Revitalizing cities through arts and cultural organizations

During the past several decades, the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector have sapped the vitality of US cities. While a few cities such as New York City and San Francisco have been able to rebound, others have not. One revitalization approach calls for building amenities that will attract tourists and consumers; this approach supposedly creates jobs, initially in construction and then in the service sector, and is believed to bring in a revenue stream based on consumption. Sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch point out how a focus on increasing real estate values underpin this approach; political and corporate interests drive this urban growth machine. In practice, investments in venues such as sporting stadiums can be high-risk for residents, particularly when large projects worsen rather than improve a city’s fortunes, as this July 12th “A Stadium’s Costly Legacy Throws Taxpayers for a Loss” WSJ article outlines.

In his Rise of the Creative Class book, sociologist Richard Florida argues for another approach – that attracting creative professionals, such as artists and software programmers, is crucial to revitalizing cities. However, according to other researchers like geographer Julian Brash, this approach pits cities in a zero-sum game in which cities compete against each other for resources.

Others have since researched the roles that existing arts and cultural organizations and other collectivities play in revitalizing cities. For example, a new book by University of Michigan sociologist Frederick Wherry‘s The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation (2011, UChicago Press) examines how local arts organizations and small businesses can take collective action to reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Similarly, in a forthcoming article, I explore how the Burning Man organization and off-shoots, such as the Burning Man regionals, local art projects, and Burners without Borders, establish a context that could stoke the creativity of a wider range of persons (i.e., not just trained professionals) at Black Rock City and other localities. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How organizations can sustain and disseminate a creative context” is in press at the peer-reviewed journal City, Culture and Society.

The city that never sleeps

In conventional cities, street noise, party-goers, and bright street lights can disturb a good night’s rest. At Black Rock City, some people stay up late or all night visiting friends, the art, and theme camps, or they hang out at the 24 hour Center Camp Cafe with caffeinated beverages. Unfortunately, the hot sun makes sleeping in and napping difficult. Given these conditions, everyone, especially those who traveled from other time zones, risks sleep deprivation.

For more on the necessity of sleeping well, see sleep expert Dr. William C. Dement’s website here, or his Sleep and Dreams class website here.

A camp at the Center Camp, Black Rock City, 2010. Click on the image to read the sign.

Betting – just another form of public performance?

Yesterday’s WSJ featured an Onion-esque article and video about college students placing bets, via a newly formed company, about whether they will earn a high or low grade or GPA:
“Two New York entrepreneurs are offering college students the chance to put their money where their grades are.

Stephanie Banchero has details about a new web site that’s trying to build a business by laying out the odds of student performance, allowing students to bet on (or against) their future grades.

Their website lets college students place wagers on their own academic performance, betting they will earn, say, an A in biology or a B in calculus. Students with low grade point averages are considered long shots, so they have the opportunity to win more money for high grades than classmates with a better GPA.

The pair of recent college graduates who founded say they hope to turn a profit and inspire students to work harder. “It would be great if everyone was intrinsically motivated to get good grades, but that’s, like, not reality,” said Jeremy Gelbart, a 23-year-old co-founder of the site.”

Like some of the quoted horrified education officials, my reaction bordered on queasiness about the unintended consequences of students wanting to bet on their grades. For those who bet on poor outcomes, this could inadvertently foster a self-fulfilling prophecy or promote point shaving (or alternatively for those who bet on high grades, grade grubbing for higher, undeserved grades – the bane of many a professor). The financial payoffs noted in the article are relatively small; $156 from two wagers might buy one round of drinks for buddies in an expensive city.

Although the article notes that the company may soon run afoul of state laws, the phenomena of wagering on seemingly sacred matters is not limited to undergraduate majors in business. The world of finance thrives on constant betting, from friendly bets among co-workers about consuming large amounts of junk food in a specified time period* to larger ones involving your retirement portfolio.

On a more important note, wagering is a way of making a commitment “public,” something that privately-shared grades don’t do. However, we do have other ways of making our commitments and performance public and, even better, inviting constructive feedback and affirmation. In architecture and design, the end of semester culminates with projects presented before other exhausted students and guest critics. In research, people give oral presentations or disseminate their findings in peer-reviewed papers and books. At Burning Man, contributors witness firsthand how much fellow participants enjoy sharing their art, theme camps, and interactions.

