Astor Playa 2007: TOPP at Burning Man
In the summer of 2007, friends, colleagues and employees of The Open Planning Project traveled to Black Rock City Nevada for the annual Burning Man Festival, bringing with them a piece of New York City re-imagined. Astor Playa, was a radical re-imagination of the historical Astor Place freed from the constraints of traffic, commercialism and city planning that favors cars over people.
Speaker: [00:02] Being trapped, stranded, castaway in the desert with a group of people that you’re about to is an exercise in building community.
Speaker: [00:13] When you go out at Burning Man people generally say, so what are you doing here? You know, what’d you do? And you could either say, I just showed up and I’m here to party, which is sort of lame. Or you can say I built that, or I had a part in that, and that gives you a learning experience throughout… plus it gives you a lot of love out there.
Matt Roth: [00:42] Well it’s 2007 Labour Day weekend, we’re in Black Rock City outside of Reno, Nevada and we’ve been living in the desert, Great Basin Desert, trying to… I don’t know exactly what we’re trying to do. About 45,000 of us or 50,000 of us at any given point descended on the desert in a civic experiment to see how we might create an alternative society for eight days, and then take it back down again.
Rob Miller: [01:15] The short story, we basically turned 200 feet of the esplanade of the main front street in Black Rock City, and we turned our entire frontage into a little piece of New York City. We reconstructed Astor Place. We built the Cube, we built the subway entrance, we tried to just kind of reconstruct New York street life, stoop culture. Built a couple of brownstone, two storey buildings, a little room underneath and a slightly bigger one up above. And then we had botchy cords, we had a tyre swing hanging from a scaffolding. We had news boxes full of information about our project and also some of the Black Rock City newspapers. We had a little construction zone with a New York steam vent from… we had brought with us and just really tried to capture the energy of New York City street life and to give people a place to interact and engage with that.
Vanessa Hamer: [02:10] From the moment that we got there, even before we put like the sheeting on the side of the cube to finish it and, you know, make it a black cube that looks like the Astor Place cube, people recognised it as they would like bike by and everyone you’d hear like, oh that’s so… you know, those are like brownstone stoops or like that’s the cube, or that’s… oh look, that’s the subway entrance, you know, like let’s in it. And people were like this is so weird because this looks like a real place and the rest of Burning Man looks like a totally unreal place. It was recognisable but also vastly different than the actual Astor Place.
Nick Grossman: [02:45] The most drastic difference between here and there is the lack of traffic, car traffic. Here you have taxis, police cars, buses, delivery trucks, and the cars take up, you know, the majority of the space and are the largest presence here. On Astor Playa, the people ran supreme. A lot of walkers and bikers and wanderers, and there are still cars, but the cars sort of serve a different purpose. The most functional transportation is there by bicycle or by foot. And car traffic on the Playa is only radically modified art cars, which sound like a ridiculous idea if you haven’t seen them. But to get a permit from the Department of Mutant Vehicles in Black Rock City, your car has to be pleasant and inviting and radically altered, which means that it might have a bar on the back, it means it might have a dance floor on the top, it means that it might be in the shape of a cupcake. So cars there are a little bit different than cars here and they serve a little bit of a different role.
Cory Mervis: [03:55] I really want to see what we learned at Burning Man come back to New York. This space is all messed up. I mean, from what we saw out there, having all these cars go through, it destroys the space for humans. It’s not for humans at this time.
Rob Miller: [04:11] There’s no place to sit in the entire plaza except for the base of the cube. And when you’re sitting there you can’t spin it. There’s huge Starbucks on either side. There’s, you know, the cube is a piece of public art, it was New York’s first piece of abstract art. But other than that, there’s nothing done with any of the space. There’s all this really valuable public space that’s just left as blank and basically useless from a human perspective.
Bill “Reverend Billy” Talen: [04:39] Starbucks led the way to the corporatisation, the mallisation of that historic intersection. I would say that the logoisation of that intersection is the direct opposite of the gift of having it reconstructed in… on the Playa. What we do, the other 51 weeks of the year, is increasingly the issue of how our experience that we share goes out into our neighbourhoods and communities, defending against the automobile, against the big boxes and chain stores who put us in cars, dehumanise the sidewalks. That is how we become socially conscious.
Rob Miller: [05:21]
We want things to be better for everyone and, you know, people come
out there for the celebration and if, in the process, we’ve set up
Astor Place in some ways that we really… the whole thing is kind of
underlined by a giant question mark, a giant like, look around, look
at how great this is. What if? What if it were like this
all the time? You know, what does it take to get this city to
realise that this could be so much more valuable for everyone here if
it was used in a different way? Basically a lot of effort goes into
creating public space at Burning Man, there’s a lot of New Yorkers
going to Burning Man and creating public space for people to enjoy.
And we wanted to ground that in a place here in New York City to try
to crack through that invisible barrier, that imaginary barrier, which
is that Black Rock City is a place to do that, and New York City is