We Built this City
A kinder, gentler DPW builds Black Rock City
by Adrian Roberts
Anytime you read something about Burning Man, it seems like Larry Harvey always gets all the props. He's the one the media goes to first for juicy sound bites about the event. He's the one who get all the press -- although admittedly, he did start this whole mess.
It's one thing to dream up Black Rock City. It's another to actually build it. Who are these people who come out to the Black Rock Desert months ahead of time to create a city out of nothing -- and then remove it like it never existed?
These people are the Black Rock City Department of Public Works (DPW), and believe me, they work their asses off just so you people can have a pretend city to party in for a week.
This past July 4th weekend, Piss Clear, consisting of myself and the Mysterious D, drove up to the DPW work ranch -- aka Black Rock Station, about 25 miles north of Gerlach. There, we got to hang out with the crew, including Bubblegeek, who gave us a tour of the property -- all 280 acres of it. (The old '80 Acres' is leased land. The Burning Man organization recently purchased another 200 acres.)
We also got to sit down and chat with DPW Chief of Staff Will Roger (aka Kapt. Klean), along with Operations Director Flynn Mauthe and Operations Manager Ada Chester. During the chat Dispatch Manager Frank Dometrovic (aka Spinner) dropped in as well. Over the course of two hours, we talked about the history of Burning Man, the logistics of building a city out of nothing, and the reason DPW has such a bad-ass reputation.
PC: So how did you all get roped into this anyway?
Will: My girlfriend, Crimson Rose, actually danced on the Man way back in '91. I met her in '93, and came out as a volunteer. At that point, it was all done by volunteers. The following year, I did the survey with John Law and Tym Simpson. The next year I helped with the planning of our first road, the first real circle. Then in '96, I met Flynn. I was helping John a lot, but he quit after '96. He wanted to end the whole thing. Larry came up and asked if I would run the Nevada operations.
PC: John Law was one of the principal organizers back then. Why did he quit?
Will: I don't think he could see himself working anything that would grow any larger. He thought it had gotten big enough.
PC: And you wanted to help make Burning Man bigger?
Will: I thought it would be cool! Back then, people were already saying, 'This thing changed my life.' So why not change a whole bunch of lives, y'know? It needed to go on - it was an important week in a lot of people's lives, including my own.
PC: What about you, Flynn? How did you get involved?
Flynn: I was living and working full-time with Survival Research Labs, and was involved with this other robotic group, the Seamen. One of my best friends asked if we wanted to go to this Burning Man thing, and if we helped run a couple of loads up and did a show, we would get free tickets and get our gas paid for. So we came up in '95, and the following year I met Larry. I worked with John Law, and also got an art grant to build the Helco tower, which I did almost single-handedly. Larry paid for that. It was $1,200 to build the whole thing. Part of deal was that I would run some trucks back-and-forth with John - because ironically, he was doing transportation, but didn't have a drivers license!
In '97, Larry contacted me and wanted to know if I was interested in coming back. I was like, 'Yeah, but I would need to be paid.' He said fine, I made him an offer, he accepted, and I showed up at Fly Ranch in June. I met Will, and for some crazy reason, I'm still here!
Will: '97 was a critical year, and it's amazing the event went on after that. We lost $300,000 that year. The cops came in with helicopters and took all the money from the gate. We were putting in roads during the event, and sinkholes would form. Trucks were coming in and falling into the holes.
PC: '97 was the first year with streets and a city plan. There suddenly seemed to be all this infrastructure and hierarchy.
Will: We had to do that. At Fly Ranch put roads in because we were in the sagebrush. We only had this little piece of playa to use - and it was wet and people were getting stuck!
PC: Ada, when did you get involved with the DPW?
Ada: In '98, I had just graduated from college and was traveling. I was hanging out in New Orleans with a friend who's involved with art cars. He gets tons of flyers, and had a big pile sitting on his kitchen table. I reached in, pulled one out, and it was about Burning Man. I had never heard of it. I saw a little tiny listing that said, 'DPW: We need carpenters, welders, etc.' I thought, 'I'm going to be so useful to these people!'
