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How Burning Man Black Rock City rises from the dust each year



Burning Man building crewJohn

  • 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
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

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 fence
A crew works on setting up the fence around the
perimeter of Black Rock City in 2018.

John Curley

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

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

“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


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