Disaster highlights the need for effective regulation in Berkeley

Becky O'Malley
Friday December 09, 2016 - 12:00:00 PM

Even if we don’t know anyone who died in the East Bay’s tragic fire, most of us are one or two removes away from someone who did. Our former employee and friend managed the career of some of the musicians who were lost, for example, and there were many more connections there to people we know. It’s a personal loss for family and friends, and also a loss to the wider society on many levels. I’m told that ushers at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach auditorium were weeping on Friday because one of their number, a young man with considerable charm and many other accomplishments, perished in the flames. 

Inevitably, this event raises once again the question of what is the position of the artist in our society. We give lip service and occasional monetary donations to the concept of valuing the arts, but at least in the tradition descended from Western Europe starving artists have been a familiar cultural figure. In the opera La Boheme, just one example, an author burns his manuscript to warm up his garret which shelters Mimi, dying of consumption without health care, as his housemates, fellow bohemians wring their hands because they’re too broke even to buy food. Somehow, you get the idea that it’s expected that artists will always be paupers. 

In the case of the Ghost Ship disaster, however, it’s important to draw a line between personal decisions that artists still must make to survive in a society which doesn’t appreciate them and the reckless disregard for human life which was exhibited by the owner of the property and, even worse, the huckster lessee who exploited other people for his own profit. The live-work charade which the promoter foisted on people who live in the building he leased was bad enough, but enticing the public to a dance party in an obviously lethal setting from which they could not escape was inexcusable. This is not about the housing shortage, though there is one, or about the shortage of studio space, though that’s a problem as well. 

It’s all about greed and hubris, pure and simple, fueling the excesses of entrepreneurial capitalism—not much different from the proprietors of the factory in Bangladesh where many died in a fire not long ago. It’s comparable to Berkeley’s Library Gardens disaster: the state contractors’ board has just documented the cutting of corners by the builder which created the fatal balcony collapse. And if there was ever a case which demonstrated clearly the need for effective government regulation in a market economy, this is the worst example. 

What are we going to do without it, what can we do about it in Berkeley? I tend to think the laws are already in place here, it’s just the enforcement which is lacking. The field marshal leading the war on homeless Berkeley campers is a guy whose job is supposed to be code enforcement—and yet the Library Gardens victims died on his watch. Something’s wrong here. Now that apparently forward-looking people are in power in Berkeley, priorities need to be changed, and fast. 

For an excellent opinion see: 

Reflection on the Oakland fire