E49
Burning Man Live | Episode 49 | 04|13|2022

Thinking Big in a Small Town

Guests: Chef Matt Kwatinetz, Stuart Mangrum

Laugh and learn in a collage of conversation with ‘Chef’ — Matthew ‘Chef’ Kwatinetz, Senior Director of Nevada Operations and Board Member of Burning Man Project. He shares with Stuart about the ongoing work to convert our Nevada properties into year-round hubs for bringing Burning Man culture into the world. So much more than an infrastructure project, Chef’s team is busy upgrading Gerlach’s power and internet, helping locals and staff develop skills, opening up new employment opportunities, and visioning a maker space for Black Rock City creators.

They examine the art of urban planning. They celebrate tradition. They explore what’s possible beyond our ephemeral city. They imagine what it could look like when Black Rock City spills out of its physical and temporal borders into places beyond the dry lakebed, engaging year-round with art, convenings, and teachings, and living life more secure and expressed. Much has been researched and discussed with burners and locals, from social enterprise to economics, to solar power arrays named after mythical creatures.

Burning Man Project Board of Directors: Matthew ‘Chef’ Kwatinetz

NYU New York University Leadership Team: Matthew Kwatinetz

Welcome to Burner School: Gerlach Workforce Development Center (Burning Man Journal)

The Chef and the Power of Community Prototyping (Burning Man Live #18)

360VR: Gerlach

Black Rock City Placement Process

LAGI: Land Art Generator Initiative, Fly Ranch

Haunted West Gerlach (youtube)

Göbekli Tepe (wikipedia)

Our guests

Matthew “Chef” Kwatinetz has dedicated his career to building communities and works of art that inspire. He supports artists, entrepreneurs and citizens in obtaining appropriate ownership in their own work and in the communities they create and live in.

In the dust, he is the Chef of Sacred Cow. From serving the Temple Kitchen in 2015 to “Feed the Artist” programs and multiple course sunset dinner cruises on their art car, Sacred Cow has been serving up food and sassy service in unexpected ways for the last 10 years in Black Rock City.

In addition to serving on Burning Man Project’s Board, Chef is the Chair of the Technical Assistance Program for the Urban Land Institute’s NY Chapter, where he also sits on the Management Committee and is a member of the ULI National Public/Private Product Council. He is a proud graduate of The Wharton School, where he studied with Dr. Susan Wachter and worked for the Institute for Urban Research (IUR). For IUR, he did economic research for the U.S. Department of Energy as well as a consortium of national art museums. He also is a graduate of Harvard University and Deep Springs College, which provided his first experience of the Nevada desert and the necessity for eliminating the distinction between labor and intellect, and rolling up your sleeves to make your visions reality. A little hard work goes a long way.

Transcript

MICHAEL VAV: Meet the people who make Burning Man happen, beyond the desert and around the world; the dreamers and doers, the makers, shakers and innovators, the artists, activists, freaks and fools. Burning Man LIVE. 

STUART: Welcome, welcome, welcome my friends. I cannot see you, but you can hear me. And that’s how this works. We’re back on the Burning Man Live bus, all four wheels on the road.

Thanks for listening. I’m still Stuart Mangrum and my guest today; longtime listeners of the show, students of Burning Man Live, may recall back in episode 18, you met a person of mystery, an extraordinarily interesting man who told you a lot about working on Black Rock Power and our radically ambitious dreams of uh degenerating (is that a word?) degennerizing, eliminating generators from the playa and replacing them with clean, solar power. But that’s not all this person does. Today we’re going to talk with the man, the myth, the legend, the Chef, Matt Kwatinetz. Welcome, Chef.

CHEF: Oh my God, you were talking about me. I thought you had another guest coming. I hope I can live up to it.

STUART: You are a man of many, many talents and many titles. 

CHEF: That’s right.

STUART: I’m sure that a lot of our listeners are raising their eyebrows right now and saying, “What does Burning Man need a real estate department for?”

CHEF: The reason is manifold as with many things Burning Man. We have property that stretches across 221/2 miles. That is over 4,000 acres over 17 individual sites, some of which have multiple parcels, as many as a dozen parcels in multiple of the properties, and also over 20 structures.

All of that is a sprawling portfolio that has been acquired over time in order to support the operations of the event. But as we’ve evolved, we’ve had a desire to look at it as something other than a cost of the event, also an opportunity to extend our mission into the world.

Many people might be familiar with Fly Ranch which is really one of the most exciting places where we’ve talked about extending the vision of the Burning Man. Right now that’s a property that has had many visions of a future. It was the site of the event many years ago. I wasn’t there. I think you were there, Stuart. 

STUART: I was there.

CHEF: That must have been a sight to see. I believe it was the first time that there actually was a city plan.

STUART: That is also true. We’ve done a couple of shows on Fly. People know a little bit about the ecology from listening to Scirpus, know a bit about the LAGI Project, the Land Art Generator Initiative. So, I think the knowledge that we have this parcel, even if it’s misunderstood, is pretty widespread throughout the community.

And then the event itself, the Black Rock City event, we do on public land, but what’s all this other stuff. What and why, why do we have all this other stuff?

CHEF: Well, it really began with what we colloquially call The Ranch. There’s a couple of straight functions that while we definitely identify as itinerant carnies making the event happen, it turns out that we have been doing it in the same place for a few years in a row, and there are some advantages to having support services in that place. On the one hand, support for storage and the building of things like the Man some years, and also the maintenance of a fleet of hundreds of vehicles, living boxes which are the small homes that we create for our staff, as well as Burning Man trailers, a shop to fix vehicles, and many other items necessary for constructing a city, which doesn’t actually happen out of thin air, but mostly happens out of The Ranch, Black Rock Station.

We also have housing needs for people throughout the year, as well as leading up to the event. We have a trailer park called Gerlach Estates as well as what used to be an RV park and community pool that we call The Showers that we use for trailers before we go into the event. And then there’s some other properties that we bought as dreams of future activity.