*See anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s seminal “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” as a comparison.

The Great Metropolis Face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple (and others), round 9: waiting in line

As a recent NYTimes article describes how norms about public space and waiting in line can change:
“There is a feline quality to standing in Indian lines. Certain parts of the man behind you — you don’t know which — brush against you in a kind of public square spooning, the better to repel cutters. (Women do less touching.) Still, this is no deterrent to cutters. They hover near the line’s middle, holding papers, looking lost in a practiced way, then slip in somewhere close to the front. When confronted, their refrain is predictable: “Oh, I didn’t see the line.”

But in a churning India, the line has new resilience. Businesses are becoming vigilant about enforcing queues, and a growing middle class, more well-off and less survivalist, is often less eager to cut.”

A recent trip abroad reminded me that, relatively speaking, waiting in lines in the U.S. tend to unfold as relatively civil affairs. Most people maintain a respectful distance from others and line up in order. (This is, of course, excluding the occasional tragic shopping stampede or bad subway car manners in the Big Apple.) At Burning Man, waiting in line offers social or artistic opportunities, with the inspired endeavoring to make otherwise humdrum waits memorable. What if your local airport applied such concepts? How might your experiences with going through security be different?

The spread of interactive art to Governors Island, NYC

Two weekends ago, I biked to the free ferry that runs between Manhattan and Governors Island, the latter of which is open during the summer through early fall. My purpose: participate in FIGMENT, an interactive art exhibit organized by local artists and inspired by Burning Man principles. After stuffing my bike onto one of four bike racks lined up in the carport part of the ferry, I pedaled my way around the island, stopping at art exhibits (plus a distant view of the Statue of Liberty) and performances along the way. Even though FIGMENT is now gone, the mini-golf course and other installations remain through Oct. 2010. A bike isn’t necessary to explore Governors Island (you can rent a bike or a multi-person bike); you can also easily walk the island by foot.

Here are two examples of the 2010 FIGMENT art installations:

Cradle made from an oil drum and military attire (like Rosemary's Baby cradle)
Stryofoam packing material recycled - a totem to consumer goods?

The Great Metropolis Face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 8: disorientation

Black Rock City denizens quickly learn not to take their city for granted. A theme camp, art project, or landmark might be here one day and gone the next, disorienting those who rely upon such markers to return to their home camp. (A few may give up and choose to snooze elsewhere for the night.)

During a construction boom, cities like New York City also are characterized by transience. An empty lot or new construction often generates some head-scratching about what existed in that spot weeks or months before. Sometimes the changes are inexplicable, like the addition of a store devoted to plastic shoes to a historic townhouse. Preservationists still mourn the replacement of buildings like Penn Station.

For more changes in Manhattan, such as the conversion of Fifth Ave. from stately residential homes to stores/office buildings, see Max Page’s The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (1999, University of Chicago Press). For perspective on more recent changes, see Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (2010, Oxford University Press).

Burning Man film festival in San Francisco, June 12-13, 2010

For those of you in San Francisco, you have the chance to celebrate Burning Man’s history via film. Films include a documentary about the artist David Best, who constructed the temple that appears on the cover of my book!

Please read the official press release below:

“Burning Man Film Festival-San Francisco: A Unique Two-Day Film Retrospective to Commemorate 25 Years of Burning

(San Francisco, May 26th, 2010)—The Official Burning Man Film Festival will showcase 20 short and feature length films when it takes place on June 12-13, 2010 in San Francisco. The Film Festival will offer theatergoers a unique look at Burning Man through the eyes of filmmakers who’ve documented various aspects of the Burning Man event and culture throughout the years. Saturday’s “Then” line-up will feature films shot between 1991 and 2004 and Sunday’s “Now” queue boasts an array of films shot from 2002 to 2010. The festival will be held at the Red Vic Movie House at 1727 Haight Street, SF, CA 94117.

“This festival is a rare and unique opportunity to see Burning Man from the beginning,” said festival co-producer David Marr. “[The Film Festival] is a chance to see how [Burning Man] was created and what effect it has on us today.”

