During a stroll through Black Rock City, the flaneur encounters a mind-boggling variety of experiences, drenching the senses of sight, sound, and touch. However, the senses of smell and taste can feel diminished by the alkaline dust. The heat makes it more difficult to taste subtle flavors, so people crave more salt and spice. Pungent and refined smells are rare, save for the portable toilets or an occasional whiff of massage oil.
Most people recognize that Manhattan is an island surrounded by water. However, fewer notice that the city is built on top of many springs, requiring constant pumping to keep the subways and tunnels dry. During a walk in a park, one might notice trickles of water that serve as impromptu birdbaths. Heavy snowstorms or torrential rains, such as the recent storms, push sewage systems to their limits, requiring heavy duty design, engineering, and construction work. Check out upcoming talks about design ideas for NYC infrastructure here.*
While alternative art venues like Burning Man can help with such issues, community-based collectives are also important to supporting local artistic activities, as argued by Yasmin Ramirez of Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). Last night, I attended a talk by Ramirez, who discussed the importance of local networks in supporting the arts. She also presented the results of a survey of artists of color who had applied for an arts grant from the Urban Artist Initiative. Her report is available here.
While in graduate school, I took a class with Prof. John Stilgoe. One lesson learned was how a particular perspective alters the experience of the landscape. For example, Spanish explorers experienced the Americas from the vantage point of horseback on land, while French explorers experienced the Americas from the vantage point of canoeing in rivers.
Even today, experiences of metropolis depend upon which point of view is adopted. In Black Rock City, I’ve walked, biked, and commuted by art car. The intrepid have also flown over BRC, or even sky dived and parachuted in. Conventional cities, such as New York City, offer more choice of perspectives. For instance, tourists are drawn to the bird’s eye perspective: the view from the Empire State building or a helicopter ride. (Note: there is a very practical reason why these helicopter rides are so short…think motion sickness.)
My preferred perspective is of the worm’s eye view of walking or inching along. This perspective allows for experiencing the city in a detailed, albeit slower and more manageable, pace. In contrast, public transportation via subway offers a targeted, subterranean experience, complete with rodents. Recently, I tried a new perspective: I rode a bicycle in Central Park, where most vehicles are prohibited. Whirling around the main loop in a vortex of competitive bicyclists, weaving past pedestrians, joggers, roller bladers, and horsedrawn carriages, reduced NYC to a form of hyperstimulated tunnel vision, much like driving or motorcycling. However, bike tours like this, in which roads are temporarily restricted to bicyclists, offer a more informed, leisurely sense of the city.
Finally, I close with one perspective of the city that humans don’t have direct access to, but must be a magnificent experience, even if it involves dive-bombing pigeons and other prey.
One of the immediacies of Burning Man is the Black Rock Desert, a former prehistoric lakebed. With its vast expanse and vaulted sky, the Black Rock Desert is merciless in demonstrating that you are just a mere speck in time. Camping in this environ in a serious affair in survival, given the extreme temperatures, blinding dust storms, and occasional rainstorms. Only the foolish take life for granted under these circumstances. Here, nature offers plenty of experiences to contemplate her ways, like waiting out a whiteout while watching a heavy cast iron skillet, caught in camo netting, drift hypnotically up and down in the wind.
In conventional cities, taking life for granted is typical because of our routines and sheltered environments, until nature reminds us otherwise. With the almost two feet of snow, between yesterday and today in New York City, daily activities like walking beneath trees suddenly become more anxiety-inducing, especially when you hear a cracking noise, and a snow-laden branch lands near your feet. Plus, the “friendliness” of a resident raccoon may well be driven by a virus looking to replicate.
Change in a city landscape can cause temporary disorientation. For participants at Burning Man, when landmarks move, returning to home camp or moving among art installations is a challenging endeavor (i.e., “Why aren’t we getting any closer to the big duck?!?” “Maybe because we’re chasing an art car, not an art installation?!”).
In conventional cities, change isn’t as jarring. However, locals take note of what they perceive as the “wrong” kind of change – the appearance of a pawnshop or a check cashing outlet, the conversion of apartments into a homeless shelter, or single resident occupancy (SRO) , or new construction that knocks down a beloved landmark.