STUART: Let’s talk about Gerlach because a lot of the real estate seems to be clustered in the little town of Gerlach. If someone has never been to that part of the world, tell us about Gerlach, Nevada. 

CHEF: Well, first I have to say as an official resident now of Gerlach, that Gerlach lacks nothing at all. So just to be clear, Gerlach…

STUART: I was taught many years ago that it was Gerlach Nevada, not Gerlock Nevoda, but if you’re a resident I’m not gonna argue with you. 

CHEF: It’s Gerlach Nevada, so you’re doing good. 

STUART: Okay. 

CHEF: Gerlach is actually not technically a town. It’s what we call “an unincorporated census place” which, if you take the jargon away, means there’s no real city government, or anything like that. It actually is administered by the county. It was originally created to support the railroad, and maintained its existence as a completely owned company town of the railroad, until the citizens banded together – with Bruno really being one of the leaders of that – and bought the town from the railroad, and created an independent place. Subsequent to that, it survived because of the local mine – which was featured in Nomadland, the recent award-winning movie that was filmed here. 

And now really a lot of the existence of the town – although some might object to me saying this – continues because of the activity resulting from Burning Man itself, and also people coming through the town, finding out about it because of Burning Man.

The town boasts three bars plus the Black Rock Saloon which we own, and has the offices of Burning Man, and the offices of Friends of Black Rock High Rock. With that, you’ve done the tour of the commercial corridor, besides the gas station. 

STUART: You know, we pulled this wonderful little old National Geographic clip which I’m going to play for you now. This is from 1972, 50 years ago, talking about Gerlach. It’s just a minute or so, let’s listen to this.

VO: The town of Gerlach Nevada endures along in the vast alkali flats of the Black Rock Desert. Gerlach has its memories and the kind of pride in the fact that it’s survived. 

MAN1: Well there’s one, two, three, four, five or six bars in this town. 

WOMAN1: Two cafes, two service stations, but to my knowledge there has never been a church here in Gerlach. 

WOMAN2: This hotel isn’t exactly like the Astor, but it’s a second best, if you like a rough life. 

MAN2: If a person was driving very fast, he might accidentally go right through Gerlach and not even see it. But if he just happened to be thirsty or out of gas or something, want to just stop and look around and get acquainted, well I think he’d find out this is just quite a little town.

STUART: So 50 years ago there were six bars. I’m counting three bars and a half now, if you count The Black Rock Saloon, one gas station, still no church. A hotel that’s closed. What’s left? Honestly you do drive through Gerlach and a lot of it is boarded up. So did Burning Man buy these properties to save them or just to put them on ice?

CHEF: I love that you ask this question. I would say in that clip, in listing off the buildings there, the cafe, the hotel and one of the bars, the buildings that used to be open are all buildings owned by Burning Man now that are closed, including the general store is now our offices.

STUART: So I understand that Gerlach was a bit of a hotbed of activity this past summer – all kinds of things happening. Why don’t you give us a little bit of a glimpse into what that Hot Gerlach Summer was all about and what sort or the things happened?

CHEF: Hotbed is right, Stuart. We had no idea how much the hot Gerlach summer would indeed turn into a flurry of activity. We really started out with having a little bit of a build season at the beginning of the summer. I think that’s when I saw you out there, when we started bringing folks out to talk about what we were gonna do, and spent the time getting The 360 up and running, which is our 360 acres about 1.2 miles out of town, and started pulling it together into essentially a remote maker village for Burners.

The remote maker village is focused on sustainability. So we did a lot of work around solar and around storage. We set up the place as a little center camp for the summer with spires running down the road, just like it was a normal Black Rock City road. We had some artists in residence. We had folks build art on site. We did volunteer projects in town. We called it Trailblaze Adventures in Civic Engagement.

Each time we did one of those weekends, we invited a whole host of different folks through the list for DMV, through the list for Placement, and theme camps, through the Green Theme Camp Community. We tried to bring together a bunch of different kinds of people to spend a weekend together. And during that weekend, we took them on a tour of all the properties and our plan for what we wanted to do to participate more fully in Gerlach. We took them on a tour of what was going on with the amazing work happening on Fly Ranch with LAGI. We also had them all volunteer in a project that affected Gerlach. Some of it was tree planting. Some of it was fixing up The Estates, which is our trailer park, to create places for growing herbs and flowers. We repainted the Saloon. We did a bunch of stuff. We did some composting, some waste stream management.

Generally speaking, the town folk that I spoke to were pretty shocked. I even got a bottle of wine from Ms Skeekie thanking us for all the work that we were doing.

STUART: That’s something. So town beautification, and a lot of work on The 360, it looks like there was a lot of infrastructure work out there. I remember seeing a lot of transfer loads of gravel. I guess you had to grade a lot, and all that stuff, because it was a vacant piece of land before that.

CHEF: So this summer we are starting to do additional grading of roads. Over the last summer, as we had people coming through The 360, we also did town tours every week for anyone who wanted to show up. I had a lot of people from what’s called the Citizen Advisory Board, the GGID; the County Manager showed up one day unannounced just because he had heard about the tours we were doing. We spent about two hours taking people around, showing them all our plans, being completely transparent.

Now, people didn’t always agree with what we were doing, but they sure appreciated us telling them about it. And so we had those meetings and took something like 500 people through that tour. And actually now we have a virtual version of that tour that you can access. It’s been posted in The Journal.

STUART: Outstanding. Let’s make sure we get that in the show notes.

CHEF: When we think about extending our mission and our values into the world, which is our mission, extending the culture that emanates from the event into the world, we have to ask ourselves: if this were a street in Black Rock City and we were being placed there as a theme camp, how would Placement evaluate our use of those properties? I do not think they would be particularly happy. In fact, I don’t think we’d be invited back.