So I went back to Austin, grabbed a crew and just showed up at the work ranch. But we came too late. Flynn was like, 'Sorry, we're closed now.' So we're like, 'Well, we have our food and our tents, we're just going to work for them whether they like it or not!'
PC: Are all the DPW workers volunteers?
Flynn: It was all volunteers up until '99. That was the first year we actually started paying crew. And every job that we delegate is a job that one of us three have personally done ourselves. And that makes a big difference. Because it's hard to go tell someone to put a fence up if you've never done it.
PC: How do you get people to come out here to do such hard work?
Flynn: We're turning people away!
Will: Let me give you a little history. It used be that we were always undermanned. We would make appeals on the internet, on phones, anything to get people to come out here and work with us. We didn't have much to offer. It was food and a bad time, usually. We didn't even have porta-pottys for the first three years.
Then we got a few regular people coming back - they were mostly circus people. These are hardcore people. I love them and they're not afraid of hard work. They can put up a tent, do funky carpentry, wire your house for you ... all wrong, but they can do it.
And those are the people we relied on. There was a circus from New Orleans and one from Minneapolis. And then they started bringing in more people. We had an open door policy, and last year, for the first time, we had enough people - in fact, we had too many people.
I mean, we pay pretty good money here, if you consider that you're up here with no overhead - you're not paying for rent or restaurants or movies. We provide beer, food, a place to take a crap, and, this year, pretty much everybody is going to sleep in a trailer. All of a sudden, the $50 a day the crew is making is looking pretty good.
So this year, for the first time, we're choosing the people that we want. And with this, we can eliminate the people who have caused problems in the past.
Flynn: It's going to be very sad in a lot of cases. Because some people have always shown up, and we've always fit them in. Last year, we had 259 people by the 23rd of August - that was our role call that morning. We had to know who was here and what they were doing - and we realized that some people were taking advantage of the situation.
This year, the department managers gave us a list - they picked their people. So as Operations Director, I'm not hiring anybody. What's even sadder is that we have a waiting list of volunteers. Any given day we're running about 40-45 volunteers. All you have to do is work two weeks, and you get a ticket and a t-shirt. Most of them will leave after two weeks, but a lot of them stay on, and it's a big job juggling that.
Will: With the staff and crew, it's about 95 paid people total, and about 45 volunteers, to make it 140.
PC: What kind of person comes to work for the DPW?
Will: We don't know! We have people out here who often won't tell you what their skills are. We try to find out from the forms.
Let me tell you a funny story. We had a guy named George Bush last year. Everybody loved George. He was one of the heroes. He came up to get dirty and pound things. We find out over the winter that he runs a big corporation in Chicago, wears a suit everyday, and is worth $75 million!
PC: Looking around, it seems like you all run a pretty big operation here.
Will: Six thousand t-stakes, ten miles of fence, acres and acres of shade. The café building - which is a unique design, nothing like it in the world - is bigger than the Coliseum in Rome. It's got over a mile of wired roping. It's remarkable.
PC: There's this huge infrastructure, yet the DPW seems to have a fairly loose organization - or am I wrong here?
Flynn: I would brag that we are the tightest department in the Burning Man organization. We're the only ones who have meetings every morning. By the time the rest of the world wakes up in San Francisco, we've already knocked out a half day of work. I don't know how exactly you mean 'loose.'
PC: Well, it doesn't seem like a normal company job. There may be a 'boss' telling people what to do, but it seems a lot more friendly and laid-back, like everybody's working together. There's a hierarchy, but it doesn't seem so rigid, like in the normal world.
Will: We're one of the unusual companies that works by consensus. I used to run everything out here like a dictator, and I'm kind of embarrassed by it now. It had to do with responsibility, not trusting, not understanding. This year, what I'm trying to do is run everything by consensus, and rely on the people around me that can more than do their job. I've always felt the burden because I didn't trust anybody - and now I'm trusting everybody. And I think everyone notices the difference. I mean, I've got a bad reputation!
