Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Big Thoughts from Burning Man

"Maybe Burning Man can't save the world, but its leaders and participants are increasingly focused on using the models and principles involved with building and dismantling Black Rock City in the Nevada desert every year to help renew and restore urbanism in the 21st century." (Steve Jones, the Bay Guardian)

What "models and principles" is Jones referring to? Most people in SF are like me, squares who have never been to Burning Man. We see some pictures and get second-hand reports of sex, drugs, and art in the desert, but we've somehow missed the great principles involved, since sex, drugs, and art are readily available here in the city. And "urbanism"---whatever that means---needs to be renewed and restored? Isn't Jane Jacobs enough?

Steve Jones is a dedicated Burner, who's writing a book on Burning Man. It's not surprising, then, that he's been schmoozing with "Burning man honcho," Larry Harvey. Harvey stumbled on the Burning Man idea many years ago, and he quickly understood its commercial possibilities and has been cashing in on it ever since.

Evidently Harvey now wants to be seen as a visionary, not just another business man:

Now, the SF-based corporation that stages the event, Black Rock LLC, has set its sights on taking the next big steps by trying to create a year-round retreat and think tank on a spectacular property on the edge of the playa and by trying to move its headquarters into a high-profile property in downtown San Francisco---perhaps even the San Francisco Chronicle Building. Complementing those ambitions is the art theme that Burning Man honcho Larry Harvey recently announced for 2010---"Metropolis: The Life of Cities"---which seeks to connect the event's experiments in community and sustainability with the new urbanism movements in places like San Francisco and New York City.

This is still pretty vague. But Steve Jones is also a dedicated bike guy, and Burning Man famously bans automobiles from this corporate event thinly disguised as a counter-cultural happening. We can already guess that one idea---if it qualifies as an idea---that Jones, Harvey and the other lemmings in the "new urbanism" movement already agree on---cars are Bad and Bikes are good. (Jones has already told us that cyclists are morally superior to the rest of us):

Complementing those ambitions is the art theme that Larry Harvey recently announced for 2010---"Metropolis: The Life of Cities"---which seeks to connect the event's experiments in community and sustainability with the new urbanism movements in places like San Francisco and New York City. Harvey told us the idea came to him earlier this year as he attended the Burning Man regional event called Figment and toured some of New York's efforts to reclaim public spaces from automobiles. "I found that inspiring," Harvey said of the recent changes to Times Square, marveling at the conversation circles people set up in the gathering spaces that used to be traffic lanes. "Here we have New York City creating a civic space that works like the city we create. It would be even better if they'd put up some interactive art."

Not surprisingly, SPUR's Gabriel Metcalf, another bike guy, is excited about the Big Thoughts that come out of Burning Man:

He[Metcalf] has also pondered its symbiotic relationship with the city where he lives and works. “Is Burning Man an expression of San Francisco, or has Burning Man reconceptualized San Francisco? I think Burning Man has had a big influence on San Francisco, and at the same time, it is San Francisco’s gift to the world.”

In fact the great bicycle fantasy probably had its origins in Burning Man, where bikes are the only way to get around. Burning Man attendees came back to SF and said, "Gee, why can't San Francisco be more like Burning Man?" One way to do that is to conduct the anti-car jihad in San Francisco and other American cities.

But apparently we'll have to wait to learn about the other Big Thoughts coming out of Burning Man. One thing Harvey, Jones, and Metcalf have overlooked: Burning Man guys can ride bikes and throw parties, but they show no signs of being able to think, which is a problem when you want to start a think tank.

Urban man
Burning Man seeks a higher perennial profile
as Black Rock City cultivates the metropolitan ideal
By Steven T. Jones

Maybe Burning Man can't save the world, but its leaders and participants are increasingly focused on using the models and principles involved with building and dismantling Black Rock City in the Nevada desert every year to help renew and restore urbanism in the 21st century.

The arts festival and countercultural gathering that was born in San Francisco 23 years long ago defied the doomsayers and became a perpetual institution, particularly here in the Bay Area, where it has become a year-round culture with its own unique social mores, language, fashion, calendar, ethos, and infrastructure.

Now, the SF-based corporation that stages the event, Black Rock LLC, has set its sights on taking the next big steps by trying to create a year-round retreat and think tank on a spectacular property on the edge of the playa and by trying to move its headquarters into a high-profile property in downtown San Francisco — perhaps even the San Francisco Chronicle Building.

Complementing those ambitions is the art theme that Burning Man honcho Larry Harvey recently announced for 2010 — "Metropolis: The Life of Cities" — which seeks to connect the event's experiments in community and sustainability with the new urbanism movements in places like San Francisco and New York City. Harvey told us the idea came to him earlier this year as he attended the Burning Man regional event called Figment and toured some of New York's efforts to reclaim public spaces from automobiles.