STUART: Low on interactivity, is that what you’re saying?

CHEF: Very, very low on interactivity, very low on light. Not much curb appeal.

STUART: You talked about Placement. What do you mean by that? 

CHEF: I’m glad you asked that. It gives me a chance to speak about one of my favorite topics, which is urban planning. Urban planning normally happens in a city to decide how you put different groups of uses together. If, for example, you have a whole group of people that want to run big sound camps and clubs. You don’t necessarily want them to be next to the kids’ camps.

STUART: Zoning. We don’t have zoning at Black Rock City, but we have the Placement team. What is their criteria?

CHEF: The basic way of thinking about it, when we create the space of Black Rock City, Placement is really charged with evaluating how participants are getting gifted certain areas of the city that they can activate with the principles of Burning Man – the 10 Principles. And when we enable people to have certain frontage on the street, everyone walking by that area, if it’s the high traffic area, if it’s in Center Camp, if it’s in a Plaza, the reason why those areas have so much activity is because of the role of Placement in helping curate all the volunteerism and gifting of all the theme camps so that they can be in locations that cause “collisions” and excitement – what we call agglomeration in urban theory. So when Placement does that in Black Rock City, they’re helping create the zone of interaction, creativity, activation, and participation that some of us love so much in Black Rock City. 

When we look at Main Street of Gerlach, no one is currently curating that. In fact, there’s an opportunity for us to play a similar role. Burning Man has the experience through its Placement team of trying to understand how to create an exciting, interactive, open, engaged street. We haven’t applied those lessons that we know already in a place where we have so much presence in ownership. It’s a missed opportunity. It’s a form of art in and of itself. And I think we have a lot to add in a respectful, collaborative and communal way that will really make people very happy. 

We spend a lot of time thinking about that. Also for art. We have an art team and no, very little, public art in Gerlach. There are a couple pieces of public art, including the one that the Black Rock Arts Foundation created from old bicycles, right on the parking lot at Main and Sunset. We brought former BRAF Executive Director Tomas and partnered him up with Cultural Founder Crimson to do some thinking about how we could bring more art into Gerlach.

So I think we have a lot of departments that build Black Rock City that could be great participants in helping to build Gerlach, not away from what it is, but more toward what it could be in a way that supports the kind of culture that is there.

STUART: Let’s talk about the community. What is the economy out there in Gerlach? You’re actually a professor of economics. You can tell me what the numbers are for the community who were there. Also you had some members of your NYU class do some research out there in town. What’s life like for the native Gerlacher?

CHEF: I also just want to state for the record that in rural communities in The West, the census data is often inaccurate. I did a class with students from my old college, Deep Springs College, which is a college in the middle of Nevada, combined with some of my new students at NYU, talking about rural economic development, and looking at Gerlach as a case study, and asking questions about the data we have and don’t have.

One of the interesting things we did was have people from the local community, including people that work at the school, people that work at the county, come in and speak to us about the future of Gerlach, and the past of Gerlach, and all these different numbers, and everyone concurs that there isn’t a lot of great information.

But what we can tell you is that the major employers seem to be Burning Man because there’s a lot of people that live here year round that’s main source of income is Burning Man. You have the county primarily hiring people through the school. The school district is really where most of the county jobs are. There also are federal jobs in the form of the Post Office. And then there is employment through Bruno’s, which not only has Bruno’s bar but also the hotel and the gas station, and you have the Empire Mine.

STUART: “Bruno’s Country Club Resort,” I believe is the full name.

CHEF: That’s correct. 

STUART: Ah, Bruno Selmi. One of the founding fathers of modern Gerlach. And the Empire mine, right? I know has had a up and down history over at least over the last 25 years that I’ve been going out there. They closed and then the mine was sold and reopened in the last couple of years, right?

CHEF: That is exactly correct. Nomadland, showing it closing. It actually was purchased and was reopened. There’s always rumors that it’s going to close again. 

Some people define Gerlach all the way out past Black Rock Station. You know, that place I said 22 and a half miles away, going up into the mountains where Iverson Ranch, etc., is and going all the way through the mine, and Empire. In fact, when you look at census data, you can also see “the Empire/Gerlach census place.” Then you’re up closer to 300 and something people. Right now, If you extend all the way through Black Rock Station and beyond you get closer to 350. 

STUART: Yeah. And I know that Gerlach and Empire are very much sister cities; the kids from Empire go to the Gerlach school, right?

CHEF: Yeah. It’s because the whole area is just an unincorporated county area. Neither of those is truly a town. So it’s the Washoe County school that everyone in the area goes to.

STUART: So we’ve got this town or “census area” literally out to the end of the pavement, right? That’s one of the town’s mottos is “Where the pavement ends and the west begins.” 

CHEF: That’s right. That’s right at Black Rock Station. Just to be clear, that’s where the west begins in our property. Black Rock Station.

STUART: When you talk about development of an area like that, that’s been so neglected for so long, there must be some enormous challenges to overcome just in terms of infrastructure and local government and all that. Where do you start?

CHEF: I think you start by not being imperialistic and not assuming that you know the way it should be or that there’s one way it should be.

There’s a really big urban-rural divide, especially in a lot of the literature around economic development. People are really colonial; especially urbanists, tend to think innovation districts and the stuff that they care about apply everywhere, and that’s not necessarily true. I think where you try to begin is, if you’re a property owner of a whole bunch of shuttered properties, as we are, I think you begin by trying to open them up, and contributing to the town, and seeing kind of what things are needed and what people might want to do. 

There’s a lot of business owners that would like to create businesses here. And in fact, there used to be an incubator here that was sponsored by the State. Many people might not know this, “incubator” is sort of a techie word these days, but actually a lot of them were started by the Federal government and the States to try to support local people starting businesses. And indeed there has been one in Empire. It was shuttered with the changing of the mine’s ownership, and the County has asked us to partner with them to reopen it in one of our properties, which we definitely are looking to do. 

