• 08.10.11

Burning Man’s Big Plan To Reshape A Depressed San Francisco Neighborhood

Burning Man isn’t just about getting crazy on the Playa anymore. The organization is now taking on urban revitalization, aiming to fix up the area around its new HQ.

Burning Man’s Big Plan To Reshape A Depressed San Francisco Neighborhood

Burning Man–that once-a-year sojourn to the Nevada desert–is much more than a hedonistic experiment in self-reliance, art, the sharing economy, and psychotropic drugs. It’s also an event that has spawned a tight-knit worldwide community that has created a number of Burning Man-related organizations, including Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar, and the Black Rock Arts Foundation (a group that brings public art installations to cities). It’s only fitting that the Burning Man community’s latest do-gooder venture–the Burning Man Project–will work on revitalizing a down-and-out area of San Francisco, Burning Man’s home city.


The project, which is largely funded by Burning Man parent organization Black Rock City, LLC, aims to use the 10 principles of Burning Man to change urban environments for the better. “The 10 principles of Burning Man are an observation of what happens when this culture gathers,” explains Andie Grace, a PR representative for Burning Man. These principles include radical self-reliance, decommidification, civic responsibility, immediacy, participation, and gifting. How do these principles translate to the urban environment?

The first Burning Man Project effort will tackle the “civic participation” principle in the Central Market Street corridor of San Francisco, an area that borders the troubled Tenderloin district. Black Rock City, LLC just moved to the neighborhood this past May. “It’s an area that’s been pretty much boarded up for 20 years. We thought it was a place that could use some help and skills that the Burning Man community can bring to bear,” says James Hanusa, an advisor for new initiatives at Burning Man.

The Burning Man Project’s first grand plan is to turn Central Market into an arts and innovation district, complete with art walks and festivals, as well as pop-up retail stores and galleries (though there are no plans for a giant, flaming effigy). The organization is already in talks with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development about how to turn these ideas into reality. “The immediate idea is of cutting through systems haven’t worked before for how to change an area,” says Grace.

The Burning Man Project plans to spend the rest of the year on the Central Market project. But that’s just the beginning. The project also envisions working on everything from a social enterprise program that teaches businesses how to employ the 10 principles (a la Toyota’s Production System Support Center) to an educational program that offers certificates in dispute resolution and leadership training.

Burning Man certainly can’t single-handedly transform a depressed neighborhood into a flourishing one. But the organization’s influence will make the area more lively (if not more crazy), and probably revitalize local businesses in the process. And if it works in San Francisco, there’s no reason why Burning Man’s values can’t be used to spruce up suffering neighborhoods in other cities that believe a yearly party in the desert may have something to teach them.

[Image: Michael Holden]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.