At the end of October, a San Francisco-based group from the Burning Man Project traveled to New York City. We had planned four days of meetings with the thriving Burner community, and were eager to engage with new friends. What we hadn’t planned on was engaging with Hurricane Sandy. Which is how our intrepid crew from San Francisco found ourselves discovering unexpected playa lessons on a very urban landscape.
The Burning Man Project nonprofit seeks to extend the Burning Man ethos beyond the desert, and New Yorkers have some good ideas about how to do that. We had made plans to meet with regional contacts, to see Board Member Leo Villareal’s newest art installation, to host a participant discussion about the Project, and to attend a local theme-camp-inspired Halloween party.
Thrust into the eye of the storm, we found ourselves without power or water, unable to leave the City and largely unable to communicate back to California. Fortunately, we also found ourselves witnessing Burners helping each other through, conducting meetings by candlelight, respecting the resilience of New Yorkers, and affirming the importance of shawarma.
Continue reading for an account of our big learning Big Apple adventure …
On the Saturday before Halloween our SFHQ team was welcomed at a theme camp warehouse party in Brooklyn, where 4,000+ costumed revelers danced until dawn in their Halloween finery. Some of the best DJs of Robot Heart fame were on hand to set the mood. Many enjoying the party were new to the Burner ethos, reminding us of opportunities for acculturation to be shared. How to accomplish that in a party format outside of the playa had us brainstorming over coffee the next day.
On Sunday morning we prepared for the meet-and-greet we’d posted to the New York discussion and announce lists. 120 people had signed up in less than a day, with more on the waiting list, and we were looking forward to meeting a large and enthusiastic group. Equipped with stickers and schwag, we headed out past Union Square, noting that the Sunday Green Market had been replaced by a large corral of electric company trucks. New York City thought the impending hurricane would be serious enough to shut down all public transportation later that evening. This was getting interesting.
We got our art fix with Leo Villareal’s glowing geodesic “Buckyball” installation, an homage to Buckminster Fuller set up in Madison Park. Our venue nearby was General Assembly, a co-working space kindly lent by a new Burner. Founders Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell and Playa Safety Manager Wally Bomgaars hosted a lively discussion about the Project with experienced, recent, and never-been-to-Black Rock City participants. Despite the impending public transportation closures and the darkening sky, 25 hearty souls turned out to discuss global and regional initiatives, and the annual 2,732 mile cross-country pilgrimage of art cars, theme camps, tents, costumes, and supplies.
Normally a post-event social time draws out with jovial chatter around the future of Burning Man. But by five o’clock those who lived afar from of our location were headed away. A small group walked briskly to The Continental, a Burner-owned bar graciously offering libations and temporary shelter. By six-thirty even the pub was empty. A text informed us that the venue for tomorrow’s event would be closed, and our 50-person event cancelled. We watched people scrambling into corner stores and drugstores to load up on supplies. When members of our team were blocked from Whole Foods because the line was too long, full Burner brains went into motion.
We held a group strategy session via cell phone, coordinating who was buying what at which store. A group of the hardiest (maybe foolhardiest) shared their fortunes over a lone open Chinese restaurant, ordering extra takeout for the fridge. The walk for our SF-based crew back to our borrowed apartment was wet and blustery. A lone street vendor was still selling lamb schwarma to the ConEdison workers in Union Square; we could hope for a hot meal as long as his generator held out.
Climbing up to the high ground of our borrowed digs, we scrubbed the bathtub and filled it with water, just in case. With the wind howling outside, we settled in to watch the San Francisco Giants win the World Series a continent away. The evening news interceded to announce the closure of bridges and tunnels tomorrow, returning Manhattan to island status. The internet provided various trajectories about the path of the storm. Instead of spreading back out to various flats, we decided to stay together on mattresses and couches. Two headed back over the soon-to-be-closed bridge to tend to waiting pets.
We contemplated comparisons between a dust storm and the hurricane. Should all seven of us hunker down or go? Should we pile into our one 5-seater car and drive inland? Detroit was the closest city unaffected by the 800-mile wide storm, but that was a 14-hour drive away on gusty and uncertain roads. And why? There was a glimmer of hope that we could still host Tuesday’s event. We decided to wait and see. We brought all the candles out of hiding in bathrooms and closets, amassing them in the middle of the kitchen.
Monday morning dawned grey and strangely quiet. The streets were empty, metal gates locked over the front windows of most stores. Some had added plywood and sand bags as reinforcement. Bored, a little naïve, and anxious to be useful, a small group went to forage nearby bodegas for coffee and supplies. How many days would we need to be self-reliant? This world was feeling surprisingly like you-know-where. Despite the lashing rain, a French bistro was still open; who wanted take-out? Our foragers returned to share a bounty of quiche, grilled cheese, burgers, fries, and baked apples with crème fraiche. When oppressed by severe elements, creme fraiche is a nice touch. Local Burners texted, wondering where we were “hanging out” and if they could come by.
