Creating Center Camp, Decompression and Continual Inspiration

A photo of the 2nd Center Camp Cafe from P’s personal collection. (1996)


“When it came down the espresso machine was the only thing left standing and everyone said, ‘oh! there’s an espresso machine!'” P Segal recounted the wind storm of 1995 that destroyed the first ever Center Camp Cafe and the clueless participants who thought it was just a lounge with a very elaborate shade structure. P has been to Burning Man since the beginning and in those early years, according to P, it was just a “roach coach, a mobile espresso cart that also provided a few other things, and he definitely charged us.” For the first three years of Burning Man at the Black Rock Desert everyone knew each other but as the festival grew and more “jonesing urbanites” started to show up they realized a the roach coach just wasn’t going to cut it.  They needed to make a coffee house out there in the desert and P was the lady to do it. After some discussion she was given 400 bucks and lots of good luck. P headed out to the desert to make the first ever Center Camp Cafe full of hay-bales and cable spools and an old pull lever espresso machine. In 1996, the cafe wasn’t even fully shaded. “During our second year we were putting up the supports and we realized that the person who was bringing the shade only had three parachutes. Of course the part over the counter was the section in the sun, did I even need to say that?” P is a full of funny anecdotes about those infant years of Burning Man.

By the second year at the Black Rock Desert people began bringing t-shirts and pipes to sell. P remembers Larry Harvey saying to her that he “did not want it to be like a parking lot at a dead show.” From then on gifting became the norm and commerce was limited to the cafe (and eventually Artica). There were many talks about the cafe being a gift but they couldn’t figure out a way to make it work for a mere 1,000 people let alone what the population has grown to now. It just wasn’t feasible. Since the cafe would have a register they realized that someone would need to be there at all times. P made the executive decision to put the cafe in the center so she could “look down the avenue and watch the [Man] burn.”

P also hosted the original Decompression party at her Edwardian flat in San Francisco. The experience of Burning Man was “profoundly altering” and it prompted everyone to keep saying, “we’re going to need to decompress from this.” P decided to have a house party at her place where they could all share photos and stories about the Burn. She ended up hosting that party annually for about 7-8 years until there were way too many people to fit in her home. Now decompression parties, like center camp, have become huge centers for community, conversation and celebration.

The first Man on the Playa (1990)

Talking with P is a reminder that these original burners are remarkably similar to the 50,00 of us that flock to BRC each year. “We were all disenfranchised struggling arty people with a set of values that were not typical, conventional societal values. So we got to go out there and make the society that we thought would be good. The fact that so many people resonated with our values and principles  was really wonderful to watch.”

P is still inspired by the burn although she no longer feels she has to always attend, “it’s in my psyche I don’t have to see it to experience it.” Her newest project plans to bring back to San Francisco the artist culture that inspired Burning Man. Almost a year ago P’s friend was evicted from their flat which caused her to realize that none of her working artist friends were actually able to live in San Francisco. All of them had moved out to Oakland or further in search of housing. She felt that the city was losing it’s creative culture.  Her solution is the San Francisco ArtHouses which will provide affordable live work spaces for all types of creatives including: photographers, painters, writers, sculptors, poets and metal workers. Not only will it be a live-work space but it will also be a gateway to the community, housing coffee shops, bookstores, galleries, exhibition spaces, photo labs and more. P is currently looking into multiple models for these art houses. One in particular is the burner-owned Dream Community in Taiwan that P is visiting in February and it appears to be a fairly magical, silly and inspiring place, quite the perfect muse in fact. P has set up many speaking engagements and is in the beginning stages of the intense amount of work necessary to turn this ambitious project into a reality. But if her pervious creations are any indication of the abilities of this one individual to create something out of well…nothing…then we’re pretty positive you’ll be seeing Arthouses popping up all around SF in only a few years time. Follow the project on Facebook to see how you can get involved.

3 Responses to “Creating Center Camp, Decompression and Continual Inspiration”
  1. I love it, and I love you too Miss P!!! These are exciting times for sure, and if I can help you in any way, just ask… XOXO Jungle Jim

  2. I loved center camp in ’96 – I camped just across the street from the stage and spent a lot of time at center camp hanging out with the Lego guy and playing chess on hay bale seats (to the left in this picture.) That was before moop… There was a great fresh juice stand just east of the coffee machine.


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