Part of the reason why an incubator is so useful in a place like this is because reliable internet and power is not to be had. So even providing a space where people can come in and run e-commerce businesses would be a huge improvement over what the typical resident has access to today.

STUART: What’s the human cost of people maybe not having reliable power, not having reliable internet, and being out at the end of the line on services?

CHEF: The human cost is very powerful. I think we often think of ourselves in the United States as living a certain quality of life, and we think of certain countries being poor and not having that quality of life and not having good running water or not having reliable power so they can’t have heat. But the fact of the matter is that’s happening in our own backyard. And Gerlach is a great example of that. 

The human cost is that, if I’m an elder, or someone that has some issue with health, and I need help, even in a very simple way, like Covid tests, I might have to be driven 70 miles to get that help. If I need groceries, same thing. And that drive is not without cost. If I’m a low income person, or even just a middle income person, it adds up very quickly. 

In addition, things like heating or accessing their job, if you don’t have reliable internet, ‘work from home’ is not an option. If you’re trying to run your business or trying to just do something like order let’s say medical supplies or food, neither of which are available in Gerlach, it might not be possible for you. You might not have lights in the middle of a blackout of power. Because all the internet is powered by the power grid, if you’ve chosen to try to even get some of the expensive options, like a StarLink or a Choice Satellite, that won’t work if your power blacks out. 

In the water system when we have some issues with water quality, you might have to boil your water before you’re able to use it or drink it regularly through the year. So this really adds the whole element of just trying to survive at a basic level that I think most of us take for granted in most places in the United States. It’s a challenge and it costs money and it takes effort and it’s a different way of living.

STUART: So what are we doing in Gerlach to actually create jobs, to create employment opportunities?

CHEF: We’ve hired every person that is available for work. We’ve brought a lot of people income that they’ve never had before, and that’s what we should be doing. We struggle to try to find people to fill our jobs. And in many cases, those people are right around us wondering why they can’t get those jobs. And the gap has been in something like Workforce Development when we could train those people and give them the opportunity to take these classes.

And I’ll be honest and say that we had an anonymous donation that let half of attendees attend fully for free. And a lot of those people now work for us, and they can work for us because we were able to build those skills for them. That makes a meaningful difference. When we hire 20 people in Gerlach that might change the unemployment rate by 10%. There’s only, you know, 130 odd people in Gerlach, so that makes a big difference and it helps people be able to live a life that makes sense.

STUART: Yeah, let’s talk about some of those infrastructure issues. How do you jump start a new business in a place where there’s not reliable water or power or internet? How do you get wired up to even enable people to start that process?

CHEF: Well, I think the west and the rural areas and Gerlach itself show us how that is done because Gerlach itself was created through, what we call today, a cooperative. And when people in the west and in rural areas don’t have enough resources to do something, they band together to try to figure out how combined they could do that.

In fact, that’s the only real type of government that is out here. It’s called the Gerlach Improvement District. People came together to try to support each other in creating a water system, a sewer system, and garbage. You have to ask yourself, “what else can we come together to do?” And when we say people to come together – let’s talk Radical Inclusion here, people – that’s us too. We can’t stand outside of it. We should lend what resources we have as an organization and be members of that community to try to figure out what you do. 

And look, there’s been a template that was created not by us, but by the community. There’s a Gerlach Economic Development plan that was created that identified some of these main issues. We don’t have enough power coming into the town to really power even new businesses. And there’s money identified at the county level, and federal level, to actually put money into the town to improve those things. But there’s no one to give the money to, to do it. Part of what happens in places like this is normally there’s a nonprofit entity created to help develop the town further that could be a channel for the money, but can have some local governance aspects. And that’s something that we’ve been working on here as well, the county is interested in helping improve that power, and also in doing things like expanding the water system and the broadband. But there needs to be someone who has experience doing those sorts of things and that has a non-profit to do it with. And guess what? We have Department of Public Works and a whole infrastructure team of people involved with Burning Man, staff and extended staff, as well as theme camps and other people that I think would love to help if we gave them an opportunity.

STUART: Super exciting. I gotta realize there’s a certain percentage of our lovely Burning Man community who really only care about the event, and are always sort of raising their eyebrows about spending anything and sometimes using the decommodification hammer to beat on people. Do you see any conflict with the principle of Decommodification?

CHEF: Wow. You’re asking an economist professor about commodification. That’s a dangerous move.

STUART: But you’re also a Burner, Chef, and to be fair, pretty much Larry Harvey made that word up. 

CHEF: Well, it means different things to different people and I’ll tell you what it means to me as a Burner. And how I try to take into context. I think that just not participating in the economy, or pretending you’re not participating in the economy, is a bogus move. Saying “No, no, no, I won’t participate. Economics doesn’t exist,” it doesn’t really work. As a theme camp organizer I’ve seen over the years money become an increasing part of Black Rock City. And what happens is, if it’s not regulated then it just becomes one of the elements of capitalism that we call an oligopoly or a monopoly.

And so one of the things that I think commodification is about, for me at least, is how money is used or not used to separate human interactions, and how profit is used instead of people. So one of the program areas of the nonprofit is social enterprise, and thinking in particular how we can engage in commerce in a way that is in line with our values, without becoming a commodified economy.

That’s the principle that really we’re trying to take to heart with the real estate program. And I will tell you, as someone who’s worked for many cities (most recently Austin, and before that New York, and before that Augusta, Georgia, before that Seattle), that’s something that every city struggles with, not just Black Rock City. Struggle with, if you’re trying to represent the people and the citizens, how do you engage in economic transactions that don’t allow you to be fleeced by the worst parts of capitalism, but allow you to take advantage of some of the good parts of commerce to deliver some positive outcomes.