The buzzer began to ring, producing a steady stream of resilient Burners equipped with bottles and their refrigerators’ perishable bounty. It was a smaller group than had been planned for that night’s cancelled reception, but just as enthusiastic about connecting, refracting, and collaborating. The blackout began as we made cocktails and gathered chairs in a circle. Someone flicked their lighter over the candles and passed them around. Like a séance, we spent a few hours discussing how to bring Burning Man to the rest of the world.
We ended the rich and productive discussion over wine and cigarettes on the roof top, in an eerily windless and waning drizzle. Someone received a text about a Burner get-together downtown not far from the water surge, did we want to go? We agreed to stay connected as a team and conserve phone battery use, coordinating communication with Molly at BMHQ in SF. Grabbing flashlights, sharpies, money, ID, ziploc bags, umbrellas, water bottles, funny hats, along with a Burning Man logoed necklace, bracelets or business cards in case we needed to identify our tribe.
A gang of nine made the eerie hike of many blocks. Rid of their populous bustle, the wet cobblestones and brownstones glistened like a movie set. The unlit streets were unnervingly empty, save for a strong police presence along streets littered with downed trees and scaffolding. The only illumination we encountered was powered by the generators of NYU hospital.
Although the first party had largely wound down, a resourceful group had corralled a lineup of DJs, a generator, and a tricked out art car limo to take us to the next hurricane hideout. The familiar pound of Robot Heart’s sound system, only slightly scaled down for apartment use, provided a familiar welcome. Engulfed by the music, adorned with the theme camp’s flashing light necklaces and superfluous (but amusing) heart-shaped sunglasses, we lost track of ourselves and the storm. We talked and danced, talked and danced until it was almost light. A bedraggled dawn patrol adorned with still-blinking lights, we resembled a tribe searching for a latte at Center Camp. Dwindled down to a pack of five for the return trek, we bumped right into a long-lost friend, searching the half-evacuated city for a friend’s apartment. Manhattan was feeling very dusty and serendipitous. We didn’t find coffee, but the shawarma guy was still serving when we approached Union Square.
After a few hours of sleep we reemerged to take stock. The city pulsed with a different daylight rhythm. Three tunnels were flooded, and the schools and the stock market were closed. Our Tuesday event was definitely cancelled. The refrigerator-turned-cooler produced an odd mishmash of Chinese and French bistro. The gas stove worked well enough to scramble eggs and reheat French fries in the darkness. The flat could not get cell or internet access, so we bundled up to find a place to tap into the meager network of communication. A well-dressed group of squatters, clustered against the large plate glass window outside the darkened “W” hotel indicated wi-fi access. Few of our team even had enough power on their phone to use it. A night of roaming, flashlight, and those addictive Instagram apps had drained the batteries nearly dead.
We hiked up to the humming grid of 34th Street to find a hospitable bar with an available power strip. They were serving ice with their cocktails. Feeling a familiar wash of gratitude for something normally taken for granted, we retrieved worried messages from colleagues and families. An abundance of sincere messages offering assistance, directions, hot showers, or warm sofas upstate or uptown made us feel especially grateful for the shared values of our far-flung community.
We squinted to read the latest storm updates on tiny phone screens. So much sadness and unexpected destruction to absorb. Would Burners Without Borders begin a relief project here, recalling their post-Katrina origins in New Orleans? (They are in New Jersey right now.) Would our Burner ingenuity help with exodus off the island? Walking back downtown, we passed the indefatigable shawarma vendor engulfed in an aromatic cloud of onions, and inquired about his stamina. With a weary smile, he expressed determination to feed his fellow New Yorkers until supplies and exhilaration ran out. He had never been to our desert and we had not been to his, but here was a kindred spirit on the big playa. And he was even working with fire.
Walking up the five dark flights to the apartment, uncertainty loomed. The availability of power, gasoline, refrigeration and all manner of comforts were far out of our control. When and how we would make it back to San Francisco remained a challenge. But the desert has taught us that few challenges are insurmountable. We were deeply saddened by its destruction, we could still appreciate all of the positive that New York offered to us. We established and deepened friendships. We had taken long, beautiful walks through unreal dreamscapes. We got to ride in an art car. We stayed up all night dancing and talking. We were able to conjure food, water, shelter, and light in a place where there appeared to be little. We were newly appreciative of ice and power sockets. This trip was not what we had planned nor expected, but shame on us if we did not find the opportunities to be grateful for our New York experience. We didn’t get dusty, but here in New York we were lucky enough to get Sandy.