PC: So we've heard!
Ada: The way that everything's going this year, people are taking ownership of what they're doing. They get to do it and be proud of it, and not worry about being micro-managed.
PC: If I told you that the DPW work ranch seemed like summer camp for freaks, what would you say?
Will: Probably about right! There's people here from all over - New York City, Seattle, the Bay Area, L.A. And we're realizing that the dream we have for this place, to be an attractant for freaks - but freaks with skills - and a place where artists want to come and work and be creative, that's happening now. That's the kind of energy we want out here. That's what keeps me involved.
On the other hand, it is a labor camp. We do work hard. The days are long. In the heat of the season, it's a 12-hour day. And some of the guys work longer than that. Some of the projects that we do are real miracles that happen in a short amount of time - the base of the Man, for example. They get two weeks to put it up, I don't know how they do it. They get two weeks to put up a four-story building to code. Do that in a community somewhere else!
PC: Some BM old-timers -- the ones who pine for the early days, back in the early-'90s -- are probably annoyed that the Burning Man organization now pays people, and is buying land and equipment. They'd rather it be more do-it-yourself, in order to have lower ticket prices.
Flynn: Oh yeah, the good old days, where people shit on the playa and left a big fucking mess. Look, I'm all into the wild shit that used to happen in the old days of Burning Man. But if you're standing there and a bomb goes off too close to you...
Will: Or you get decapitated by a car on your motorcycle - which happened... or you get a car running over your tent - which happened... then those are the good old days? Oh, I think those are the bad old days.
Over time, the anarchist thing had to be removed. Because we were visible. We had to pay taxes. We had to pay our bills. And when you pay your bills, that means you have to have an accounting office. All of a sudden, it's a real business. It's not anarchist anymore. If those guys want to experience that, they can go to a Rainbow Gathering.
PC: One complaint that's often heard is that the ticket prices are now so high.
Will: I think it's the best deal on the planet.
PC: Some would disagree, since you have to bring all your own stuff, and still pay $200.
Will: Well, they should bring their own porta-potty then!
PC: Clean-up is probably the worst part of working for the DPW, isn't it?
Will: It can get depressing when everybody leaves. It's Tuesday morning after the event and you're looking around, and you're going, 'No way are we going to be able to clean this up in a month.'
Flynn: Clean-up is probably the most strict time of the event. We have no days off. There's nothing fun about it. Everybody's gone home, and people get a bit disgruntled because of the mess that's been left. You can say 'Leave No Trace' all day long, but they leave, and there's trace. Morale goes down a bit, so we do our best to try to make it fun.
Then around October we have the inspection with the BLM and we either pass or we don't. We failed in '99 and had to come out and do it again.
Will: We instituted a new standard for cleaning up events on public land, and it includes a thing called the line sweep. It's a tedious, difficult, and necessary thing to do. It makes you crazy. You can go really stupid in a couple of days, looking down, picking up pistachio nut shells, swearing at campers in the back of your head.
PC: It seems as if the DPW has a real chip on its shoulder regarding the citizens of Black Rock City.
Flynn: It's not on purpose, but I think the people that are drawn out here do have a lot of attitude. It started out as DPW against the Rangers. We corrected that. Then it just became DPW, 'the renegade anarchists who fuck shit up.' We don't like that shit! We want to be the guys with the white hats!
PC: DPW definitely has a bad-ass reputation.
Ada: We don't want that attitude, but we can't help it -- especially with the newcomers here. Some of us have been out here for months. We're used to living in the desert, we're self-sufficient. And we've been working to make this event happen. Then everybody comes in -- we're used to 200 people, and all of a sudden, it's 25,000 people. It's overwhelming.
Spinner: When everyone first sees the DPW, we're at our absolute worst possible point. We're finalizing everything with the city, we're getting the Man up, we've been out here for months, and we're burnt out. We look like the desert. We're all playafied.
