,'” he said.

City officials adamantly denied this was the case.

“We don't do anything on social media like that,” Celebrezze said “We rely on neighbors that call into 311 and give us information about properties.”

Steve Martin, the public information officer with the Division of Fire, said any type of social media monitoring is, frankly, beyond the city's capabilities and interest.

“To be quite honest, we do so much with so few people, that for us to have free time to hunt down people's social media accounts and try to friend them for nefarious reasons, I just can't see it,” Martin said.

Martin also said that the inspection at 400 West Rich, which took place about a week after Ghost Ship, wasn't part of any larger conspiracy by the city to target DIY arts spaces.

“It might have just been a weird coincidence,” he said. “We have been working for the last 15 years to make sure that any kind of commercial building is in our database and is inspected no less than once every 12 months.”

That said, Martin did acknowledge that some commercial properties fell out of the database recently during a switch to a new computer system. The loss of addresses does bring up interesting historical precedents. That's because the record-keeping issues recall other problems the city has dealt with over the years in regards to code enforcement and inspections. (Requests for the dates of every fire inspection for Milo, MINT and 400 West Rich weren't met by deadline.)

“Legacy of Neglect,” a 2013 Dispatch investigation, found, for example, “hundreds of cases did not include an address or parcel-identification number for the offending property. Some information was incomplete, such as an address that said 123 Main, but was it East Main? West Main? Main Street? Main Avenue?”

The probe into the city's code-enforcement policies and procedures prompted immediate action from then-Mayor Michael B. Coleman. Coleman promised to “budget for more housing inspectors; improve record-keeping in the code-enforcement division so that slumlords could more easily be tracked and dealt with; shift the mindset of the inspection department from reacting to complaints to proactively addressing problems when they're observed; and stiffen penalties for slumlords.”

VI.

So what's next? Those within the DIY scene have advocated for everything from a hands-off approach by the city to more official help in the form of one-time infrastructure funding for any long-running DIY space so it can install sprinklers, ingress/egress signage, construct new exits or have free safety evaluations done by a third party outside of the government.

One potential solution, reported The San Francisco Chronicle, is an approach taken by Baltimore, Los Angeles, Denver and Santa Cruz, among other locales.

Those cities, the paper reported, created state-of-the-art studio and apartment complexes where low-income artists can live and work for a fraction of the usual rent. The spaces, of which there are only 50 to 100 in the U.S., were funded mostly with federal and state money.

Still, challenges exist. Many cities contain a chronic shortage of affordable housing for underprivileged families, seniors and others, so any push to create low-rent housing for artists could be met with resistance.

Besides, in a political environment where NPR and PBS will no longer receive government funding, how likely is it that these types of spaces are granted government funds?

Calls to the Greater Columbus Arts Council regarding the potential for similar help went unreturned by deadline.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for, some have concluded, is a helpful hand and sympathetic ear.

Sherman, for one, acknowledged that the city has been incredibly helpful and accommodating, particularly given its limitations. In the beginning of transitioning 400 from a DIY space to what it is now, the city tried to help Sherman navigate the process.

“The city is also incredibly busy and overwhelmingly understaffed. So based on their circumstances and what they're dealing with, they've been great,” he said. “It's my experience that they don't want to shut anybody down. They're not being vindictive; that's not how they operate. They simply have a box to check.”

Keida Mascaro, a former resident of Milo, feels similarly.

“I've always kind of felt like Columbus doesn't wield a carrot or a stick, though from my perspective it does maybe lean toward a carrot,” he said. “Columbus, their bottom line is, they don't want to get sued. Look at what happened at Oakland.”

In December, the families of Michela Gregory, 20, and Griffin Madden, 23 — two young people killed in the Ghost Ship fire — filed a wrongful death lawsuit against multiple people connected with the party where the fire broke out, including building owner Chor Nar Siu Ng and primary tenants Derick Almena and Micah Allison, among others. A second suit targeted city and county governments, including the planning department and police and fire departments, charging Oakland officials had failed to act on past complaints about the warehouse space.

Steve Martin with the Columbus Division of Fire said when he looks at Ghost Ship, he sees victims.

“No one was there to protect them,” he said. “Our way of going about fixing the problem, is really, truly to protect our residents and visitors in this city. And the way to do that is with legal building inspections. That's all we're here to do. We're not here to make anybody's life hard.”

V.

Perhaps it was due to the freakishly warm night, but the mood in the second-floor studio apartment inside Milo Arts in late February was incredibly upbeat. A row of chairs was neatly lined up in front of a makeshift stage, while the light from candles flickered all the way up to the high tin ceiling above. Calypso music played in the background while two guys smoked by an open window, hanging out on the couch and the desk next to it.

Most people here, however, were sitting on chairs spread throughout the space, quietly and nervously biding their time. There were people with pink hair, dreads, shaved heads, wearing overalls and “Dump Trump” buttons on denim vests covered with black patches. Eventually talk spread of officially starting The Other poetry open mic at 8:45, though, someone says, “if we were really punk, we'd start at 10:30.”

Before beginning, one of The Other's founders stood at the front of the room and told those gathered what wasn't allowed on this night.

“We strive to make this a safe space,” she said. “But, that said, a free-speech zone is a free-speech zone. That said, we have the right to call you out.”

Once the readings began, the palpable nervous energy dissipated, replaced with something more raw, earnest and open. During one reading, a non-binary poet described the smell of depression and wondered if their mother would finally forgive them if they buried the boy inside with their chest binder. "Does my family love me if they don't know my real name?" they asked.

Another mourned all the things they'd lost by simply trying to be more fully themselves. And yet another talked about meeting Jesus (“I promised to survive this body, and he called it religion.”).

After each performance, there was applause and blushing and awkward pauses and sometimes hugs and sometimes, even, a middle finger, raised in solidarity and with a smile. At the end, a mason jar was passed around for donations.

“It's like church,” one of the poets said. Everyone laughed and nodded, and this gave way to an organic moment of silence, as if to acknowledge that, yes, this space is holy, it is sacred, and it is ours — for now, at least. So let us sit with it and hold it and protect it, because if we don't, no one else will.

Special thanks to James Payne's “Punk Zine: The Art/History Issue,” published in 2008, for some of the history of DIY spaces in Columbus.