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”

Bodies of water and urban areas

Both NYC and BRC have a “hidden” relationship with water. The Black Rock Desert, the site of Burning Man, was once a prehistoric lakebed bottom. Now, the nearest bodies of water include the local springs and Pyramid Lake, the latter of which is now the default background image for the iPad.

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.*

*Thanks for the tip from Nana Kirk.

Creating spaces for artists

Recently, some urban planners and politicians have touted nurturing artistic, creative professionals as the means for revitalizing or gentrifying urban areas. However, poorer and less politically powerful locals may eventually be displaced as rents and property values rise. In addition, funding for the arts is still relatively scarce, and art galleries and museums tend to favor star artists with international reputations. Artists thus face several challenges in producing their art – getting resources to do the art, developing relations with supportive colleagues and institutions, and finding places to share their art.

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.

Worm’s eye and bird’s eye perspectives of the metropolis

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.

New York City's version of the birdfeeder