"I found that inspiring," Harvey said of the recent changes to Times Square, marveling at the conversation circles people set up in the gathering spaces that used to be traffic lanes. "Here we have New York City creating a civic space that works like the city we create. It would be even better if they'd put up some interactive art."

In a video segment on the 2009 event by Time.com entitled "5 Things Cities Can Learn from Burning Man," Harvey spelled out some key urban living principles cultivated in Black Rock City: ban the automobile, encourage self-reliance, rethink commerce, foster virtue, and encourage art.

"It's become a better and better social environment," Harvey said of Black Rock City, the population of which peaked at about 43,000 this year, down slightly from last year. "People have come to respect its urban character, so we're ready for a discussion like this."

As part of next year's theme, Harvey said he plans to invite urban planners and architects from around the world to come experience Black Rock City and share their ideas about encouraging vitality in cities, before and during the event. Cultivation of the vast interdisciplinary expertise that creates Burning Man each year is also why the organization is seeking to buy Fly Hot Springs on the edge of the Black Rock Desert.

"That's what the think tank is about: Let's get together and think about the world and use Burning Man as a lens for that," Harvey told us. "I think art should imitate life, but I'm not really happy until life imitates art."

Harvey is reluctant to talk much about his plans for the property until they can seal the deal — something the attorneys are now actively trying to hammer out — but he said the basic idea is to create "a laboratory for ideas." To try to raise capital for the project, Burning Man bused 100 rich burners — including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin — to a dinner at the site on Aug. 27.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, where Black Rock LLC was earlier this year forced to move from its longtime Third Street headquarters because of plans by UC Mission Bay to build a hospital on the site, Burning Man and city officials are collaborating on plans for a showcase space.

"While all this is going on, we have been talking to the city about moving downtown. They really want us there," Harvey said.

The organization came close to landing on a big space in the Tenderloin, but that fell through. Recently, Harvey and city officials even toured the San Francisco Chronicle building at the corner of Mission and Fifth streets, which Hearst Corporation has had on the real estate market for some time, exploring the possibility of it becoming the new Burning Man headquarters.

For that site and other high-profile spots around downtown, city planners and economic development officials are actively courting significant tenants that would bring interactive art and creative vitality to street life in the urban core. "Well, that's like a theme camp," Harvey said. "That's what we do."

In recent years, Black Rock LLC has expanded what it does through Black Rock Arts Foundation (which funds and facilitates public art off the playa), Burners Without Borders (which does good works from Hurricane Katrina cleanup to rebuilding after the earthquake in Pisco, Peru), Black Rock Solar (which uses volunteer labor to do affordable solar project for public entities), and other efforts.

But simultaneously creating a think tank, retreat, and high-profile headquarters — with all the money that would require — could reshape the institution and its relationship with San Francisco in big and unpredictable ways. Harvey describes it as entering a new era, one he says he is approaching carefully and with the intention of maximum community involvement in key decisions: "You want to build trust and enthusiasm as you go along."


Wednesday September 16, 2009

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5 Comments:

At 10:14 PM, Blogger missiondweller said...

Re: Bicycles

"Gee, why can't San Francisco be more like Burning Man?"

Because San Francisco has hills.

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes, and San Francisco has cars, trucks, and buses, all of which are here to stay. The only remaining question: how badly are we going to let the bike/Burning Man people screw up our traffic on behalf of their crackpot, anti-car ideology?

 
At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

99% of people out there don't pay any attention to all of the proposals and plans. They don't read the newspapers (sadly.) They just go about their lives.

When the city starts implementing the street changes they have proposed... removing traffic lanes and parking, etc... if it has the "significant impact" that the EIR predicts, then I predict there will be an equally significant public backlash from the 98% who rely on buses, MUNI streetcars and trains, taxis and private autos to get around. I certainly hope there will be a backlash if the impact is significant.

The bike nazis have forgotten that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And that statement, for those who remember the source, is pure logic.

 
At 2:37 AM, Blogger John G. Spragge said...

Anonymous, I do in fact remember the origin of the statement you quote. It came from a sentimental screenwriter who wouldn't know from logic if a well-formed and valid RDF graph bit him where he sits down.

But let's apply it to your and Rob Anderson's arguments, shall we? If you could build a bubble to contain urban pollution, every car-dependent city would suffocate. You need the rest of the world to clean up the filth cars put into the atmosphere. But the rest of the world doesn't drive cars. Of all the world's population, the people with the wealth required to own and run a car form a distinct minority, although climate change will affect everyone, and in fact the world's poor will feel the effects more than the rest of us. So if the needs of the many do outweigh the needs-- oops, relatively few of us need to drive a car-- the appetites of the few, then you would logically find yourself peddling. If so, you might actually give up your attachment to a form of transportation which kills tens of thousands of people every year in crashes, and helps inflict high levels of obesity,
heart disease, type II diabetes, and depression on its users.

 
At 11:40 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Urban Man has a Plan
With a bike in his hand...

 

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