Urban man

Pub date September 15, 2009


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 Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Laura Kimpton of the Kimpton Hotel chain — 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."