Program highlights include a Midnight screening of Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man by David Vaisbord on Saturday evening with a cocktail party, roving performers, and a grand raffle. On Sunday, David Best, known for his elaborate temple structures at Burning Man will be available for a Q & A before the screening of The Temple Builder, a film by Dearbhla Glynn and April Blake that looks closely at David Best’s life and work.

To view the Burning Man Film Festival-San Francisco program, visit

The Burning Man Film Festival-San Francisco is one of several special events coming up in June to kickoff a year-long celebration of 25 years of Burning Man. For more information on upcoming events, please visit”

The Great Metropolis Face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 7: living the dream

The Big Apple, thanks to a rehabbed image (i.e., I heart NY), now inspires visitors and denizens to live the dream. Visitors avidly pursue a checklist of the hot restaurants, coffee shops, clubs, museums, shows, and parks that they should patronize, lest they miss out. Others imagine that their social and cultural lives will improve with a move to the big city. For those of us who live and work here, enjoying NYC’s amenities requires effort, particularly when coping with a demanding career and other responsibilities.

Recently, two Burner friends and their 1.5 year-old baby visited NYC. Normally, we only get to visit while living and volunteering at Black Rock City, so it was interesting to duplicate some activities with them in the Big Apple.

Getting together with a bunch of people in…
…the Big Apple: everyone arrived between 20 to 40 minutes late due to public transportation, work, etc.

…Black Rock City: everyone rolls in on playa time.

Enjoying participatory art in…
…the Big Apple: We visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) where the baby’s presence triggered interactions and reactions that even the notoriously “odd” sociologist Erving Goffman or performance artist Marina Abramovic’s participatory art could not provoke. One person immediately bestowed upon my friends an extra, free ticket that they couldn’t use. Several patrons smiled at the baby, including two young women who turned away from watching Abramovic at work to interact with the baby. Two different security guards, a man and woman, both cooed at the baby. However, a few patrons displayed or verbalized their displeasure within earshot of my friends when the baby let out a few complaining noises. To soothe the baby, my friend pushed her stroller around me and Abramovic’s vehicle; she counted off the circles, in homage to one of Abramovic’s performances.

…Black Rock City: lots and lots of art, small and large, that don’t involve climate control, guards, or a bag check.

Finding a bathroom in:
…Black Rock City: relatively easy, just look for the colorful banks of portable toilets and bring your own hand sanitizer.

…the Big Apple: not-so-easy, after a fruitless stop at a fast food restaurant, we had to go to a friend’s apartment.

Learning about art-making in:
…Black Rock City: easy, just walk up to the artist and ask. Maybe s/he will give you a lesson.

…the Big Apple: possible if friend whose apartment you need to visit for the bathroom happens to be a working artist.

Commuting in:
…Black Rock City: easy to walk, bike, or hitch a ride with an art car. Bicycling is a lot of fun under the starry sky.

…the Big Apple: involves lugging a baby carriage up and down the stairs because some subway stations don’t have working elevators, triggering a group effort. No stars, unless you pass by a movie set on the way.

Our friends have returned home after a whirlwind visit; hopefully, we will get to repeat our activities in Black Rock City.

The Great Metropolis Face-off, Burning Man vs. the Big Apple, round 6: pests

As mentioned by a comment to a previous post, the Black Rock Desert’s environment is so arid and alkaline that it doesn’t support insect or wildlife. For visitors who normally attract mosquitoes or are squeamish about pests and vermin, the absence of such critters can be a temporary, welcome relief. On occasion, however, insects inadvertently hitch a ride in vehicles headed to Burning Man, leading to unexpected encounters. One visit to a portable toilet ended with a monstrous, dust-encrusted grasshopper clinging determinedly to my pants leg, leading to a frantic, impromptu dance on my part to shoo it off, much to the amusement of bystanders.

New York City is a different matter. Cockroaches, mice, and rats are never far away; pest control products are displayed prominently in hardware stores and prompt feverish discussion about “effective” methods among strangers. Lately, bedbugs are on the rise, as explained in overwhelmingly graphic detail by this article (warning: very high in the squick factor). Tip: never pick up furniture or wood materials from the streets – if you do decide to take something home, do a thorough inspection for unwanted guests.

Black Rock City: virtually no pests, unless you count the large sound system or the person shouting on the megaphone near-by when you’re trying to sleep.
Big Apple: many, many pests.