There are many people in town, and I hope Burners, who would prefer to see us try to create some economics out of properties versus just seeing them sit fallow. There’s many people in town who would love to rent them, but don’t necessarily have the money to fix them up. So trying to find that balance of applying our resources to fix them up and make them available, but also provide them at affordable rates for things that are good for the local community and therefore should also be good for Burning Man as a member of that community. I think all of that goes to support the event as well as to support ourselves as citizens of a larger context than just that one week. 

I appreciate that some people just care about the event, but also have to remember that the event can’t happen without us being here year-round, and we have an impact. Just like you have an impact leaving trash somewhere, you have an impact leaving an empty building somewhere or not participating in a local community. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You have an impact either way. 

STUART: Some of the work that you’ve done in some of those other cities has to do with reversing artist flight, creating more productive and hopeful environments for artists to live and work in. Tell us a little bit about that. 

CHEF: Absolutely. And I’ll zoom out from it a little bit. The way I got into real estate was moving from community to community and getting gentrified out. First moving into industrial areas, and then the presence of being with other artists and creating attraction led to developers coming in and creating businesses that then made everything unaffordable. Now it’s important to note that the artists weren’t necessarily the first ones there. There are people who look at the artists as the ones who were making it unaffordable for the people before them, and it’s a whole cycle. So we have to acknowledge that, and not think that the artists were the first ones to appear.

STUART: The rent on a garret has gone through the roof!

CHEF: Yeah, so we got to look at that. We got to look at redlining. We have to understand the whole context here. But basically what we’re talking about is actually what we call in economics ‘commodity and non-commodity value.’ There’s a value to this particular real estate that exists. That value changes when you add something like a locally run business, or an artist run effort. And if those people creating those businesses don’t have an ownership stake, then as you create those things it makes the whole place more expensive, and then the very people who created those things might get pushed out for the next person until you have someone that’s empowered in the capitalist system to purchase that place. 

So what we try to do in non-commodity real estate is stakeholder capitalism, instead of just shareholder capitalism, where people who are involved in creating something – be they workers or entrepreneurs or artists – have the opportunity to be co-owners of that thing. And generally speaking in history, that’s been done through cooperatives, and that can take us all the way back to Episode 18 and Black Rock Power. I won’t go there, but I’ll reference it.

These economic development corporations are trying to make it so that those that are involved in a neighborhood either historically, culturally, or in sweat equity, have the opportunity to stay there and benefit from growth, and they aren’t just pushed out. And that includes the families that haven’t had the opportunity through redlining or through not having access to capital in other ways, to benefit from their sometimes generational investment in a particular area, where they’ve just been a renter and then suddenly opportunity zones make it so that everyone wants to put capital in there, and those people get pushed out. So, really trying to fight those forces that are the darker side of capitalism.

There’s also a positive side of capitalism that lets us create things, programs where people can participate, or shared equity models or cooperative models or these kinds of things we’re talking about.

The other thing that I found really interesting is when I read Caveat’s book, “The Scene that Became Cities” book – first of all, I was really moved by it in a lot of ways. I also learned a lot. But in particular there’s a great section on economics. There’s been long debate, far before I even knew what Burning Man was, about decommodification and what it means. Of course, as an economist, I have an opinion about that. That opinion has everything to do with a commodity being a good, service or good, that is no different from some other bunch of them.

STUART: Indistinguishable, like a barrel of oil is a barrel of oil. Yeah.

CHEF: Yeah. We call it substitutable. But not only a barrel of oil; a weird shoebox condo is a weird shoebox condo; a service from your bank where the customer service is, you know, “Do you recognize my voice?” is the same thing. It’s different when someone picks up the phone (this is why people like local banks and local services) and say it’s oh, “Hey, Stuart. Oh, you have an issue? Oh, don’t worry about that form. I’m here to interact with you in a way that recognizes you as a human.” I’m really interested in what that means as we move into a world in which we might have services for sale in Gerlach, things like rooms, or things like solar trailers. What will it mean to us to have those commodity interactions?

One of the great breakthroughs that came for me in reading Caveat’s book, I also had just read a bunch of books on cooperatives, and it was really great to see Caveat take up the idea of cooperative. Cooperative is a form of capitalism that predates actually shareholder corporations, and has to do with something that everyone’s talking about these days, “stakeholder value,” or ESG, and how we move things out into other people’s worlds, so they take accounting of the community. A cooperative is a way to do that, and I think we’re gonna be spending a lot of time talking and thinking about that. I was really glad to see it in his book, and in our next Gerlach Workforce Development Center, we have a cooperative class we’re gonna be teaching. It’ll be Nick Farr – “Brace” – that’ll be teaching that. We’re very excited about what that means, and I hope people who have ideas about that, thoughts, experience, dreams, make those known to us.

STUART: Speaking of people getting pushed out or left behind, a lot of the real estate that Burning Man Project owns is quite close to reservation land. And in a historical sense, you could argue the whole place is tribal lands. Do you foresee a future where the Paiute or Numu People are going to benefit at all from any of this development that we’re going to be sponsoring?

CHEF: Thanks to the work that we’ve been doing through Fly Ranch and LAGI we’ve been able to make some really great connections with the Tribe. The Tribe has a lot of opportunities as our neighbor to be really integrally related with some of the things we’re doing.

One of the things we really hope is to be able to integrate them into our Workforce Development and actually have some of them come out and be able to teach some courses with us. Additionally it’s a difficult time in Gerlach to get emergency medical services, and while Washoe County does provide some help through Truckee Meadows, we also have been looking at whether or not we could form some partnerships with the Tribe to help create more medical service in the area.

As we grow into our role as a participant in this community, it naturally will lead to more and more opportunities to create a substantive relationship with the Tribe that adds to both of our qualities of life and the way that we could interact without acting from a sense of colonial guilt, but actually acting from a sense of being legitimate neighbors that have some way to work together and help one another.

