Inspiring Urbanism with Larry and SPUR

After interviewing Burning Man founder Larry Harvey today for this Bay Guardian blog post, I thought about how long we have been talking about his interest in urbanism and his desire to have a high-profile headquarters in San Francisco. He really wants to bring the values of our “experimental city in the desert” back home to San Francisco.
That desire is what prompted Larry to make “Metropolis: The Life of Cities” last year’s art theme, which he announced at the 2009 event. I wrote about that and his headquarters search in the Guardian at the time, and it also went into my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.
I’ll be promoting the book and discussing Black Rock City’s contribution to urbanism during a March 8 event at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s Urban Center, along with Larry and several other burner luminaries. And to feed that discussion, I thought I’d post another chapter from my book, this one beginning on page 250.

Inspiring Urbanism

Gabriel Metcalf was just giddy when he heard about Burning Man’s 2010 art theme: “Metropolis: The Life of Cities.” It beautifully brought together two of his main passions. In addition to being a four-time attendee of the event at that point, he’s the executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, the city’s premier urbanism think tank.
“I can’t believe the Burning Man theme. It’s just so awesome,” he told me after the 2009 event, barely able to contain his glee. “Black Rock City is one of the great cities of the world.”
That’s high praise from someone whose days are devoted to studying urban life and its myriad challenges, and a testament to the fact that Black Rock City has successfully made the transition from frontier to city.
“I try to capture the zeitgeist with the themes,” Larry told me. That particular sense of the times really settled in during his visit to New York City, which was experiencing its own urban renaissance at the time, converting traffic lanes into separated bikeways and open space, setting out tables and chairs and letting people create informal spaces to just be with one another.
“It looks like the playa,” Larry told me. “I watched people creating conversational circles.”
In discussing the urbanism ideals that led to the theme – using design to facilitate community, getting past automobile-based systems, transforming cities into the basic societal building block – Larry once again showed himself to be well-read in the works of influential thinkers: “Urban planners, ever since way back in the ‘70s, when Jane Jacobs wrote about the ‘Life and Death of American Cities’…have been waiting for years to do stuff like this.”
Gabriel certainly had been, which is why Larry’s theme was so exciting to him. “One thing I love about Burning Man taking on the question of urbanism is it’s going to not just be about physical placement, how you lay out the blocks and streets, but about community in a larger sense,” he said. “The exploration of different forms of community is what I think is so interesting and transformative for the people who go there.”
Gabriel saw great potential in what Burning Man was trying to do next. He said that Larry “is trying to make it relevant and to speak to the big issue of the day. Metropolis speaks to the biggest issue, human settlement, how we’re going to live together. It’s asking the big question.”
Larry confirmed this to me and said that the burner community finally seemed ready for a discussion like that, particularly given the stubbornly sluggish economy in those years. “As people reduced their consumption, they seem more attracted to our values,” Larry said. “They come for the art but stay for the community.”
I think he’s right. The art is the draw, the thing that really defines the event and is the focal point for the community. But most of us wouldn’t keep going to that much trouble and expense, year after year, just to see the art. After all, the fire arts may have been cultivated by Burning Man, but by 2009, they also existed elsewhere, from Oakland to Governor’s Island in New York to Amsterdam’s Robodock.
The Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland had it biggest year ever in 2009, with some truly mind-blowing new pieces and old standards, combined with the performance art and fashions derived from the Burning Man culture. And it was just 50 bucks and a quick trip from San Francisco.
But most of my friends and acquaintances who had been to Burning Man went back again in 2009, even those who had recently lost their jobs or were wrestling with other economic hardships. With the future looking uncertain, Black Rock City was still grounding, affirming, and exciting, a place where they still wanted to be.
“People are reassessing what they value, and apparently they value us,” Larry said.
One indicator of that was the fact that even as the population dropped slightly, the number of theme camps applying for placement increased, a signal that the communities that form up around camps were still thriving even if independent or newbie burners weren’t.
“We had so many theme camps they couldn’t all get placed,” Larry said. “People were putting more effort into it than ever. They’re valuing their social connections to people.”
Larry said he felt more social than ever that year. In previous years, First Camp (where Larry and other Burning Man employees and VIPs camp) used to be like “a command compound,” Larry said. But this year, he said it felt more social and open to outsiders. “I probably had the best year I ever had. I felt like I was in a village for the first time,” he said, a claim that rang true with my own interaction with him on the playa this year.
Not having attended Burning Man in the anarchic early years, Gabriel has always seen Black Rock City as a city. “In the absence of state-imposed authority and control, you take 50,000 anarchists and put them in the desert and they’ll create order out of chaos.” And the city they created, he said, is “like being a protagonist in a movie when you arrive in the big city. The Esplanade is one of the great main streets in the world.”
Gabriel 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.”
But Larry said BRC had only recently been accepted as a city – with roads and rules and a distinctive urban culture – finally making it possible to use the event to discuss urbanism. “Four or five years ago, this would have been a hard sell. They still discussed whether they liked the streets and the rules we imposed,” he said. “People have come to respect its urban character, so we’re ready for a discussion like this.”
Larry said his personal observation, and what he has heard from many others, is that “it’s become a better and better social environment.” And that’s what finally led him to let go of his sociopolitical ambitions for Burning Man and just let it become what it was: a beautiful, inspirational city.
“I thought it was about the rest of the world for a long time. It’s really about the world that we go back and live in,” he told me, bringing some closure to our long-running conversation about exporting Burning Man’s big ideas and ethos. “It’s got to be about something that is in the world.”

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