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After Oakland fire, LA underground scene braces for crackdown

Cities like Los Angeles want to tighten oversight of illegal performance spaces like the Ghost Ship in Oakland, where 36 people died in a Dec. 3 fire.
Cities like Los Angeles want to tighten oversight of illegal performance spaces like the Ghost Ship in Oakland, where 36 people died in a Dec. 3 fire.
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In the days since 36 people died in an Oakland warehouse fire, Jake Jenkins has worked to raise donations for the victims' families.

Jenkins, who has his own online music show dedicated to underground music, has mourned the death of one of the fire's victims, performer Chelsea Faith Dolan, who once visited his weekly show.

But Jenkins hasn't stopped going to underground shows, and he hopes they'll still thrive even as the city plans a crackdown on unpermitted venues.

In fact, he's banking on it.

"People are always going to be able to work through it and around it," Jenkins said. "Everyone you take down there will be more that pop up in its place — kind of like a hydra."

The underground arts and music scene has been under the microscope since fire engulfed the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland on Dec. 3 — the country's deadliest blaze in a decade. Officials across the country have already begun to shutter buildings that were illegally converted into housing and event spaces.

"It's going to damage the arts scene in the U.S.," said Alexis Rivera, who manages underground artists as the owner of Echo Park Records. "It's going to damage a lot of people who don't fit your normal paradigm."

Rivera said that alternative spaces are an important source of income for artists like the ones he represents who often don't have a label or a publicist.  Sometimes, these places also provide a place to live.

"Whether it’s Boyle Heights, Echo Park, South L.A., artists, they’re now being forced out and people are going to spaces that are unpermitted," Rivera said.

Illegally-converted commercial spaces like warehouses will be the focus of a meeting Tuesday between City Attorney Mike Feuer and fire department officials and representatives from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety.

Rivera said safety should be a concern at unpermitted venues. As a manager, he will nix performance spaces for his artists if he feels they pose any danger. To address safety issues without jeopardizing artists' livelihood and ability to live in Los Angeles., Rivera said city officials should take a page from Oakland. The mayor there pledged $1.7 million in financial assistance to help bring artists' communities up to code. 

But both he and Jenkins say that illegal venues will always exist, despite increased city scrutiny, because many people crave them as communal spaces. Jenkins said that the DIY nature of underground spots fits the artists they host.

"Going to a lot of the shows, there is an urgency and adventurousness to a lot of this stuff that really reflects what's happening there artistically and musically," Jenkins said.