In December 2016, a fire that broke out at Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse killed 36 people, igniting a wave of crackdowns on artist-run live/work spaces across the country. Burnt Ramen—a long-running DIY venue in Richmond, California seven miles from Ghost Ship—was of many spaces in America that faced eviction following the fire, after inspectors deemed the building to be unsafe for events and habitation.
In his documentary In the Wake of Ghost Ship, Oakland-based filmmaker Jason Blalock captured the collective's fight to save their building from demolition, working with city authorities and raising funds to get the building up to code.
Below, THUMP is premiering the film, which won the Golden Gate Award for Best Short Film at the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival, and was executive produced by Academy Award-winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), AJ Schnack, and Charlotte Cook for their documentary series Field of Vision.
We also had a chat with Blalock about why Burnt Ramen was important to the Bay Area community, the city's housing crisis, and where the venue is going from here.
THUMP: How did you get involved in this film, and why did you feel like Burnt Ramen was an important subject to cover?
Jason Blalock: I'd been interested in making a film about homelessness in the Bay Area. With the dot com boom over the past five years, the amount of homelessness in cities like Oakland is just outrageous—there are homeless encampments and tent cities all over the place, because people keep getting evicted.
After the Ghost Ship fire, I heard about a lot of art spaces that were getting inspected and shut down. So I decided to go to one of these spaces and see if I could film that process. I went to three spaces before I found one that would let me in.
What do you mean by "let me in"?
There were a lot of the spaces that were hesitant to do any sort of media because any attention is bad attention. I showed up at Burnt Ramen, and they were in this hectic state of preparing for an inspection the next day. But they just let me roll. They're very friendly as a community, and I knew a few people who were working there that day. They trusted me.
Why do you think that they were willing to let you film?
They knew that their space was safe. There was nothing to hide. Unlike Ghost Ship, the building that houses Burnt Ramen was built as a live/work space in 1905. In every case, the people who owned the business lived upstairs. So what Mykee Ramen, the owner of the building, was doing was exactly how the building was meant to be used.
So why were they evicted?
The mayor got a tip from somebody who remains anonymous that there was an unsafe space where activities were going on. So he called in the inspectors.
The city cited [Burnt Ramen] for 58 code violations, but some of them were extremely minor, like having trash in the yard. Since then, over half of them have been removed, because [Burnt Ramen] fought them.
Burnt Ramen's main problem is they're not on the electrical grid—they ran on solar power. That's another way that it's nothing like Ghost Ship, which was using too much electricity off one meter.
But they don't have the funds to do the necessary repairs?
No, they don't have it. No one in the building pays more than $500/month rent. You just can't find that in the Bay Area anymore. It was a great place to be an artist if you didn't have a lot of money. Immediately [after the eviction], they were all homeless. Some of them have been couch surfing. Mykee Ramen moved into his van.
Before their eviction, was Burnt Ramen an active part of the neighborhood?
Oh yeah. They were the closest thing to a community center in the entire neighborhood. They built an indoor skate park, and kids from the neighborhood could come skate any time they wanted.
What makes a neighborhood less safe? Fixing it, or tearing it down? Neighborhoods that aren't occupied are very unsafe—they attract crime. This building was vibrant and had people living and working in it. That's the irony. Burnt Ramen made the neighborhood safer.
Why is Burnt Ramen a good illustration of the post-Oakland climate for DIY spaces?
The more that I look into this, the more I realize that what happened at Burnt Ramen is happening all across the country. Art spaces and community centers are under attack from the alt-right, because they're where progressive people organize.
I talk about 4chan in the film, but we have no evidence that the mayor received a tip from 4Chan. So we don't know who tipped the mayor off that it's an unsafe place to live.
Doesn't it go beyond alt-right tipsters, though ? It's also about safety issues.
Who's to say? In the 18 years that Burnt Ramen was in operation, they never had a safety incident. So what is less safe? Having a building being used as it was meant to be used, but is in violation of some codes? Or having it boarded up and empty, and people are going to squat there anyway?
Did you hear any legit reasons why the city might want to close these spaces?
Some people think that the city wants to develop that neighborhood with new condos. And while those may be safer, they're not gonna have any soul.
The city council is generally in support of Burnt Ramen, because they know that blight is more dangerous than an owner-occupied building.
Burnt Ramen is so different from Ghost Ship. The owner was there every day for 18 years. He felt a personal responsibility not only for the building, but for the neighborhood.
So where does Burnt Ramen stand now? They have another inspection in July?
Yeah. According to their eviction document, they have until July to make the repairs or the building could be demolished. So they've been working with the city to get the electric system installed. They have a GoFundMe to raise money, and a lot of people are volunteering, including contractors, electricians, and an architect that have been volunteering their time because they recognize the importance of the space.
What lessons do you think can be learned from what happened to Burnt Ramen?
If you fight and stand up for your building, the city will listen. If you turn and run, they'll tear it down. That's what I've noticed. Burnt Ramen have been fighting, and they've been succeeding.
Donate to Burnt Ramen to help offset the cost of the repairs they need to stay open.
Michelle Lhooq is on Twitter