There is an intersection where art meets commerce. One can be a tremendously skilled artist, painter, singer, composer, whatever, but no one will send you a cheese sandwich and a place to shower and sleep just because you're so good at your art. No, you have to make a living somehow and buy your own sandwiches, soap and sleepgear.
There is also a place where commerce meets safety. This warehouse in Oakland, where artists rented space for their artwork, but wound up living in what became a literal hellhole, never should have come to the unspeakable end that it met last weekend. 36 people are dead, following an electronic music show during which a fire sparked up and you know the rest.
It was no surprise, then, that cities all across the nation swiftly moved to do what Oakland should have done - investigate these old shabbily-rehabbed buildings for code violations and make sure that people are not endangered by living there.
Here in Baltimore, a do-it-yourself art studio (spaces rented to be used as artists wished) and performance space known as the Bell Foundry was visited by fire marshals, who boarded the place shut when they saw the conditions inside. As of now, the artists who worked there are not being allowed back in to get their stuff.
Battalion Chief Roman Clark of the Baltimore Fire Department said his department and the Housing Authority received a complaint, which led to the inspections, which turned up numerous violations, leading to the building being condemned.
"We have to think about the safety of people, especially when we receive a complaint," Chief Clark told the City Paper. "We have to act on it. That's what we did."
Clark (no relation) would not confirm a connection between the Oakland disaster and this action in Baltimore, saying only that the city was acting on a complaint received.
I am torn in this matter, able to see both sides. I relate to the artistic community as a matter of wishing to be able to do what they do. As it is, the only thing I can draw is money out of the bank, and we all know there is not enough money in all the banks in all the world to bring back a life lost to fire that should have killed no one, given a proper sprinkler system and means of egress.
But when the sprinklers are not there, and people try to extinguish a blaze with cups of water and who knows what else, and the "stairs" leading down from the second floor of the Oakland deathtrap are not stairs at all, but a pile of wooden pallets, it's just too sad to do nothing.
I have to favor safety over art and the convenience of crashing in a rented workspace. And by saying I favor safety, that also means I favor people being able to keep living to create more art, and I don't see the other side of that at all.