The Oakland Fire Tragedy and Higher Education



Flowers Left at Site of Ghost Ship Fire

I first learned of the horrible fire that on Friday night destroyed a live-work warehouse in Oakland, California, claiming 36 lives, early the next morning when I turned on my smartphone.  A bulletin informed me that nine had already been found dead at an electronic dance music (EDM) “rave” held in the warehouse the previous evening.  My first thought was of my son, an EDM devotee and part-time DJ who lives in Oakland.  I hastily texted him asking if he was OK.  (I knew he wouldn’t answer his phone early on a Saturday morning anyway and that getting no answer would be even more distressing.)  Fortunately, within about an hour he texted back that he was fine, informing me later that the arts warehouse scene was not really his thing, although someone he knew had seen his entire social circle “wiped out.”

This blog is devoted mainly to higher education, and most of its readers, I think, are faculty members.  So, you might ask, this is awful, but what does such a terrible tragedy have to do with higher education?  Nothing directly, of course, but on one level it has everything to do with it.  For among the 36 mainly young victims were our students and our former students, as well as others who might have lived to become our students, some for the first time, others returning to complete a degree or earn a new one.  And how they ended up in this firetrap of a live-work space tells us much about the broader socio-economic context in which our higher education system now functions.

I can recall when downtown Oakland was like a ghost town at night, a deteriorating urban core dotted with marginal businesses and boarded up storefronts.  But in recent years the city has undergone a renaissance.  When I go downtown at night, perhaps to hear music at the revitalized Fox Theater, the evening streets are teeming with young people, many of whom, no doubt, work at the prosperous tech firms now located downtown (Uber is building a huge headquarters in a long-shuttered former department store) or, as with most of the victims, participate in one way or another in the city’s thriving artistic scene.

Many of those who died on Friday were just visiting the Ghost Ship, as the live-work warehouse was called by its residents.  They were there for the performance.  But others lived there, and that’s an important part of the story.  For one consequence of the Oakland renaissance — indeed of the prosperity of the Bay Area as a whole — has been an extraordinary rise in real estate values.  And this has meant a concomitant rise in rents.  To put it briefly, it is now close to impossible for independent young people just starting out to find affordable housing in Oakland or surrounding communities, unless they are fortunate  enough to have family to subsidize them.  As a result, many young people crowd together in cramped houses and over-priced apartments and at places like the Ghost Ship.  And, because there is sometimes literally no place else for them to live, or simply because their presence as young artists makes the city more attractive (and hence further fuels the real estate boom), city authorities have by and large ignored the many code and other safety violations that such situations inevitably produce.

So the owner of the building, one Chor Ng, who has declined to speak with reporters, apparently didn’t want to know that his prime tenant, Derick Ion Almena, 47, for a building approved only as a warehouse was actually sub-renting living and work spaces and using the site for semi-public performance events, like Friday’s disastrous EDM show.  And despite complaints from neighbors, including a City Council member who lives just a block away, authorities did nothing.  Indeed, two years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reports,  the Alameda County civil grand jury sounded the alarm about deficiencies in the Oakland Fire Department’s inspection bureau — saying the city wasn’t even trying to check a third of the 12,000 commercial properties that were supposed to be examined every year.  No doubt enforcement will now intensify, at least for a while, but the problem will remain: where are these talented (and, for that matter, the not-so-talented) young people to go?  The Bay Area already has a major homeless problem; several times each week I drive past a sprawling encampment by a freeway entrance only a bit more than a mile from my own (seriously overvalued, by national standards) home.

And here is where I think higher education comes into the picture.  For many of these young people not only must pay high rents, they are often burdened as well by the debt accumulated during their education.  Moreover, if there is no place for these often college-educated young people to go in our society, they and those who come after them will increasingly ask, what is the point of getting an education?  Of course, there will be some who will argue that it’s impractical and foolish to become an “artist” or to major in an “impractical” humanistic discipline and we shouldn’t be subsidizing such foolishness at all.  “What did these kids expect?” they will ask. “This isn’t happening to engineering or business majors.”  But it is. I know young college graduates in quite “practical” fields, some also with advanced degrees, who can’t afford housing here.  One young man, for instance, will soon graduate medical school.  What he can earn as a resident in a Bay Area hospital definitely won’t be enough to pay San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland rents and still leave much for the rest of life, not to mention loan repayment.

But, more important, one of the contributions that colleges and universities make and should make to the common good is to educate and inspire that essential minority of young people who help keep alive our societal soul, so to speak, the artists, musicians, filmmakers, and other creative individuals.  This is not just a matter of preserving and advancing “culture.”  As in Oakland, the activities and very presence of such individuals in fact contributes not only to the common cultural good but to the money economy as well.  The tragic irony here is that it is difficult to imagine Oakland’s economic renaissance succeeding as much as it has without recognizing the important role played in that renaissance by the city’s youthful artistic avant-garde, who in so many ways have made the city more attractive.  Indeed, to some extent it is the very presence of that avant-garde that has fueled the very real estate boom that so benefits property owners but increasingly marginalizes the very artists whose presence adds to the value of property.