STUART: Yeah. And shared opportunity. That’s great.

CHEF: The intent of some of this, we call it real estate, but it’s actually community development. In terms of the overall lands and reclamation, all I can say is that at a national scale we really have to address these long-term issues of reparations for both the native peoples and those who were brought here as slaves, primarily African-American some Chinese American. We have some issues to deal with. I don’t think Burning Man can do it all on its own, but I think we’d be remiss to not address those issues that on and speak with those various constituencies and try to figure out what we can do from our perspective to be a part of the solution and be an ally in promoting just development.

STUART: And particularly when we’re sharing the same place, we’re sharing that same beautiful piece of the planet Earth. So what does success look like? What’s the Gerlach of 10 years from now going to look like?

CHEF: Success will mean that It doesn’t look hugely different. The properties that are now shuttered will be open, and hopefully open with local businesses. I think more people will be coming through, but we’re not trying to create San Francisco or an urban area, we’re trying to keep Gerlach Gerlach. But, you know, the population has crested 1000 in the past, and I think if we were in a position to have something more like 400 residents, maybe even 500, instead of the two- or three-hundred that exist now, along with some opportunities for people that want to come visit the desert and the national conservation area that extends above it, there’s no RV parks even for them to stay. There’s no places for them to park those and get services and all of that. 

If we could add some of that and increase the natural tourism that’s happening, not create a Boom Town, not create a tech hub, but just create a place that’s a little more balanced, that has some more kids that can help support the school, that has enough people that could support more of a grocery store, that has the ability to fix the broadband, fix the power issues, and some more community destinations locally, whether that’s finding a new destination for the community pool, or having a sculpture park as the county wants to have, but just making it a little bit easier for families to live out here, and a little bit more jobs going around; and also making it easier for participants to come in, theme camps to come in, and not disturb the town as much, but be an adjunct to it in an area where they could work on things and also come in and patronize those new businesses as well as the existing businesses here today. 

STUART: Yeah, getting more year-round reliable sources of income for people, having a more reliable, year-round, actually normal economy, a more diversified economy, sounds like a great place to start.

CHEF: Yeah. 

STUART: So, what are the big risks? What are your fears about this? What might make this not all come together?

CHEF: Well, there’s a couple fears. There’s always a fear of being able to execute in the timeframe that we have with all the other things we have going on. We have such a rich community in terms of experience, and interest in volunteering, and helping things happen. And there’s a lot of skilled people out there. We’d love to have those people participate and help guide us in those areas where we’re trying to figure things out.

My main fear, besides not executing, is that we execute in such a way that we realize a gentrification outcome, or we change the town in a way that makes it more of a Disneyland instead of whatever its more natural state might be.

And then the third fear is that, instead of doing the hard work of partnering with locals and training up locals, that we wind up just importing people to do things, and then the locals are left in a worse position than if we had not done anything to begin with. So I think those are the three main fears I would have.

One of the things we really have going for us is the 10 Principles. Radical Inclusion and Communal Effort are two principles that I see lacking in a lot of the examples that I look at, and civic Participation. We are of a place. We are not interlopers. I know some of y’all that have been around far, far longer than I remember when we were interlopers here, but it’s been a pretty long time, and the population of Gerlach has a significant percentage of people that are Burners, Burning Man employed, or Burning Man previously employed. We are a part of this community. We are not synonymous with, but we are a part of this community.

STUART: Well, that’s true. There’s been a huge generational shift.

CHEF: Yeah.

STUART: Just in the time that I’ve been going out there. But yeah, we weren’t exactly super welcome. There was very much a clash of cultures back in the old days. But it turns out we both liked shooting. That brought us together.

CHEF: Shooting sports are a thing.

STUART: And cars, because you know.

CHEF: And Radical Self-reliance I think is one of the biggest things that drives similarity.

STUART: Radical Self-reliance is one of my favorite principles. I can’t pick a favorite because I’m, yeah, they’re all my favorite. But it’s interesting that as I traveled the world and I talked to Burners in other parts of the world, I realized pretty quickly: that’s one that is not just uniquely American, it’s very Western American. Of all the 10 Principles, I’d say that’s the one that’s the most rooted in place. You go and try to talk to Burners in Germany and their eyes just glaze over when you talk about Radical Self-reliance. It’s like “Well the government takes care of me. That’s what they have the government for is to do that.”

CHEF: Try New York City! Wait, can I order it online?

STUART: Same thing, right? Whereas the only other place on Earth I can think where they have that sort of frontier culture is probably in the Australian outback, where it’s Self-reliance, but it’s also Communal Effort. If you see somebody broke down on the side of the road, you pull over and you help them out.

CHEF: Yeah.

STUART: So we do have that going for us.

CHEF: Yeah. Both of those are very much Gerlach, uh, Gerlachian principles, if I can say that. We just really need to continue challenging ourselves as we look at: What will our impact be here?

And I think we also need to keep remembering Radical Inclusion, and understanding that while those that came before might not have felt welcomed, it’s on our duty to turn that around and make sure people here always feel welcomed and always feel a part of this process, and it’s not us as an outsider, but it’s us standing up to our duty as a citizen.

STUART: Outstanding. Workforce Development program. What’s that all about, Chef?

CHEF: I’m glad you asked, Stuart. Part of what we’ve been doing in Gerlach and with Burning Man is asking, “What would it look like to take the culture from Black Rock City and extend it out just a little bit into the closest place?” which is Gerlach and Hualapai. To start with we’ve created a special project group that is focused on Participation, Civic Engagement, and Communal Effort in Gerlach, along the lines of Leave No Trace as well. And we’ve come up with a suite of things, a menu, if you will, of things we think would elevate society in Gerlach with basic needs.

One of those basic needs is providing training for people who want to get jobs. A lot of times companies will come into town and say, “We have all these jobs. If people want ’em, they can get ’em.” But the people that are local don’t have access to the training that will let them learn how to do those jobs.

