by Stephanie Sodero
Picking Up is about the seemingly mundane and certainly smelly world of garbage collection in New York City. NYU Professor Robin Nagle is motivated by the question, “Who cleans up after us?” She works as an anthropologist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) where she drives trucks, collects waste and clears snow. Nagle offers the reader an insider’s perspective on the four seasons of a sanitation worker: spring, maggots, leaves and night plow.
I came across Picking Up at the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side (combine with The Big Onion’s ethnic eating tour for wonderful afternoon!). Nagle, perhaps not unlike mobilities scholars, is attentive to infrastructures that are ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. In Picking Up, she shines a headlight on the flow of garbage in New York from curb to landfill, observing the workplace practices and politics of the 9,000 strong workforce.
I picked up the book because I am curious about the life of overlooked but critical mobilities. As one of Nagle’s colleagues reflects:
If you’re lucky, you can go your whole life without ever having to call a cop. And you can also go your whole life without ever calling a fireman. But you need a sanitation worker every single day.
When functioning as intended, waste collection is ho-hum. Nagle observes how sanitation work is invisible to New Yorkers:
Because of the mundane, and largely successful nature of his work, his uniform … acts as a cloaking device. … his truck and his muscle punctuate the rhythms of neighborhood at such regular intervals that he becomes a kind of informal timepiece.
Sociologist Bruno Latour reflects on the way “technical work is made invisible by its own success.” Dan Saltzstein, writing in The New York Times, wonders “If the Police Department represents New York’s Finest … what about the Sanitation Department? … New York’s Most Invisible?”
Perpetual circulations of sanitation workers and trucks make New York habitable. If collection halted for any reason, the cityscape would transform. One only needs to look to the experiences of recent garbage strikes: Madrid, Toronto and Naples (also New York in 1968 and 1981 – events about which Nagle is curiously quiet) to appreciate the role of sanitation workers. Nagle recounts seeing a san man, as they call themselves, at work the day after 9/11.
As with all such systemic infrastructures, disruption leads to profound visibility. It is only when what Bruno Latour refers to as the black box (black garbage bag?) of urban systems cease to function that components and complexity become apparent.
How does the steady and mundane work of the DSNY intersect with what I refer to as crisis mobilities? How do we move things, like waste and snow, when the going gets tough? I look to history and extreme weather.
1895: Disciplining garbage
Waste was a chronic crisis in New York dating from the arrival of the first settlers in 1624 and exacerbated by a skyrocketing population. Nagle’s description is pungent: scenes of “heaps upon heaps upon heaps of horse manure marinated in millions of gallons of horse urine (and often mounded around the maggoty carcasses of dead horses, dead dogs, dead cats, who might lie where they fell for weeks)” were not uncommon. Acute disease outbreaks made regular rounds.
In 1895, a Civil War veteran, George Waring, was hired as New York’s first sanitation engineer. Waring was able to affect a shift from a state of chronic crisis of immobile garbage to the expectation of swift and smooth waste removal. In three years he overcame endemic corruption and ineptitude, securing the workers and equipment necessary to unearth the city from its mantle of garbage.
Drawing on his military experience, he imposed discipline on New York’s waste, issuing white uniforms that transformed workers into visible symbols of hygiene. He practiced what social theorist Michel Foucault refers to as biopower, first controlling New Yorkers’ waste and, in turn, transforming the way in which New Yorkers’ regulated themselves.
2010: Overwhelmed by weather
The DSNY, despite its name, is not only responsible for moving garbage, but also for moving snow. In 2010 the city was hit by a snowstorm – not an unusual event. The Department rolled out its operations with initial success. But gradually the workforce was outpaced by fast falling snow and high winds. Approximately 258 DSNY vehicles – and their drivers who are obligated to remain with the vehicles – were stranded across the city in what Nagle describes as a “slow-motion pileup.”
Suddenly sanitation workers were an all too visible focal point of a frustrated public. Accusations of an intentional work slowdown led to a six-month investigation. Findings included issues with equipment failures, lack of communication and a centralized structure that does not respond to variable conditions on the ground.
The creation of the DSNY and the 2010 snowstorm are responses to two different expressions of crisis mobilities. The historic incapacity to deal with waste was chronic and indicative of corruption. The more recent snowstorm was acute and symptomatic of how more frequent extreme weather events may challenge urban mobilities. In the former, rigorous mundanity was a response to crisis, while in the later case, crisis was an exception to steadfast reliability. This suggests a close relationship between mundanity and crisis, where one state may quickly flip to the other. The commonality is that change was unexpected.
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2013).
A Killam/SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Stephanie Sodero researches crisis mobilities at Lancaster University's Centre for Mobilities Research and the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues.