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.

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