STUART: Right.

CHEF: So for us, we have a lot of jobs through DPW and there’s been a dream for a long time of having a DPW University, so we’ve started creating something like that, for classes for people who wanna get certifications or learn how to weld. In addition, we’ve created classes around solar. We’re going to be building an enormous amount of solar in the next couple years.

STUART: Yay.

CHEF: And we currently have hired our first several solar people. We wanna train people locally to do that. And finally, I do a class in what we call ‘Inclusive Growth and Economic Development’ to give people the tools to talk about what we’re doing there, to speak to the county, and to speak to us if they don’t agree with what we’re doing.

STUART: So I understand a lot of the work was done with, and by, our Department of Public Works, with DPW. Tell me about that, how that relationship is working out and what DPW’s role in Gerlach has been like. And what’s it like for you personally? I mean, are you in DPW? Did you get jumped in? Do you have a hoodie? Did you get a tattoo?

CHEF: No, I haven’t gotten my tattoo yet, but I’m hoping this is my year. I definitely have my hoodie and it’s been two full seasons of working out in Gerlach, so absolutely. I’ve been inducted in by some of the more wonderful members that I’ve gotten to work with, which definitely include La Wrench who helped start Black Rock Power with us two seasons ago. Coyote let me be on the Survey team this last year. Weldboy has adopted me into his uber-team of DPWness, whatever that might be.

STUART: Great. 

CHEF: And I’ve really appreciated and loved working with all the DPW members. As you know, I identify more strongly with DPW than any department because that’s been most of my life is working in public works, and so it’s been a thrill to get to work with all the people who build Black Rock City, and I can’t wait to do it in a full season. It has created some challenging questions for everybody, because the Nevada Operations team, which I run, has activities that happen when we don’t have the full apparatus that allows for the creation and maintenance of DPW culture.

STUART: Right.

CHEF: So just like with the Nevada team previously, there’s many of us that have a role in DPW under the DPW structure when that is in place, and also have a year round role that might not be a DPW role, but certainly is DPW adjacent, and we appreciate that partnership. 

STUART: Yeah. And it seems like there’s a lot closer working relationship. I’ve heard ChAoS talk about that. He seems pretty thrilled that there’s better infrastructure for DPW for when they land, but also just the better integration of the teams. 

CHEF: We love it. ChAoS and I have a really great time working together. I have only the utmost respect for him. I think he’s one of the most brilliant heroes we have in Burning Man and in Black Rock City. He also has helped create an architecture and culture for what we’re doing in Nevada Ops that’s complimentary, and builds on some of the lessons that have happened with DPW, and also has helped us with some key hires in some of our leadership roles that also are former and even current DPW members.

STUART: So as we ramp up for this year’s event, and boy, I just love saying that. Can I say that again? As we ramp up for this year’s event…

CHEF: Crowd goes wild.

STUART: What is Gerlach going to look like this coming summer? Are there events gonna be taking place at The 360? What do you think this summer has in store for us leading up to Black Rock City? 

CHEF: We’re really excited about it. I think last year we got started so late that we just were constantly trying to catch up. And also when you enter into any collaborative game or play space, it takes a while for people to understand what the rules are for participation, and some of them step back and watch a little while to make sure it’s gonna be there. But because of our last summer having over a hundred people working, this summer a lot of those people are back and a lot more have participated and heard about what we were doing, and have really great ideas for ways that we can extend the event outside into Gerlach, for more even than we did last summer. 

First of all, we are continuing to work on developing these properties. You’ll see much more interactivity on The 360, but also at Fly, and an integration across Black Rock Station, Fly Ranch, The 360 and what’s happening in the town of Gerlach proper.

We have a single producer that’s helping us kind of coordinate all of the different events that are going on. And by events, I include things like DPW Managers coming for their work; we’re talking about having a Green Theme Camp Summit; we have solar builds going on. It’s gonna be a very exciting summer. We expect to have activities almost every weekend from May through Black Rock City and into September.

STUART: So the Gerlach Estates. And by the way, I love that name for a trailer park. It’s gonna be packed.

CHEF: Gerlach Estates is gonna be packed. We’re very close to getting The Showers, which we renamed Granite Point RV Park.

STUART: Oh yeah. How’s that coming along?

CHEF: It’s coming along great. We have one more i to dot and t to cross. The work will be led by a new position we have which is a Lead General Contractor inside Burning Man. That is a long time DPW and Nevada Properties member named Dale, also known as Buckhorn, who will be leading off that trenching work. The electrical work is gonna be done by Big Eli, an old Black Rock Solar and DPW member as well. 

STUART: You mentioned ramping up the production of solar arrays. Is that something that’s happening this year or is that further on down the line?

CHEF: Oh, it’s happening this year. We have a pretty exciting program called “Off Fossil Fuels,” which we just abbreviate as O-F-F, or “OFF.” That program involves different levels of solar power that help participants and us, the organization, get off of diesel generators. The three levels are the Baby Wookies, The Unicorns, and Falcor – all magical animal names.

STUART: Outstanding. So, the Baby Wookie, the Unicorn and the (what is it?), the Band, the Bandthrap? I don’t know. 

CHEF: Falcor. You know from The Neverending Story? The big dog dragon? That’s Falcor.

STUART: Okay. I’ll take your word for it.

CHEF: You’re too young for that one, Stuart.

FALCOR: I’m a luck dragon. My name is Falcor.

STUART: I’ve seen the baby unicorns. That’s the small trailer-mount array, right?

CHEF: Those are the Baby Wookies. So we prototyped those two years ago. Last year, we had a fleet of about 20 that we utilized on The 360 and also brought out into the Renegade Burn. And this coming year we expect to have about 60 of those. We are working on taking some installations inside plazas and certain stations, like perhaps Greeters, perhaps Point 1, and moving those this year off of fossil fuels onto those Baby Wookies. And then we’re really excited that we’ll be taking the Man off of diesel generators this year with the Unicorn technology. 

