WITH THE SHATTERING reports from Oakland, where so far 36 people, including at least one from Massachusetts, perished in a fire at a warehouse used as live/work space for artists, I’m reminded of a similar place in a vacant brick building in Cambridge, 25 years ago.
Now tony restaurants and office space fill that pricey area in Kendall Square. Back in the day, those structures hosted a massive — and likely illegal — after-hours party spot.
Some called it K-Club, for Kendall, others The Square. As a dark joke, the morbid tagged it Happy Land, the same name as the unlicensed New York club where 87 people died in an arsonist’s fire in 1990. Every weekend, we would pay $5 and go to a second floor accessible by one staircase so packed with people it could take more than five minutes to navigate. Upstairs there were no visible doors, and the windows, painted black, were impossible to reach. We’d wind through the labyrinth of sweaty bodies, trying to get close enough to the speakers so we could feel the beat in our marrow. Save for lights from the DJ’s equipment and slivers streaming from the stairway, the room was as dark as a cave. Though we never seriously discussed it, we knew that in an emergency it was unlikely we’d make it out alive.
It was egalitarian, marvelous, and dangerous as hell. We’d heard that sometimes people also lived there. If city officials or police knew about it — and dozens of cars parked for hours in what was then a quiet area should have been a clear sign — they did nothing about it. Eventually, the club disappeared when the building was sold.
We loved that place because it played Frankie Knuckles, Crystal Waters, and Ten City. We never feared rejection because of our clothes or skin color. Without a liquor license, the club operated as a juice bar and avoided alcohol-induced stupidity. With no age limit and hundreds of hard-core house heads and club kids of every race, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity, it felt like home, our idea of a more perfect union.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that the denizens of the fire-gutted structure in Oakland, known as the Ghost Ship, felt the same way about their rundown, beloved building. How that fire started during a party last Friday night is still under investigation. Also under scrutiny is why city officials ignored years of alleged complaints from neighbors about trash and illegal construction there. Still, this much is true: Every city has its own Ghost Ship, places on the fringe where young people (and occasionally, the not so young) congregate to live, work, and socialize.
For some, communal living is a choice, an opportunity to reside among the creative and like-minded. For others, in cities with scant affordable housing, there’s simply no choice. Residents usually know the structures are fire hazards or dilapidated to the point of near-collapse, but even a compromised roof over your head can be better than no roof at all.
Don’t blame the victims or consider this an isolated tragedy. Officials must reevaluate the human costs of runaway gentrification, which makes people unwelcome in their own cities and forces them to forgo safety for makeshift stability. People need reasonably priced places to live, work, and thrive; that basic human right should not cost them their lives. Today, it is Oakland; unchecked, there will again be another headline about another building where people lived and died together in a derelict structure that looked like an eyesore but that they called home.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.