Sunday, November 08, 2015

Keepers of the Flame

Note: I wrote and reported this vignette as part of a UC Berkeley Extension Journalism Workshop course. The original date of the content is October 12, 2015.

An ember of Burning Man blazed on in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco on Sunday.

The daylong event, which was billed as a “Heat the Street FaIRE,” delivered live music, an array of creative costumes, and a sampling of the elaborate art installations for which the free-spirited desert festival is known. According to publicity material, this is the sixteenth year that San Francisco has hosted a “decompression” event following the week-long gathering in the Nevada desert, whose 2015 version culminated on September 6 with the ritual destruction by fire of a 60-foot-tall wooden effigy.

According to event organizer Dave Slater, who also goes by SuperDave, preparations were intense even for the smaller Dogpatch event. It took three months to work out acoustics for the six-block stretch of Indiana Street. Dressed in a purple tee shirt, black kilt, and a leather top hat with aviator goggles, Slater said that the decompression event, like Burning Man itself, was all about fun. “How can we have the most fun?” he posed, “Well, we can build a purple quesadilla-slinging machine.” Which indeed they had.

Jules, a young San Francisco social worker whose “burner name” is Monarch, said in a brief interview that, while she enjoyed the decompression event, some of her friends found it dispiriting for its inability to fully replicate the experience of the bigger festival, which she described as “like an alternate reality.”

Jules had just exited a pink-hued booth labeled “Freak Show,” whose interior was covered in mirrors at all angles and presented a message of self-love. Other set pieces at the street fair promised instant weddings, silent disco, and “forgiveness.”

For Ross and Steba, a forty-ish couple living in Hayes Valley who had never attended the Nevada festival, the event was a welcome piece of local culture.  “This is the closest thing to my Burning Man experience,” said Ross.

Facebook postings by event organizers urged consideration for neighbors and touted an environmentally friendly policy of not selling water in single-use bottles. But not everyone welcomed the Dogpatch event, which was scheduled to run into the night. One neighborhood resident, reached by text message, conveyed her plans to flee the area for the day.

“It happens every year,” she said, linking the Sunday event to broader debates about how tech industry money permeates the San Francisco social scene. “I hate Burning Man in general. It’s just a place for rich white people honestly.”

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