How Burning Man's Black Rock City rises into a 70,000-person city and vanishes in less than 2 months

John Curley
  • It takes more than a month to build Black Rock City each year for Burning Man.
  • The process begins with a ceremony to mark the center of the city, after which teams survey the land, build a fence, and prepare all of the infrastructure.
  • About two weeks in, artists with the biggest installations arrive to set up.
  • Though the festival’s attendance has continued to grow, the city’s dimensions have largely remained the same.

For most of the year, the 9-square-mile area where Burning Man is held looks just like the rest of the barren Black Rock Desert. Artists all around the world spend months preparing elaborate installations for the festival, but the crews who build Black Rock City – an elaborate city with a grid, Department of Public Works, and law enforcement – hold off until the summer.

The city rises and then vanishes in less than two months.

The roughly month-long building process begins in July with the Golden Spike Ceremony, in which surveyors use a spike to mark where the Man – a large wooden effigy – will be placed. A small group of volunteers comes out and takes turns using a sledgehammer to drive the stake into the ground, giving speeches as they go around. San Francisco-based photographer Shalaco added that “Coyote” – Black Rock City’s superintendent – smashes a champagne bottle as part of the tradition.

Afterwards, at least 10 volunteers begin surveying the land, using the spike as a starting point for mapping out the streets. The work can be tough, especially given the heat in the Black Rock Desert, said writer and photographer John Curley, who documents the making of the festival for the Burning Man Journal.

This August, when the Nevada desert reached highs above 100 degrees, Curley said the team would get up before dawn and work until 10 a.m. before taking a break until the afternoon.

Surveyors carefully place wire flags in the ground; about a week later, the team begins hand-pounding stakes into the ground to create a fence for the city’s perimeter. This year, the task took only about nine hours, Curley said.

“That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, to build a nine-mile fence by hand in the middle of the desert in a day,” he said. “It’s a big departure from the old days when they had 20 people working on it; it took them days.”

Many more people arrive once the fence is up; a crew of about 200 to 250 people then begins putting all of the infrastructure into place, including an electrical grid, roads, emergency services, and an airport.

Burning Man crew fenceJohn CurleyA crew works on setting up the fence around the perimeter of Black Rock City in 2018.

Curley, who has attended Burning Man since the early 2000s, said the building of Black Rock City leaves a lasting impression.

“It is amazing thing what they do, that out of this blank desert somehow they can translate what’s on a schematic or a map and actually place it into the ground,” he said. “And it has to be done with a pretty good amount of precision because if you are off by a foot, that could affect hundreds of people.”

The Man and the Temple – two installations that are featured each year – are first to descend on the desert. By the time the event rolls around, about 700 people are working on the city.

This year’s Man is the last one to be made under the direction of Larry Harvey, the Burning Man founder who died earlier this year.

Shalaco said the effigy includes tributes to Harvey; the Man’s heart, for example, looks like a swordfish piercing a stetson. Harvey, who also went by “swordfish,” used to wear a stetson hat that had belonged to his father, Shalaco said.

Attendance at Burning Man has increased over the years, reaching the cap of 70,000 people a few years ago. Despite this increase in population, Curley said the city’s dimensions have largely stayed the same for the past two decades.

For Shalaco, creating Black Rock City is “magical” on a city planning level. Whereas he can’t experience San Francisco before the city’s tech boom or the Gold Rush, Shalaco gets to see Black Rock City be built from nothing every year.

Black Rock City is also special because its plan can be modified each year, Shalaco said. Other cities can’t easily manage their perimeters or widen their streets to encourage interactions among people.

“There is no other city that you can go to where the city planner can take information from the previous years and then change the city plan based on that, and then study it in person and see how it affects Black Rock City,” Shalaco said.

Burning Man features a wide variety of activities for attendees, from sex parties to tea ceremonies. But for Curley, some of the most satisfying moments happened in the camps.

“It’s fun to go visit the big art and you know that there are fancy people here and Instagram is a thing, but the living and breathing heart of Burning Man is still in the back streets,” Curley said. “If you really want to experience what made it be what it is, that’s where you should go.”

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