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Is Baltimore’s DIY Art Scene Being Killed Off?

After the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, a series of high-profile venue closures in the low-profile scene have shown the kind of ugly aftereffects a national tragedy can bring.

Not long ago, Baltimore was a bubbling hub of DIY artistic activity. There was Alloverstreet, the monthly art walk that visitors could stroll with a crisp, cold Natty Boh. Shows were frequent and eye-opening at the penthouse of the H&H arts building. Spaces like the Platform Gallery frequently hosted the best of the city’s contemporary artists. But these days, only a handful of similar DIY venues are left, all thanks to the forced closure of the Bell Foundry, an old factory converted into a DIY living space for young artists and musicians, last winter.

On December 2, 2016, the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, went up in flames; the fire ignited during a dance party and wound up taking 36 lives. The shared artist space served as illegal housing for up to 25 tenants and played host to a variety of shows and events; Alameda County district attorney Nancy O’Malley said its landlords and tenants “knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape,” and hadn’t had the building inspected in over thirty years. This June, the warehouse’s “creative director,” Max Harris, was chargedwith 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The fire sparked a national dialogue about spaces like Ghost Ship: often illegal and dilapidated communities in cities across the US that play home to artists, musicians, and other creative types (and their exhibitions, performances, meetings, and parties). Almost immediately, fire officials began shutting down similar spaces across the country, from Los Angeles to Nashville. In Denver, DIY spaces like Rhinoceropolis and the Glob were evicted in a campaign beginning on December 8. And just days after the Ghost Ship tragedy, Baltimore condemned the Bell Foundry as unsafe.

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