- This Week
How a cauldron of squatters and property owners, stirred by green dreams and the bursting housing bubble, set an unusual Oakland house ablaze
05.27.08 - 8:30 pm | Shane Bauer |
Two and a half months after the fire, however, Sternberg says: "I regret having talked to the police."
Initially, Donelan didn't know they were squatters Sternberg had told him they owned the house. "Once he found flyers for a fundraiser to defend the squat, he became angry," says Sternberg. "He said he submitted the case to the district attorney, and didn't expect anyone would be arrested."
Sternberg says Donelan also threatened to have him arrested for a traffic-related warrant and that he would turn Sternberg's name over to the Federal Communications Commission, which had an open investigation on the house for hosting Berkeley Liberation Radio. In March, Donelan told us he wouldn't comment on the case and at press time, he hadn't return Guardian calls about the status of the investigation.
Although the arson may never be solved, the squatters have strong suspicions about who was behind the fire. But they have a hard time deciding who, ultimately, is most culpable for the blaze. "No one involved in Hellarity is innocent, and no one is completely guilty," says DiCaprio. The one point of view everyone seems to share is that Hellarity has long been a tinderbox of contention, in which property owners struggling in a beleaguered housing market faced off against a group of people who reject the market outright for its inaccessibility to low-income people. Eventually, it all literally burst into flames.
When I visit after the fire, people are sitting outside playing guitar, smoking rolled cigarettes, and singing the timeless hobo ballad, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The sounds drift over the budding vegetable gardens and into the downstairs living room, where a message written on a big green chalkboard suggests that if the fire was intended to drive people out, it was unsuccessful: "WELCOME BACK TO HELL(ARITY). Because bosses, landlords, and capitalists suck, the house has lots of repairs that need to be done before it becomes fully livable."
Upstairs, Sternberg looks up at a charred, gaping hole in the ceiling. "We have to make lemonade out of lemons," he tells me, explaining that they just got a skylight to fill the cavity. "We're going to continue fighting just like we've been fighting. This guy [Pal] has been in court with us for three years. He's got no case." *