Helsinki in December is cold. I know that sounds like an obvious statement, but statements are just words that try and describe reality. The reality of Helsinki is that it was below freezing the entire week I was there. Helsinki is so cold that I even found a statue that was wearing a scarf.
I was invited to Helsinki to cover Slush, one of the fastest-growing tech conferences in the world. With wildly successful companies like Nokia, Supercell and Rovio, Finland has established itself as one the more important centers for tech in all of Europe. Part of the reason I went is that I’ve got a pretty firm policy of not saying no to free international trips. Work-wise, though, I was curious to see what the tech industry looks like when it’s not at the center of a housing crisis and a culture war.
The short answer is that it’s quite awesome. Because Finland is governed as a social democracy, the government does a lot to provide seed funding to help get startups off the ground. Also, since Helsinki has room to grow — and, yes, it’s growing — nobody’s grandmother is being evicted to make way for a 25-year-old tech worker making $150K. (Not that it would happen anyway, because of the whole social democracy thing.) Tech is not at the center of every conversation in Helsinki, unless you’re part of it, and the arts are so well-respected that museums and galleries seem to be just about everywhere.
I had been thinking about this as I returned to my hotel after visiting the absolutely brilliant Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Helsinki Art Museum. Sitting down to start writing about it, news started trickling, then flooding, in: A disaster had happened in Oakland. An unverifiable number of people had died or gone missing in a horrific warehouse fire.
My heart sank.
I felt sick to my stomach. There were hundreds of people I knew who might’ve been there. I sat glued to the computer screen trying to find out if any of my loved ones were missing; if anyone I’d spent late-night hours with, in underground spaces just like this one, was no longer alive. Feeling helpless, I wept hard and loud in my Helsinki hotel room. I was thousands of miles from home, and the community of artists and thinkers and weirdos and tinkerers that I’d grown into adulthood with was suddenly hit with something far harder than any of us could ever have imagined. Loss, anguish and sadness just weren’t big enough words.
I’m in New York now, a few days later. Still not home yet, but now around people whose worlds were rocked just as hard as mine, folks who also grew to be the people they are because of the freedom they experienced in warehouses in Brooklyn, Oakland, San Francisco and beyond.
At this point, there have been a lot of words written about the beautiful and brilliant people who died that night in Oakland. While I didn’t know any personally, I have mutual friends with every single one of them. That’s the thing about communities: You don’t have to know everyone in it to be part of one. It’s the fact that you’re all part of something that makes it special. And there are very few communities in the world as special at the Bay Area’s artistic community.
Right now, I can’t be bothered with all the finger-pointing and blaming. All I can do is hold you all in my heart until I can make it home, so then I can hold you in my arms.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.