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Getting the Dirt: New Perspectives on Trash in New York City

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Vintage New York City garbage truck (all images courtesy New York Academy of Medicine unless otherwise noted)

Two basic systems: Development and Maintenance. The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?

—Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!

Written nearly a decade before she was appointed artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation in 1976, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!” points at a basic disconnect between concept and reality. A pervasive element of modern life in general, this schism is sharply felt in the world of waste management: how often have we rejoiced at the idea of getting rid of stuff, or felt renewed after “spring cleaning,” with little thought for the systems or individuals that make our purging possible?

Ukeles decided to turn the tables on the art world when, after having her first child, she felt suddenly shunted into a “motherhood” box and stripped of a unique identity. Her life was newly bound by repetitive, real-world tasks that were mind-numbingly boring, yet nonetheless vital to the health and safety of her baby. She realized that in the eyes of society she had lost her “artist” status and had become one of the maintenance class — housewives being in the same category as janitors, security guards, and sanitation workers — and recognized something deeper: that it is the very people performing the most essential tasks of our world to whom society accords the least money, attention, and respect. “MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK,” Ukeles declares in her manifesto, in which she proposes a museum exhibition where she would live in public view and “perform” the daily chores that she had heretofore believed were robbing her of time to create “real” art.

Within 10 years, Ukeles was working side by side with the New York Department of Sanitation, with whose (non-financial) support she created works like “Touch Sanitation,” a ritual involving shaking the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers, each of whom she thanked for “keeping New York City alive.” Ukeles’s on-the-ground, interview-based art-making methods resonated with cultural anthropologist Robin Nagle at a crucial moment in her career, when she wasn’t sure what to do with her secret fascination for trash.

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(screenshot via @NYAMHistory) (click to enlarge)

Fast forward to 2015, and Nagle is giving the final lecture in the three-part series Garbage and the City: Two Centuries of Dirt, Debris, and Disposal, co-produced by the New York Academy of Medicine, the Museum of the City of New York, and ARCHIVE Global. Two years ago, Nagle penned an in-depth ethnography titled Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, based on her experiences as anthropologist-in-residence at the DSNY, a title she has held since 2006.

In any given city or town, police are typically described as “the Finest,” and firefighters as “the Bravest.” Less well known is the moniker “the Strongest,” given to sanitation workers. In New York City, sanitation workers are three times more likely to be killed on the job than their counterparts on the force or in the firehouse. The vehemence with which Nagle made this statistic clear during her lecture displays her fierce advocacy for the DSNY and the individuals who keep New York City alive. Having actually passed her sanitation exam and put in her hours collecting garbage on the street, she can now count herself in these individuals’ company.

New York women in the late 19th century were crucial in establishing a sanitation infrastructure, realizing the importance of “keeping the home fires burning” (another aspect of the “Manifesto for Maintenance Art”) not just at home, but in the city at large.

In Nagle’s book, she describes the success of the Ladies Health Protection Association and other civic-minded groups in resolving the sanitation issues of the city as a result of “framing them as problems of aesthetics and cleanliness rather than of science or politics.”

Writing an ethnography is not a radical act for an anthropologist, but Nagle’s engaging book provides a window on the DSNY that the general public was missing. The irony here is that we see sanitation workers on the job every day, but most of us are used to pretending we don’t. Decades earlier, also on the street with “New York’s Strongest,” Ukeles re-framed our view of sanitation work with “Follow in Your Footsteps”: an impromptu, solo street dance, during which she mirrored the gestures and movements of the workers as she followed them on their routes.

The producers of Garbage and the City used waste management as a lens through which to see the history of the city itself. In Catherine McNeur’s lecture “Hog Wash, Swill Milk, and the Politics of Waste Recycling in Antebellum Manhattan,” she pointed out that the path to a cleaner city was itself a messy one. Civic change was being driven by the aesthetic opinions of wealthy New Yorkers, and while the general reduction of garbage in the streets was undoubtedly a positive step, it left in its wake those who lacked the influence or power to incite change and who had, over the years, adapted to the situation: “The city’s notoriously filthy streets [had previously] served as an urban commons for the poor, who used the piles of trash to feed their animals, recover salable materials, and make ends meet,” McNeuer writes in her book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City.

Perhaps the DSNY is having a moment. Climate change and other global realities are bringing us face-to-face with hard truths about how we live, and a closer look at the specifics of existing waste management systems can provide us with some clarity about how best to move forward. One of the ways in which the public can be nudged towards a deeper understanding and clearer view of the world is through those who cast new light on the seemingly familiar.

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New York City garbage truck, circa 1929

A larger issue at play here is our willful blindness to where our trash actually goes after we throw it “away.” In antebellum Manhattan, much of the city’s refuse was going into the rivers, including the carcasses of dead animals — McNeur mentioned that, in advance of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, men were sent out to tie weights onto scores of floating horse heads to prevent incoming tourists from being scandalized. As long as our waste is out of sight, it is truly off our minds — never mind that some of us are living right on top of it.

There is something deeply disturbing, and certainly art-worthy, about how we don’t assume any responsibility for the trash we create. Feeling unburdened is tempting; we don’t think too much about the people who take that burden off from us, or the landfills that house the evidence of our lifelong material consumption.

At the end of Nagle’s lecture, she showed a short documentary directed by Kelly Adams, one of her students at New York University’s Draper Program. One Man’s Trash explores the vast, surreal art collection of New York sanitation worker Nelson Molina. In the documentary, Molina says that finding his “treasures in the trash” requires a unique sixth sense: he can feel it if there’s something great hidden in an innocuous black bag. A bookshelf’s worth of discarded Furbies is just one of countless hilarious and idiosyncratic details of Molina’s setup at the sanitation garage on 99th street between first and second avenue.

An artistic sensibility can be found anywhere. “Most people in the world do repetitive work,” Ukeles says. “What happens to that person when she has a spirit of creativity? Of invention?” Hopefully those are the people that can inspire more of us to be revolutionaries and pick up the garbage.

Garbage and the City: Two Centuries of Dirt, Debris and Disposal” took place at the New York Academy of Medicine (1216 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan) and the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on July 1, August 3, and August 17. 

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