[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]
According to my dictionary, a bohemian is “a creative person, as an artist or writer, who lives a free, unconventional life.” When bohemians gather, they tend to form ‘scenes’ — loosely knit societies that often coalesce around a meeting place; a salon, a club, a neighborhood or bar. Burning Man emerged from just this sort of boho scene in San Francisco. Such scenes have given rise to avant-garde and counter-cultural movements that have profoundly influenced the evolution of modern society. However, just as frequently, the interactive and communal aspect of these scenes has proven fragile and short-lived. Seen against this background, Burning Man may claim one novelty: it is the first bohemian scene to turn itself into a city.
This city that seldom sleeps, a place in which the pulse of life is so distinctly urban, isn’t powered by a traffic in commodities. Although the theme camps lining Black Rock City’s streets resemble retail outlets, they function to distribute gifts created by our city’s citizens. Likewise, many of our city’s services, such as the ritual lighting of street lamps, or the informal transit system provided by art cars, are contributed by Burning Man participants as acts of self-expression. This preoccupation with aesthetics, personal initiative, communal effort and the sharing of gifts is exactly what might be expected of an urbanized Bohemia.
In tandem with this culture, Black Rock City has also spawned a host of public agencies. These address such needs as health and safety, communication, conflict resolution, art and theme camp placement, land use planning, and the construction and maintenance of civic infrastructure. Our Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) and Department of Public Works (DPW) are institutions such as one might find in any normal city. The melding of this governmental infrastructure with a deeply rooted ethic of participation makes our city an intriguing model that can be applied to urban planning in the larger world.
Metropol will tell the story of how a very unorthodox camping trip managed to morph, over the course of 20 years, into a 5 square-mile metropolis. An introductory essay by Rod Garrett, Designing Black Rock City, will provide us with a very useful guide to understanding our city’s history. Written from the aerial perspective of a urban planner, it describes many of the key design decisions that have shaped its growth. Accompanying essays by Burning Man Project staff members will detail the reality of what it means to build and operate a city that must serve the myriad needs of a heterogeneous population. We will also include accounts by theme camp organizers, as well as stories by participants who have applied what they have learned from Black Rock City to the life of their hometowns.
The text that introduces this year’s art theme, Metropolis – The Life of Cities, quotes the inimitable Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She observes, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jacobs began her long career as an urban activist in Greenwich Village, a bohemian neighborhood in New York City. By an unparalleled act of imagining she used this experience to examine all of the jostling forces that generate urban life.
In this spirit, we invite our city’s citizens to join in this discussion. If Black Rock City is a hive, it’s always been participants who make its honey. Tell us about the life on our streets as you have experienced it. What does it really take to make a neighborhood? How can the needs and aspirations of community be served by civic planning? How might we perfect our urban model, and what are you willing to contribute toward making this happen?