At its widest, Black Rock City is close to two miles wide. It is located out on the inhospitable Black Rock Desert, an alkaline lake bed eleven miles north of the small town of Gerlach and 120 miles northeast of Reno. As an urban planner in training, I’ve come to learn to care about the facts and figures. Then again, by going to Burning Man you’re heading out into a desert environment where you have to care about the important numbers- namely a 30 degree celsius differential between night and day temperatures and a recommended intake of 1-1.5 gallons of water daily.
As an urban planner in training and someone who has been wanting to attend Burning Man for several years running, I found this year’s theme of The Life of the City too enticing to resist. If there is one thing that has always amazed me about Burning Man, it’s the degree to which it seems to showcase the most incredible aspects of human creativity. (Even before attending, I’ve compared it to what would happen if one gave LSD to MacGyver, and that description seemed the most accurate one once I settled in there). Ever since I found myself working on the post-Katrina relief and reconstruction effort in New Orleans, I’ve found myself interested in post-disaster situations and the possibilites for improvement therein. Burning Man seemed like it would present a challenging situation in terms of water conservation and management, and so I decided that documenting innovative methods of DIY water management and use would be one of my goals out in the desert. It could have a practical and useful application in terms of a reapplication to temporary settlements elsewhere in the world…after all, Black Rock City is one of the world’s largest self-contained temporary camps. And if all else fails, when one is heading out into a Hunter S. Thompsonesque fantasy world for eight days it’s good to have a project to keep one’s self grounded.
Reno, the fourth-largest city in Nevada, is a curious entity. The Truckee River, which flows through the heart of Reno’s downtown, is surrounded by a gorgeous linear park which offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills. Yet the city itself seems an interlinked web of strip malls, a giant, sprawling construction where the only buildings higher than five storeys are the hotels of the casino district. I arrived in Reno in the early morning of August 30th, and the city reminded me of so many others I’d passed through in Greyhound rides through the American South. Yet, on the other hand it seemed different- more pristine, friendly and welcoming. The first association that entered my mind was with Birmingham, Alabama’s downtown core, where nothing seems to have been built since the 1970s and the city’s Modernist concrete office towers all bear a similar shade of dusty brown. However, in Birmingham the streets give off a distinct feeling of repressed, deep-seated anger and frustration.
The second image to enter my mind was Vegas. Years ago, I sat on a smoky North York bar patio in the late hours of the night with a beer in hand listening to a tattooed late-20s former Las Vegas resident tell stories of robbing tourists just off of the Strip in between his pulls on a blunt. There’s something about Las Vegas that frightens me, and that something goes beyond the sky-high crime rate and Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic epic “The Stand”. While we as a society may look to the space program, the Human Genome Project or the United Nations as an example of what Western thought can bring about, it seems to me that the ultimate achievement of North American consumer capitalism is more like Las Vegas.
more to come….