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California

‘We’re all kind of searching.’ Mourners make pilgrimages to the Ghost Ship from Oakland and beyond

As television cameras and heavy equipment began to vacate the site of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, a steady stream of locals and travelers from near and far continued to arrive Sunday. 

More than a week after the tragedy that killed 36 people who lived in the makeshift artist enclave or were attending an electronic dance concert there, they grieved quietly amid toppled candles and rain-soaked debris, with the scent of flowers and smoke hanging in the air.

Over the weekend, a metal tree sculpture sprang up across the street from the warehouse, bearing 36 heart-shaped metal leaves each stamped with the name of a victim.

On the sculpture’s trunk, someone wrote: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

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Some of the pilgrims were familiar with the financial risks involved with choosing a creative career, and knew what it meant to live somewhere that may be less than safe to save money.

Still more had made music or art with the victims or attended parties at the warehouse. 

“We all know someone who knows someone,” said Susan Bergman, an Oakland resident who stopped by on her Sunday morning bike ride.

We just want to show the kids that when we talk about death and fire, it’s not like in video games.
Jay Cromwell

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Titus Cromwell, 4, placed a bird of paradise flower picked from his family’s home, in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, on the gate across from the warehouse Sunday morning. His father, Jay Cromwell, wanted to show his son the reality of what had happened that night when they opened their door and saw a “big orange glow” on the horizon.

“We just want to show the kids that when we talk about death and fire, it’s not like in video games,” Cromwell said. 

Markus Schulz, a DJ from Miami, came earlier in the week to leave a message for his friend and fire victim Jonathan Bernbaum at the site. Two years ago, the two men traveled the country on a tour bus playing shows, Schulz said. Bernbaum, 34, was a visual projection artist and worked on the visuals for Schulz’s tour.

“There is something special about artistic souls,” Schulz said. “We’re all kind of searching.”

He was playing a show in Mexico City when he learned of Bernbaum’s death. A few nights later, after playing in Sacramento, he decided to see the Ghost Ship for himself.

“Sometimes artists are misunderstood, but within a place like this, we all understand each other,” Schulz said.

Officials haven’t said when demolition of the warehouse ruins will begin, and the cause of the fire hasn’t been announced but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded its investigation Sunday afternoon. At least six propane tanks and a few gas containers were stacked on the sidewalk Sunday.

At around 1 p.m., workers began setting up a fence around the warehouse and adjoining businesses, blocking the view of the ruins, where the remnants of a staircase and two large wooden sculptures were still visible. 

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I just wanted to come down and get some closure.
Robert Lapine, father of Edmond, who died in the fire

The fire has prompted widespread conversation about warehouse art spaces, gentrification, housing and displacement, and many mourners worried about what the future holds for spaces like the Ghost Ship and the artists who lived there.

Earlier in the week, Paul Ivey, a Fruitvale-based entertainment producer, walked the perimeter of what’s left of the Ghost Ship, reflecting on his younger days as an artist. 

The warehouse and its inhabitants were the “next generation of what I used to do,” Ivey said, sunglasses hiding the tears welling in his eyes.

The East Bay art community that the Ghost Ship was a part of reminded him of San Francisco in the 1990s, when he was a young artist living in a warehouse in the Mission district.

Rising real estate values pushed many artists out of the city, and the spaces he once roamed have been transformed into “wealthy lofts” in what had been the most dangerous neighborhoods, Ivey said. 

He wants city leaders to understand that artistic culture draws people to Oakland, and he says they should help house that culture, not crack down on it.

Adrianna Alvarez, a teacher and artist, brought 60 fifth and sixth graders from neighboring St. Elizabeth Elementary School to the site of the blaze. She said she wanted her students to confront the devastation and understand the importance of providing spaces for people to make art. Her students hung messages to the victims on a fence during a vigil Thursday.

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“There’s not enough space for young people,” Alvarez said. “We need to invest in that.”

Vera Fleischer went to the scene of the warehouse fire on 31st Avenue last week and felt strangely lonely. She used to be an artist and she knew three people who died in the fire. She’s attended a few parties like the one on the night of the fire, and looking over the wreckage she began to think about how disconnected she felt from her former life.

The San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist decided to organize counseling help for people affected by the fire. 

“I’m a little more removed from this community now, and as sad as that is in certain ways, it also makes me able to [help],” Fleischer said. 

Among the mourners Friday was Robert Lapine and his wife, who drove for two days from Ogden, Utah, through rain and snow to see the place their son Edmond died with 35 others.

“I just wanted to come down and get some closure,” Lapine said. 

Lapine spent a few days looking at photos and hearing stories about the life his son led in the Bay Area. Edmond was working at a bakery in San Francisco and training to be a barista when he died. He loved music, taught himself to play the guitar, and was trying to start a career as a DJ, his father said.

He has had trouble sleeping since his son’s death, and some nights he lays awake, imagining his son lying in the wreckage waiting to be discovered. He thinks about all the things he never got to say to his son. 

A professional photographer, Lapine spent a few minutes snapping photos of the Ghost Ship on Friday. 

The pictures, he said, will go into a book that he and his wife are creating to document their son’s life.

“I’m not going to point fingers. I’m sure someone will at a later date,” Lapine said. “As it stands now, my son’s life is all over, so I’m going to keep going, plug along and try and put our life back together.”

Poston and Serna reported from Oakland and Shyong from Los Angeles.

ALSO

Oakland Ghost Ship fire’s victims memorialized

Amid Ghost Ship’s enchanting disorder lurked danger and the seeds of disaster

Why the Ghost Ship ‘slipped through the cracks’ of Oakland inspectors despite repeated safety complaints


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