Alternatively, change can signal revitalization. For example, for several years, several storefronts on a nearby busy street corner were shuttered and unoccupied. Recently, three businesses moved into these spots.
Here’s a close-up of the store with a fascinating window display of 90 numbered and bewigged mannequin heads:
Interested in viewing more changes of Harlem storefronts? See this repository of photos, which were collected by Camilo Vergara.
My take: NYC and Black Rock City are evenly matched in terms of interesting change.
Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 1
For Burners, preparing to go to Burning Man is a good exercise for disaster-readiness. People test their outdoor shelters, plan and purchase enough water and food supplies for a week or so, assemble first-aid kits, pack extra batteries, and ready their flashlights, hand-crank radios, solar-powered lanterns, and generators. They also check through their toolkits (sledge-hammer, swiss armyknife/leatherman, duct tape, GPS, etc.) and stock up on dustmasks and ear and eye protection. People prepare fun gadgets, too, like a bicycle-powered blender, and learn new skills, such as building temporary shelters or putting together machinery.
Sociologist Lee Clarke, who specializes in understanding disaster preparation, notes that your chances of surviving a major disaster are increased if you can pool efforts and resources with your neighbors and colleagues. Another sociologist Chick Perrow argues that given the complex and tightly coupled nature of modern systems, normal accidents, such as a nuclear plant meltdown or major transportation snafus are bound to happen. Given that we are likely to encounter a major disaster during our lifetime, I tell my students to look to their classmates on their left and to their right – most likely, if and when something bad happens, they will have to depend on each other, as governmental agencies and relief organizations may not reach them immediately. Recent natural disasters such as Haiti’s earthquake and Hurricane Katrina should remind us that help, if it arrives, may be days or even weeks away. Preparing what we usually take for granted – shelter, food and water, and communication – can increase the chances of survival.
We should also consider how socio-economic inequalities can increase vulnerabilities to disasters. For example, we can construct homes and buildings that can withstand the elements, set up access to drinkable water and regular health care, maintain multiple transportation routes, and reduce social isolation and enhance participation opportunities so that people can collaborate. Such measures ensure that people not only have a fighting chance during disasters, but that they also have a better quality of life as individuals and as a community.
Living in New York City can be tough on one’s hearing. According to a group that measured the noise levels of several public places, the loudest areas include transportation hubs, busy streets, and even small parks surrounded by busy streets. Compounded by all of the new construction and outdoor repair work, it’s likely that pedestrians will pass through a gauntlet of ear-splitting noises. Parents shield their toddler’s ears as a screaming fire truck passes, and subway riders pull out ear plugs or crank up their music during especially noisy commutes.
While Black Rock City doesn’t have the constant cacophony of sirens and large vehicles that afflict a permanent metropolis, it does have its share of noise. Last year, I regularly woke up to the music of a group singing at the near-by Jazz Cafe. During the daytime, I heard the murmur of chatter, punctuated by the occasional rousing cheer, from the adjoining theme camp, a watering hole for passers-by. One night, I passed by an elegant recitation of a Shakespearean sonnet, which earned the earnest gentleman an enthusiastic double hug from the Hug Deli. However, I never had to listen to inane, one-sided cell phone conversations (remember when cell phone usage became popular and cities became populated by people who seemed like they were talking to themselves?).
For years, noise from large sound systems and generators caused contention between those who wanted to sleep and those who wanted to spin or dance all night. Burning Man organizers eventually resolved these issues by locating sound camps along the edges of the city and designating a generator-free zone.
Tips for protecting hearing: carry around at least one set of earplugs for yourself, plus more earplugs to share with friends. Toddlers and babies can wear earmuffs.
One difficulty of living in cities is finding a public restroom, especially when under pressure from the pee-pee dance, or worse yet, the pressing need of an explosive #2.
Gotta go, gotta go in the Big Apple:
In cities like NYC, accessing a restroom is not an easy feat. NYC has virtually no public restrooms, other than those located in the parks. This missing public amenity forces pedestrians to memorize restroom locations scattered throughout stores, restaurants and cafes, libraries, transit hubs such as Penn Station, etc. Alternatively, those who have Internet access can consult online guides such as this map.