With 36 confirmed dead, the Ghost Ship fire is now the deadliest structure fire in California since the 1906 earthquake and fire killed hundreds in San Francisco.  The Chronicle has been running a series of profiles of the victims, and I want to share some bits of these, to illustrate the profound connection between this tragic event and those of us in higher education.

  • Edmond Lapine grew up in Utah, where music was a constant. He taught himself to play the guitar and joined a few bands. As he grew older, he began spinning records and working as a DJ.  He graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington with a degree in French and Russian literature in 2008 and moved to the Bay Area in 2014.  Like many others who died in the fire, Edmond subsidized his passion for music by working day jobs at a bakery and then at an art-gallery cafe.
  • Draven McGill was the son of a deputy for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which is charged with recovering and examining the bodies at the tragic fire scene.  He was a graduate of San Francisco’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and trained in classical music, but was a fan of rapper Biggie Smalls as well as EDM.
  • A 2004 graduate of Brandeis University in Massachusetts and 2008 graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Jonathan Bernbaum went on to be an intern at Pixar Animation Studios before focusing fully on his VJ work. As faculty advisor for the Berkeley High School Jacket, Rick Ayers saw the roots of Bernbaum’s passion in his three years on the newspaper before he graduated in 2000.  “Jonathan was an ace reporter,” said Ayers. “Super passionate. Obsessed with getting scoops and a good story. He was driven.”  Ayers, now a University of San Francisco education professor and the author of An Empty Seat in Class: Teaching and Learning after the Death of a Student, believed Bernbaum would become a journalist or an academic, especially after he joined the debate team at Brandeis. Instead, he turned to art and found his community.
  • Chelsea Faith Dolan, a 33-year-old resident of San Francisco, made electronic music under the stage name of Cherushii. She hosted an underground radio program. She played eclectic electronic keyboard music. She was a DJ, an audio remixer and a producer of dance music shows. She studied classical piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before branching out into avant-garde electronic piano. She also scooped ice cream for years at Fairfax Scoop, a boutique shop. She performed in the band Easy Street and hosted a radio show on KALX, the UC Berkeley station.
  • Alex Vega, just 22 years old, lived with his family in San Bruno, where he kept busy with two jobs. He worked as a valet at University of California at San Francisco during the day, and at night at Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City.  He was at the Ghost Ship with his 20-year-old girlfriend (together since high school) Michela Gregory, a San Francisco State University student from San Bruno, who was majoring in Communicative Disorders.  San Francisco State President Leslie Wong asked everyone to “keep the families affected by this terrible catastrophe in your thoughts and prayers,” and said the campus had added counseling services.  They reportedly died in each other’s arms.
  • Feral Pines was a garage band bass player and art school graduate who was always trailed by a rescue dog she was training. Pines, who was 29, was a transgender woman who had moved to Oakland in September. Pines was born and raised in Westport, Connecticut, an affluent New York City suburb. She graduated high school in 2005, came out to her family as transgender, and moved to New York City to study print making at the School of Visual Arts. “She identified as a woman and I considered her my sister and always will,” said half-brother Ben Fritz, a Los Angeles journalist. “As is true of all trans people, life was hard for her, but she was very brave in following a path that is true to herself.”
  • Micah Danemayer, a Massachusetts native who was 28 and lived in Oakland, had been entertaining guests along with fellow audio and visual artists at the Golden Donna 100% Silk show when the fire broke out.  He left the East Coast for the Bay Area in 2011 after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. A few months ago, he began dating Jennifer Mendiola, a University of California at Merced graduate student also known as Alana Kane, who was at the warehouse party and was still listed among the missing as of yesterday.
  • Em B, a 33-year-old transgender Oakland poet, also worked as a barista and baker.  Em B earned a bachelor’s degree in English from University of California at Riverside and a master’s degree in literature from Cal Poly Pomona. She presented as a female earlier this year.  She had worked as a Starbucks barista in Southern California before coming to the Bay Area, where she got a job as a baker with Firebrand Artisan Breads and as a barista at Highwire Coffee Roasters, both in Oakland. There she worked with her friend and fellow barista Donna Kellogg. The two went together Friday night to the electronic music show at the Ghost Ship. Kellogg also died in the blaze. Kellogg was a recent graduate of San Francisco State University and was studying for an additional degree in culinary arts at Laney College in Oakland.
  • Ben Runnels was an Oakland musician who went by the name Charlie Prowler and whose latest project was with synthpop band Introflirt.  Runnels worked in landscaping to support his musical interests. He had given up a career in radio on the East Coast, having graduated valedictorian from Southern Vermont College with a degree in communications.
  • A UC Berkeley junior majoring in media studies, Jennifer Morris, 20, had gone to the Oakland warehouse event with her friend and roommate, Vanessa Plotkin, 21, who was still missing Tuesday.  Morris grew up in Foster City and graduated from San Mateo High in 2013. She studied at UC Santa Cruz before transferring to Berkeley.
  • Ara Jo was a 29-year-old visual artist from Los Angeles, who lived in Oakland and was an employee of the Ink Stone, a Berkeley art and drafting supply store. Born in South Korea, she volunteered with Oakland high school students on a silk screening project.
  • Sarah Hoda was a support teacher at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland. The 30-year-old had a California teaching credential, but still lacked a Montessori credential.  She had begun at the school in September.  Parents of Hoda’s young students grappled with how to tell their children of her death. She wouldn’t be at the front of the classroom that morning, or ever again. Many posted Facebook memories of Hoda, the gentle and bright teacher that they were just getting to know.
  • David Cline, a 24-year-old Oakland resident, played the clarinet and loved volleyball.  Before preparing to enroll at UC Berkeley in 2011, Cline led his Santa Monica High volleyball team to a state championship.  He studied clarinet for 10 years with Amanda Jane Walker, an arts and music lecturer at UC Irvine.
  • Nick Gomez-Hall, who was 25, grew up in Coronado, near San Diego, and attended Brown University. He remained in Providence after graduating in 2013 to work in a record store and on a small local farm. Friends say he was paid for his labors in LP records and in vegetables, largely zucchini.  At Brown, he took Mark Baumer’s fiction writing class seven years ago — and the two remained friends. Baumer said his former student could “write about anything.  He could describe a leaf and bring a human quality to it,” he said.  In California he found a job as a designer with Counterpoint Press, a small Berkeley publishing house.

