Oakland’s a lot like Black Rock City

10 Aug

It’s that time of year when I just can’t get Burning Man off of my mind, but lately I’ve been realizing that Oakland’s a lot like Black Rock City. Sure, a good chunk of burners are from the Bay Area so it makes sense that the Bay would be similar to the third largest city in Nevada, but Oakland in particular brings me back to the desert.

The other day I got off the 1 bus several blocks early, at West Grand and Telegraph and walked down Telegraph to work. Maybe it was the hot sun beating down on me or the sublime beats, bass, and ambiance of Matrix and Futurebound on my iPod, but as I walked through uptown, I couldn’t help feeling that I could almost as easily be in BRC.

The Artwork…

Large cranes towered over me, slowly bring up the walls of the new Uptown apartment-condominium complex at 20th and Telegraph. The Fox Theater simultaneously is being deconstructed and reconstructed, preserving what the Friends of the Oakland Fox describe as “an interesting [architectural] mixture of styles: Indian, Moorish, Medieval (the gargoyles at roof level), and Baghdadian.”

Photo of Oakland's Fox Theater

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Oakland Fox

Above me loomed several massive pieces of architectural artwork, all incredibly unique. It reminded me of biking through the open playa at Burning Man, remaining fixated on a piece of artwork ahead of me, only until another art piece a few hundred feet to its left distracted me and pulled my bike in the other direction. Like Passage, a 30′ mother and 20′ child sculpted out of literally tons of scrap metal, or Sugar Cube, a 20’x20’x20 cube with three levels to stand on that started out blank and invited artists to paint, draw, write, and graffiti on its surfaces:

Sugar Cube, Burning Man 2006

The art’s not all massive. Like the bike-shaped bike rack featured on the header of this blog that I pass by several times a week. Or murals on walls and garages:

North Oakland Garage Mural

Or graffiti on highway overpasses. Or the various art cars found in both cities. Or the dozens of small art pieces scattered around the playa, like the Web of Hope and Fear or Phoenix and the Man:

Phoenix and the Man, Burning Man 2006


Though it’s a big city, Oakland often feels like a tight-knit community. Restaurant owners know my name and wave at me on the street. At the Temescal Farmer’s Market, which I frequent religiously, many of the farmers already know what I want. A couple weeks ago, as I approached the Hodo Soy Beanery stand, I was told that they had run out of tofu jerky (my favorite), but I could call him if I wanted him to save me some for the next week. And sometimes, random people on the street or bus say hello or start up a conversation.

I have to admit, though, that Black Rock City tops Oakland on community any day. There, a conversation turns into a friendship. As I bike down the street, my neighbors call out to me, inviting me over for a drink, something to eat, or a game of mini-golf. When a structure my camp mates built started blowing over in a terrible wind storm a couple years ago, two strangers who had just arrived came to my aid and helped me save the PVC and parachute from flying away.

The Unexpected Should Be Expected…

If you’ve ever been to Burning Man, you probably know that this is about the only thing you can count on. If you haven’t been, here’s some idea of what this is like: finding a life-sized chess board a half a mile out in the middle of the desert, running into a friend you haven’t seen since high school, a breeze-less sunny day turning into a harsh wind and dust storm, dancing to a nine piece jazz band playing on top of a hundred foot flower, stumbling into a bath tub filled with yarn, or discovering a literal oasis during the midday heat – complete with umbrellas, couches, and cold beer.

Bathtub of Yarn, Burning Man 2006

And you know what? Oakland’s catching up to BRC. In previous posts, I wrote about the Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival that brings a massive scale of fire art to industrial West Oakland – the passer byers on BART were certainly surprised by huge flame throwers and fire dancers – and about being lulled to sleep in North Oakland by a neighbor playing the banjo. Sitting on the bus bench at 14th and Broadway recently, someone behind me put a hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek. While this freaked me out for a second, I soon realized it was an ex-coworker and close mentor who I hadn’t seen for a long time. A few months ago, I was having a really hard time coordinating lunch with a friend of mine. We had been trying to make plans for weeks, and then one day, we both went out to lunch alone and ended up meeting up and finally having lunch together at Ichiro.

Greening the City…

This year, Black Rock City will join Oakland in its efforts to become a more environmentally-friendly city. Burning Man has been big on “leave no trace” for many years, employing staff and volunteers to clean up at the event and throughout the year. But for 2007, they’re taking it to the next level with the theme of The Green Man. The Burning Man infrastructure will be powered by large solar panels, which will be donated to the neighboring town of Gerlach after the event. A long time burner convinced some large market chains in Reno and other Nevada cities to host 24 hour recycle drop-offs after the event, while CoolingMan is attempting to offset the entire carbon footprint of the the 2007 event. A lot of the funded art this year will also be green, and there’s going to be a giant “green pavilion” under the man, highlighting renewable energy technology. Pre-event, BM’s hosting an Enviroblog to help burners make their camps greener. Some ideas from the blog: ditch disposable plastic watter bottles, run power off of a car instead of using a generator, and leave nut shells and live plants at home.

Still, it will take a while for Burning Man to catch up with Oakland. In April, Oakland was ranked #1 in the production of renewable energy, out of all U.S. cities, according to RenewableEnergyAccess.com:

Leading the nation with 17 percent of its electricity produced by sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, most renewable energy generation in the city comes from commercial and residential photovoltaic (PV) systems.

According to City of Oakland Energy Engineer Scott Wentworth, the city is undertaking many important projects including: working with San Francisco State University, Marin County, and the City and County of San Francisco to create tools for assessing solar potential of commercial and residential properties; conducting wave and tidal power studies in collaboration with the Electric Power Research Institute and other California cities; and outfitting new municipal buildings to accommodate solar systems — even if the resources are not available to install the system immediately.

Oakland’s currently in the process of updating its Bicycle Master Plan, to be issued this fall, as part of its robust program to encourage Oakland residents to bike and walk. There’s also the city basics, like recycling, waste diversion, hazardous material cleanup, green building, and air cleanup, all of which you can read about on Oakland’s website. Not to mention, Oakland is full of farmers’ markets, organic and local food, mass transit, and many residents who are concerned with environmental sustainability. Both cities certainly have a long way to go, but it’s clear that the environment is not simply an afterthought for their citizens or government officials.

Feeling at Home…

Ultimately, what I most love about both of these cities is that I feel at home. I can be myself and feel like a part of a community. So while I’m getting impatient for my trip to Black Rock City, I have Oakland to comfort me and keep me busy.

3 Responses to “Oakland’s a lot like Black Rock City”

  1. Entroporium August 10, 2007 at 5:49 pm #

    You forgot one. Oakland’s got Raider games and BRC has Thunderdome.

    I always thought there was a secret connection between sports events and Burning Man. Tribes, group feeds in desolate parking lots, all leading to an emotional group outpouring in the night…

  2. Becks August 10, 2007 at 6:31 pm #

    Good one. How could I have forgotten Thunderdome?

  3. kitty August 11, 2007 at 3:30 pm #

    nice to see my Web of Hope and Fear up on your blog! i love the comparisons of oakland to BRC, and your choices of art and community warm my heart.

    thanks for another great blog, Becks!

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