Love Letter to the Center Camp Coffee Shop

Love Letter to the Center Camp Coffee Shop

In 1995, the Center Camp Coffee Shop was born as a single espresso machine sitting on top of hay bales. Rumor has it that a storm took out the bedouin-style tent that housed the bales, but the espresso machine and its offerings persevered — an early testament to the dedication and resilience of Burner culture. In 2000, the Center Camp Coffee Shop moved under a huge structure that can withstand 120 mph winds, truly an engineering feat. Since then, the Center Camp Coffee Shop has grown to over 1,000 volunteers and into a vibrant community. The on-the-fly espresso chops, behind-the-counter performances, and playa love expressed through playful interactions have contributed so much to the evolution of the Center Camp Coffee Shop, and to the joyful, welcoming (and caffeinated!) experiences for all of Black Rock City. 

Center Camp Café, 1998 (Photo by downtempo)

Black Rock City is a continuously evolving, living experiment. As we shared at the end of last year, we will no longer do coffee sales at Center Camp in 2022. There are other big changes to our city, as well. This decision is ever so bittersweet, and it was not made lightly. Making this choice aligns with Burning Man Project’s long term sustainability goals and initiatives and the Principle of Decommodification. While coffee sales have been in decline the last few years and operational costs have risen, the environmental footprint of the café has become difficult to justify. The operation uses 10,000 gallons of fuel yearly between power, refrigeration and transport, and generates egregious amounts of waste, such as 30,000 cups, thousands of plastic milk containers, and 25,000 gallons of greywater. And, coffee commerce in the center of our decommodified city has been a point of perennial debate for years. Experimenting with no coffee sales in 2022 is a tangible example of Burning Man Project’s commitment to our values.

Originally, the inspiration for creating a coffee shop was to draw people into a civic plaza at the center of our city. Stopping by to meet friends old and new, settling in for a while, and holding a delicious beverage is a ritual for many and an initiation for new Black Rock City citizens — the familiarity and ease of the café eases entry into a world of strangers as they become familiar, and helps us feel at Home. Larry Harvey’s vision for a communal gathering space at the heart of a city within a café setting was inspired by the zocalos of Oaxaca City. 

The flapping flags of Center Camp are a beacon to the center of the City, and the coffee shop has always been a place that welcomes us all. We have come to believe that the sale of coffee may have become nonessential, and the gathering space is what matters. Center Camp will continue to be an interactive, playful, social, communal, welcoming place; a vibrant hub of engagement and participation with performance and art. The structure will remain the same, as well as all the other offerings it holds: art, a performance stage, a spoken word stage, and all things that make it a world unto itself. The vision for the new canvas is a space that focuses on immediacy, spontaneity, and community participation. Within this, we hope to showcase the 10 Principles, brought by YOU! We invite you to join us to help reinvent the space to celebrate and serve our community and city. Stay tuned as we ramp up Black Rock City planning for more information.

“Uniquely expressive acts get transformed and elaborated into social rites, and through participation they accrue a breadth and depth of meaning which can only be produced in a communal setting. It is the primal process by which culture is created.”
—Larry Harvey

Center Camp Coffee Shop volunteers, you have for many years contributed to Larry’s idea. Under the guidance of Center Camp managers P Segal, Dana Harrison, and Marcia Crosby, you created a culture and an organic community. The Center Camp Coffee Shop is a beloved chamber of the beating heart of Black Rock City, and will forever be a part of our history. The memories and deeply-rooted value of your quarter century (!) of service is not taken lightly, or for granted. You have been inspirational and welcoming, and we can’t wait to see where and how you bring your energies, joy, and playfulness next. People like you are what makes Black Rock City… well, Black Rock City. From the entire Burning Man community, we offer a deep bow of gratitude to the thousands of the volunteers who have made the operation of Center Camp Coffee Shop what it has been. 

Take a walk through the memory palace of the Center Camp Coffee Shop with the photos below.

Do you have words, stories, or photographs you’d like to share about Coffee Shop over the years and that you’d be willing to let us share with the community? Please send them to [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you! 

Cover image of  “The Phoenix Rainbow” in front of Center Camp Café, 2017 (Photo by Scott Williams)