People might look at us and say one thing that sounds wrong, and because we're at that crucial stress level, many snap. We're really working at keeping that stress level down.
Ada: A kinder, gentler DPW!
Will: Were we drunk in the past? Yeah. Did we take too many drugs? Yeah, we've done that. We've broken all the rules. But this year, we've eliminated most of those people. We're being tighter with the rules.
We had a staff member, a café volunteer, die last year. He fell out of a truck over here and got crushed by a trailer. It was an unsafe load, he was riding in the back, unprotected, not seatbelted into a chair. He was offered all that, but he decided not to.
So now we have a very cool safety program - and not just because of that, but because we needed to. We're trying to be a much kinder, gentler, more focused, more open, more community-oriented department. That's my goal. That's all of our goals. And I think we all need to continue to work towards that.
Flynn: If it continued the way it was two, three years ago, all of us would have just self-destructed. It was growing pains. We weren't telling people to go be mean. We were just overworked, underpaid, understaffed...
Will: And overwhelmed by it. The desert makes it harsh. There's a reason nobody lives here. This is the most sparsely-populated area in the United States. It's 10 below zero in the winter when the snow is here. And then you don't get any spring, and then it's 110° in the shade.
Flynn: And that's the same reason Gerlach has five bars and no churches.
PC: Do you think the DPW is under appreciated?
Ada: We spend a whole lot of time making it so that people don't have to think about the roads or shade structures. We spend a lot of time making things look easy, so people can just come and move right in. I wouldn't say 'under appreciated.' I think what we do is appreciated. But maybe they don't really know who to appreciate sometimes.
PC: How much money does it take to build Black Rock City?
Will: My particular budget is a little over a million dollars. But that's a year-round budget that also funds the caretakers here in the wintertime, food year-round, travel expenses, fleet expenses. I mean, our porta-potty bill is over $300,000. Burning Man isn't a non-profit, it's a no-profit. What we do is manage to spend all our money every year putting on an event.
Flynn: We make a budget, and then all the other departments get involved. Say, when Rod Garrett (Black Rock City planner) or Harley (Director of Community Services) takes a pencil and draws a little tiny thing on the plan of Black Rock City that shows the commissary: 'We're just going to scoot it over here.' Well that equals $60,000, just like that, that we pick up!
Will: A lot of man-days, a lot of rethinking, a lot of research. But to them it's just a little pencil mark.
PC: Do you ever step back and just gaze in shock at how big it's all gotten?
Will: I've done that a lot lately. We started in tents up here. Flynn and I came up with the name 'DPW' by sitting around the campfire one night. We said we've got to organize this. Why are we burning everything after the event? Wouldn't clean-up be easier if we didn't make a big burn scar? Why don't we store things here and use them next year? So we made our first depot a couple of ranches over. Then we eventually leased the property here.
PC: When we were getting the tour of the DPW ranch, it seemed like everyone kinda had their own little dominions.
Flynn: It probably looks a lot like Black Rock City in the old days. In the certain light of sunset, it looks like there's a festival going on out here, especially when we're ramped up in August.
Will: Yeah, we've got the café, we've got porta-pottys, little individual camps that people take pride in. Not only has there been progress with the actual, physical part of it, but the real progress has been what Flynn and Ada and I have learned about managing this thing. There's no manual on this. You can't go to the library and check out a book on how to build a city for 30,000 people on public land in two weeks ... and then clean it up with no trace.
If you think about it, it's a miracle. And we know how to manage that! We actually write the stipulations for the BLM. We tell them how we're going to do it, and they're glad that we do! We wrote the first environmental assessment. We set the standard for clean-up. We know how to build structures that can withstand 100 mph winds. We know how to deal with all that. It's not something we went to school for. I've got four college degrees and spent twenty years in university, and nothing that I learned there, nothing, prepared me for this!
And that's why I like it. It's a new challenge every year.