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Burning Man enthusiasts say festival’s communal spirit lives on

  • Scott Swanson of Bozeman, Mont., returned to Santa Rosa for his annual trip to burning man with friends. The group loaded their RV with water, liquor and outfits for the desert festival.

For Scott Swanson and Steve Thomas, late August is the time of year to brush the thick layer of dust off their camping gear, load up the RV with local fruits and vegetables, steaks, chips and plenty of cheap vodka for Jell-O shots, and head northeast to the Nevada desert for the annual spectacle of art, music and communal living that is Burning Man.

This year’s festival, which will draw 70,000 eclectic “Burners,” including many from Sonoma County, to Black Rock City, Nev., comes amid complaints of class divisions at Burning Man. In recent years, Silicon Valley billionaires have started showing up at the event with exclusive catered camps that include everything from air conditioned tents to private chefs. Some longtime Burners say this amounts to the gentrification of Burning Man, and is antithetical to the free, inclusive spirit of the festival that began on a San Francisco beach in 1986.

Such criticism echoes larger worries about Silicon Valley’s growing cultural and economic footprint in the Bay Area. Antagonism has been particularly sharp in San Francisco, where real estate values have soared, changing the character of some neighborhoods and pricing residents out of the real estate market.

Burning Man 2014

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For Swanson, a retired deputy chief of the Santa Rosa Police Department, who now lives in Bozeman, Mont., the luxury camps set up by tech-world elites such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos of Amazon, are noticeable but don’t detract from the extravaganza of the weeklong event that begins today .

“You see everything from people arriving with a backpack and depending on the goodwill of people to feed them to the high-tech folks with their fancy camps,” Swanson said. “If someone wants to go there and experience it that way, it’s their business. If they want to go with their personal chef and shut themselves off, I’m not going to tell them how to experience it. I wouldn’t want to experience it that way. It’s all about human interactions.”

Indeed, many say that communal living and a rejection of consumerism are some of the big draws of Burning Man. Besides the tickets, which cost $380, there is nothing to buy at the festival except coffee and ice. All transactions are on the barter system, and many people share the supplies that they bring with other festival-goers.

Mike Koftinow, a Santa Rosa artist who went to Burning Man for the first time last year, said he enjoyed the wild art exhibits and meeting many creative people, but, he said, the economic stratification was glaring. Some of the most exclusive camps cost $25,000 per person, according to a recent New York Times article, and include paid help, concierge services and lavishly prepared meals, served in air-conditioned quarters.

“From what I saw, you could definitely tell the affluent people,” said Koftinow, who works at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. “You could see the split. Burners who have been coming for 20 years were really upset about that. It shows that there are haves and have-nots, even when people aren’t wearing clothes.”

Burning Man participants from the North Coast said the festival was a sort of mirror of society that includes a mix of all types of people, so naturally there would be a wealth gap. Once a place for hippies and artists, the festival’s recent mainstream popularity has attracted a more monied class of executives who look forward to the chance to escape the pressure of the corporate world.

Thomas, a Santa Rosa organization development consultant who was gearing up Saturday for his fifth Burning Man, said some friends at the festival last year ran into Mark Zuckerberg walking around on the Playa, the open public space at the center of the massive campground. The multibillionaire was just a part of the crowd, he said.


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