These profiles literally bring tears to my eyes.  It is not only the futures that have been so senselessly squelched, but the sense I have that as a group these lives can stand for those of literally millions of young people — college students, recent graduates, and would-be students — across the country.  And the picture they present of young people seeking to find their way, to make their own path and fulfill their personal promise, while working multiple and often menial jobs and just trying to have some fun and be creative, sometimes under great stress, is one that those of us in higher education should recognize.  We work with and for such young people every day, and their loss must be ours as well.  This fire is a tragedy, but it also should be a wake-up call, not only about building safety but about the broader question of how we are serving — and increasingly not serving — our most creative and adventurous youth.

UPDATE: The East Bay Times has published a powerfully moving group portrait of the victims: “They were musicians, fans and artists, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who loved the weird, the surreal and each other. This was no random gathering of people who saw a flier about a party. To many, this was a surrogate family, an eclectic group that had spent many similar nights together, dancing and making music. They knew and admired each other’s work, played gigs together, ran sound and video for each other’s shows.”

And don’t miss this incredible piece; painful to read but the writers deserve a Pulitzer:

7 thoughts on “The Oakland Fire Tragedy and Higher Education

  1. Pingback: More on the Oakland Fire Tragedy | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Very good commentary that I wish more tenured faculty would take time to really engage with.

    One request: Please don’t “deadname” trans people. It’s very insensitive, as many trans folks find it hurtful, invalidating, or even traumatizing. If you feel tenderly toward those who died, please edit your post accordingly.

    • To the best of my knowledge the names used in my post were those preferred by the deceased. That is the editorial policy at the SF Chronicle, from which my information came.

      • Yes, but you also published people’s former names. GLAAD has been calling on media to report appropriately on those killed and impacted. Their media guide specifically discusses disclosing birth names on this page: There, they say “Do not reveal a transgender person’s birth name without explicit permission from them. If the person is not able to answer questions about their birth name, err on the side of caution and do not reveal it.”

        As none of the dead can give you consent to reveal their birth names, you should not do so. Thanks.

      • Clearly I did not understand the meaning of your term “deadname.” I must say, however, that not only trans people change their names. For instance, many married folks do. And sometimes it’s useful to give the prior name, even of the deceased, perhaps to let others know of the passing. Still, I accept your point and will try to conform to this guideline in future.

      • Obviously there are many situations when people change names. However, when speaking of trans people, there are specific dangers and traumas associated with use and disclosure of their former names. Married people are not so likely to feel that their whole identity is being invalidated if you use their former name, because we don’t have a systemic history of invalidating the identity of married people. Also, when other married people see a person’s former name used, they aren’t likely to feel like their identity as a married person is suspect as well.

        It would be helpful if you’d edit your post so that it would be shareable without the trans reporting errors. I do think your compassionate perspective is valuable for other educators to read, but some educators are themselves trans and those errors are painful to stumble across.

  3. Pingback: Christmas and/or Fascism Megapost Forever and Ever Links – Part Two! | Gerry Canavan

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