In addition, we’ve been working with the folks who built the solar, called The Cube, that powered The Folly last time we were in Black Rock City. They’re going to be providing some solar infrastructure for us. We also will be doing a Green Theme Camp Summit where we might help others build additional, midsize solar generators. And, there’s additional solar work going on in The 360, our large array that eventually will be utilized in the future years to take more of Black Rock City off of fossil fuels.

STUART: Well, that just gladdens my heart. I’ve been angry at generators since my first Burning Man in 1993. “Shut that goddamn generator off!” I think power, I think power plugs might have actually been uh cut off of people’s power cords in the middle of the night.

CHEF: Oh, wow.

STUART: I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but I just know that it happened.

CHEF: Oh, it’s wrong, but so right. I have to say, when I was out on Renegade, I pulled one of the Baby Wookies out with me. I was camping with a couple of my friends. We had, you know, your standard U shape with our three RVs, and I was in the center of the U on my power, and they both ran their generators and put them ‘out of the way,’ right behind the windows of my RV. So, I had solar power and listened to their generators the whole time.

STUART: That’s the joke. There’s no such thing as ‘out of the way’ in Black Rock City, right?

CHEF: But I will tell you I laughed the whole time because I never even wiped down my panels, and there was plenty of dust, but I watched them fumble with running out of fuel, and fixing fuel filters, and all of this other stuff that made me feel pretty happy about my solar choice.

STUART: Wow. I’m super excited to see more and more of that in the years going forward. 

So what can we do in Gerlach, in this area in Northern Nevada? What’s the big picture opportunity, Chef? What’s the long game look like? What are the possibilities there?

CHEF: When we start looking at what we could do in Gerlach, we start from a place of reactivity, of the things that are going wrong, or the things that we didn’t do, or the things we should do, but let’s not get confused about who we are as an organization. We’re not really a reactive organization. Now we do need to clean up our trash and follow our own principles. But once we get beyond that, one of the really amazing opportunities that we have is to just imagine what it looks like when Black Rock City starts spilling out of its physical and temporal borders into places beyond the playa – and of course, Gerlach is right there – and places beyond those, however many weeks you want to count it based on who you are in our society, but let’s say at most three or four months.

And if you imagine that instead of talking about Fly Ranch, and the work ranch, and what’s happening Gerlach and The 360, that’s not really how we wanna see it. What we wanna see is this space that extends between all of those places. And you can imagine getting on board an art car, or let’s say magic school bus, and being able to travel between these different stops that now are more like theme camps in and of themselves.

What Fly Ranch is, is a place where someone can interact, and hop on and go down the street and interact somewhere else, with The 360, or with what’s going on in Gerlach. And that starts creating a space that can attract people in the year-round to dip in and out of that culture, and be able to engage with art, engage with convenings, engage with learning and teaching and live a life that spreads out more the culture and community that we try to create there. I think ultimately we hope to see that extend through what we’ve called the triple crown in the past, this idea that we have an ephemeral city that has a lot of similarities in relationship to ephemeral cities that go all the way back 10,000 years, Göbekli Tepe, or places like Kumbh Mela. 

STUART: Yeah. 

CHEF: And then we have our rural area where really, this is sort of an evolution of even how civilization became, and that’s the second part of the crown.

And the third crown is the metropolitan area, the Reno urban area, which if we’re not careful is gonna become another gentrified city. We have an opportunity to extend into that and be a part of co-creating what each of those things can be in a way that has something to say about who we are and what we have to contribute to American society.

STUART: Now I just wanna do a whole show talking about Göbekli Tepe. I’m reading David Graber’s new book, “The Dawn of Everything,” or his last book before he died. It’s quite amazing. 

CHEF: Oh, I’ll have to read that.

STUART: And, yes, and the ephemeral nature of some of those early settlements; Stonehenge included. It’s like nobody farmed there, nobody lived there. They came there for the summer, had a great hunting season…

CHEF: For thousands of years, Stuart. For thousands of years. The thing that brought them together was myth. Whether it was religion or arts or mating, it was, “There’s a reason that we need to gather. We don’t need to persist in those places.”

There’s a reason we need to gather. And that’s why, despite everything with Covid and everything else, cities are not going anywhere, but neither is Black Rock City. People will want to gather in that way for quite some time. And if we’ve reached a point where our population is increasingly taking on more of the work of building Black Rock City, then we can spread our attention outward to figure out how we grow that work in other places. And it makes sense. It’s an evolution of possibility.

STUART: Okay. I think we got a show.

CHEF: Great.

STUART: Thanks again for joining us, Matthew “Chef” Kwatinetz.

CHEF: You’re welcome.

STUART: Well, it’s been wonderful talking with you, Chef, as always. Thanks for showing up on the show.

CHEF: Thank you, Stuart. It’s been a pleasure. I appreciate you having me for a second time. I feel honored.

STUART: Well that’s okay. Who knows, if you keep popping out new business entities and new initiatives, we may have to have you back for that third thing.

CHEF: I hope it will be to have me back to report progress on the existing two things. I don’t want to pop anything else out.

STUART: Let’s do that.

CHEF: Okay. I look forward to it.

STUART: Cool.

CHEF: Awesome. Thank you. I can’t wait for the next time. Okay. Ciao.

STUART: All right. Thanks everybody for listening.

Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of the thoroughly non-profit Burning Man Project, made possible by generous listeners like you who pop a few dollars into the artisanal tin cup that we like to call donate.burningman.org. Thanks to everyone who made the show possible, but especially to my closest colleagues and companions: Producer, Andie Grace and Technical Producer, Story Editor and all around audio wizard, Michael Vav.

Thanks, everybody. See you next time.

Thanks, Larry.


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