Last evening’s fire at the Oakland Ghost Ship is another example of deadly, suspicious fires in neighborhoods suffering from gentrification. The story is often the same; a land/building owner needs tenants and/or a building gone ASAP with zero paperwork or notifications so they can sell their never-more-valuable land/building. It’s an almost foolproof scam for dues-paying City Hall cronies. No matter the community outcry, local officials will perform an investigation and declare the fire unfortunate but accidental. And then come the office buildings and luxury towers.
The Mission has arguably been the most intense focus of tech gentrification in San Francisco. As real-estate prices skyrocketed, so did fires displacing rent-controlled tenants. While fires have declined citywide in San Francisco, they’ve held steady in the Mission. The five-alarm fire at 29th and Mission Street in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood on July 18 burned through six buildings and displaced fifty-eight people, some of whom were homeless months later despite promises of new housing from City Hall. Most of those displaced lived in the Graywood Hotel, a building with a long history of code violations. “I was in my room, and I thought it was just a drill because the sprinklers weren’t working,” said one resident. Like many SROs throughout the city, the building had been neglected by its owners until it was the equivalent of a giant tinder box. Even if it weren’t the genesis of the fire, it would be so much ready kindling for a fire on either side of it.
Joseph Williams, a resident of the Graywood Hotel — a single-room occupancy hotel at 3308 Mission St. — said he saw the fire erupt. He and another resident, he said, were one of the first to notice it.
“It was the wiring, we believe. We opened the fuse box and smoke started coming out. We seen flames coming out of the fuse box and then we seen the gas main starting to catch on fire,” Williams said.
Little more than a year had passed since faulty wiring caused a four-alarm fire several blocks away at 22nd and Mission, so there was certainly a precedent. Neighborhood residents fully aware who these fires benefited began demanding answers, spurring Mission supervisor David Campos to write “reasonable people now believe that arson is playing a part.” Patronizing and ableist though his statement was, it was testament to what many residents, especially Latinx residents, felt: they were being burned out to make way for colonizing techies.
Almost on script, San Francisco fire investigators announced the fire was “most likely an accident caused by cigarettes or smoldering coals.” Two “unidentified” employees of neighboring Cole Hardware claimed the fire began in an area where Graywood residents often smoked. Rick Karp, owner of Cole Hardware, joined in blaming Graywood residents:
[H]e had “been saying from day one it’s got to be a joint or a cigarette.” Tenants of the Graywood Hotel, the single-room occupancy hotel on the corner, used the roof to socialize and he feared the fire started from a misplaced cigarette, he said.
No mention of previous code violations, broken sprinklers or resident accounts of faulty wiring as the culprit. Just another “accidental” fire displacing dozens and allowing the owner to immediately sell. Emerging reports of code violations and habitability complaints from the Oakland Ghost Ship building paint an all too familiar picture. How soon before this tragedy is blamed away on cruel chance so the area can be terraformed and gentrified?