Singing the portapotty blues at Burning Man:
Because of Burning Man’s temporary location in the desert, Black Rock City denizens rely upon large banks of portable chemical toilets, which are relatively easy to locate. Contracted services regularly clean the portapotties by pumping out waste and replacing the toilet paper, but users must take care not to dispose of anything BUT human waste or toilet paper. Foreign objects clog the hose used to pump out toilets, causing possible injuries to the cleaner.
True to the Burning Man spirit, Burners have applied their creativity toward refashioning portable toilets into a more enjoyable experience. For example, artist and documentary-maker Susan Barron hand-sewed and placed 170 Mr. Hanky (the “Christmas Poo” from the animated South Park show) dolls in the doors of portable toilets. Another year, someone hid an electronic chip (the kind that makes greeting cards sing) that relentlessly hummed the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” throughout the week, making one’s time in the portapotty a more surreal experience. Others have redecorated individual units such as this one. Burners have also reported that groups host games, such as a Jackson 5 trivia contest, to enliven the wait to use portable toilets. Finally, the Pee Funnel theme camp provides funnels for those who wish to stand and pee, rather than hover or sit.
Ease of finding restroom: Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 0.
Creativity applied to enhancing the restroom experience: Burning Man: 1, Big Apple: 0.
In honor of Burning Man’s 2010 theme of Metropolis, I’ve decided to run a series of comparisons, some light-hearted and some serious, between Black Rock City, aka Burning Man, and New York City, aka the Big Apple. The former has been a temporary home since 1998 for me; the latter is currently my permanent home.
Costco in East Harlem, NYC, 2009
This past Sat., as late afternoon turned into early evening, I walked through East Harlem toward the new Costco, passing by community gardens sponsored by various big box retailers and a dog alertly sitting beneath a “beware of dog” sign. From a distance, the new building blazed with blinding lights, drawing in the curious, some of whom gripped special postcards that waived the store’s membership requirement for the day. Costco occupies the ground floor of a new multistory complex that will soon have a Marshall’s, Target, and Home Depot stacked on top of each other. When transplanted to space-starved Manhattan, a sprawling mall strip of big box stores is vertically upended, a literal totem to consumerism.
As I navigated the aisles, I became reacquainted with what Americans find desirable – wide aisles stocked with large quantities of frozen food, bulk items encased in excessive packaging, and a sea of clothing stacked on tables. Unlike other chain stores in NYC, which often have shortages that bring to mind Soviet era austerity, this store’s shelves were well-stocked. After checking out the aisles and going through the cashier’s line, I finally remembered one of Costco’s quirks. The store does not provide shopping bags, presumably because customers will dump their bulk items directly into a car trunk, rather than walking home with their purchases in hand. So I packed my own bags, not realizing that the staff by the exit wanted to first compare customers’ receipts against the items in shopping carts. A moment’s thought about this guard against “shrink,” a not uncommon practice at other big box stores in NYC, suggested that stores may not only distrust their shoppers, but also their own cashiers.
Costo Soulmate Trading Outlet in Black Rock City, 1998
Black Rock City’s version of Costco is, well, more interesting. Rather than entering a big box to shop for bulk goods, you duck into a large tent. Under the shade and seated in a chair (much appreciated amenities in the middle of a desert), you complete a survey that enables you to make a connection with your playa soulmate. I patronized this service during this theme camp‘s first year. Guided by an earnest “employee,” I filled in answers to questions, had my photo taken for the Costco card, which was then printed and handed over to me, and I went on my way to other adventures. This camp’s quirk was that a member would only get the name of a soulmate and his/her camp location, but it was up to the intrepid to locate the soulmate at Burning Man. While working with fellow volunteer RonJon to erect the dome structure for Media Mecca, I had my first Burning Man experience – my soulmate Moondog, adorned in Elvis-style sunglasses, a Hawaiian print shirt, and a necklace of shark teeth (or something similarly pointy), came running up, with gift in hand. 10 years later, RonJon still chuckles about this unlikely meeting in the desert.
What’s preferable: pushing an over-sized shopping cart around, or making a memorable connection? Thanks for the memories, Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet. Big Apple: 0, Burning Man: 1