Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


February 13, 2012

New York's Garbologist-in-Chief

NYU Professor Robin Nagle is, quite literally, the city's go-to expert on the interaction between trash and society.

Vincent Valk

NYU anthropology professor Robin Nagle is the anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City Sanitation Department (DSNY), where she studies the culture of a city department that most of us—let's be honest— would rather not think about very much. The role, which she came into after a stint working as a streetsweeper (and which, Nagle notes, is unsalaried), has given her a unique view into the city's masses of trash and the men and women who look after it. She's parlayed this into the DSNY Oral History Project, and, eventually, she hopes to create a full-fledged New York City Sanitation Museum. She is also working on a book, entitled Picking Up, about her experiences working in, and with, the city's Sanitation Department.

Robin Nagle. Photo by Michael Anton.
"You are creating the future archaeology of your own life by what you put out for collection."

Robin Nagle. Photo by Michael Anton.

In the following interview, conducted via phone and edited for length and clarity, Nagle tells Gelf about how she developed an interest in trash, what she learned by working in and with sanitation department, and why "every city agency in every city in the country" should have a resident anthropologist.

Gelf Magazine: Tell me how you came to be interested in garbage.

Robin Nagle: I was ten years old and I was hiking the Adirondacks with my Dad. It was the summer and we were in this gorgeous landscape, as if no human had ever been there except the trail. We went to our campsite there was a little dump behind the lean-to. This was when environmental causes were becoming increasingly urgent and popular, and my parents were quite vocal in supporting them. So I grew up assuming that hikers and campers in the Adirondacks would be environmentally aware and sensitive. That a grown up person would leave behind his tang packets and wadded up aluminum foil was amazing to me as a kid. I was astonished and angry. It kind of inspired the question, who did they think was gonna clean up after them? And that question stayed with me from that moment forward.

Gelf Magazine: You are now, and have been since 2006, the resident anthropologist at DSNY. How'd that happen? Most people would not think that DSNY has a resident anthropologist, or, really, needs one.

Robin Nagle: Speaking as an anthropologist, I think there should be one in every city agency in every city in country. Not to tell them what to do but to help the public understand how a particular organization works and how to translate the mission of that institution to its constituency and visa versa. Anthropologists are supposed to interpret culture and each uniformed agency in NYC, for instance, is a culturally distinct institution. I think there is a role for anthropology inside all of the city's uniformed agencies. I came to the anthropologist-in-residence title because I was doing research for a book, which involved spending a lot of time working side by side with sanitation workers all over the city. I eventually realized that had to actually become a sanitation worker to really understand the job. So I took the sanitation test, which 15 months later led to be my being hired as a mechanical broom operator by DSNY. But I was working full time for both DSNY and NYU, and with family responsibilities, I just didn't have time for all of it. So, I decided to resign from the department after a few months. I still wanted an affiliation with DSNY, though, it just had to be something I could fit in with my other obligations. Thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles—who has been DSNY's resident artist since 1977—as a model, I suggested becoming the anthropologist—in—residence. I thought there was so much to do with that title. I could put together archives for the department, and work on the sanitation museum and oral history project, and for each of those I can say that I am the in-house social science person.

Gelf Magazine: So you spent a few months as an NYC sanitation worker. What was that like? What surprising things did you learn from it?

Robin Nagle: Plowing snow on tiny narrow streets in part of the city I don’t know scared the crap out of me. Even though I could drive the truck, when you put the plow in it's a different beast. The mechanical broom is an elegant machine that has a trio of dashboards that makes you feel like you are in a low flying airplane. I was training to be a broom operator and assigned to a garage in the Bronx and I swept the Bronx. I did collection work as part of field work, but not while I was actually on the job.

Gelf Magazine: I'd imagine that sanitation workers have some thoughts on garbage that would not occur to most people. How, generally, do they view trash?

Robin Nagle: It depends on the individual, and the neighborhood they work in. DSNY employs 6,000 people, and I can't claim to speak for all of them. However, there is a kind of perpetual head shaking about the high quality stuff that people just throw away. Like mahogany tables without a scratch, clothing, jewelry, there is a lot of stuff that goes to the curb that if it were in a shop window you wouldn’t think twice about paying lots of money for it. The thing the public does not quite recognize about their own garbage creation is that when you put it out on the curb, I can read you like a book just by glancing at that collection of discard. The vast majority of sanitation workers are completely uninterested in doing this, but they could if they wanted to and I think this is one of the reasons they are not well-liked. The public would be unhappy if sanitation workers did go through our trash, but you are creating the future archaeology of your own life by what you put out for collection.

Gelf Magazine: You are working on creating a DSNY museum. What will that be like?

Robin Nagle: The museum will have elements like the transit museum. It will reflect the logistical nuts and bolts of jobs, and also show how it impacts the city. It is not a garbage museum; it is about public health, infrastructure, technology, environmental awareness, and how that fits together in quality of life of the city.

Gelf Magazine: I grew up in Staten Island, and—while I don't really subscribe to this notion — many people I grew up with saw the Fresh Kills Landfill as, basically, an insult from the rest of the city. How did the people who worked at the world's largest landfill view it?

Robin Nagle: For the people who worked out there, it was intensely complicated. There were more 650 employees there with 18 different unions, including electricians, blacksmiths, cable operators, metallurgists. It wasn't just sanitation. Some of the landfill practices that were pioneered at Fresh Kills are now used in other places. The landfill required a brain trust, both on site and at DSNY headquarters. They did not just haphazardly dump—they dumped very methodically, and in specific places to build mounds in a certain place in a certain order. I made an argument in a piece I wrote before 9/11 for a Snug Harbor exhibit on landfills that if you look at might and swagger of New York City and you look at the scale and mightiness of Fresh Kills they kind of fit each other. It stood in both figuratively and literally for the entire metropolis. Of course Staten Islanders hated it, though—there was a whole environmental justice issue that came into play with that.

Gelf Magazine: Most big landfills eventually get reused as something—including Fresh Kills, which is becoming Fresh Kills Park. Is there sometimes a silver lining to our using vast expanses of land to store our trash?

Robin Nagle: I think so. You also have created an archaeological repository. You have locked it in time. The second half of the 20th century is written in minute detail in the hills of massive landfills. Will that ever be dug up and analyzed? I have no idea, but it's there.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Science
- posted on Feb 19, 12

She sounds like an interesting person to talk to. She certainly has a unique perspective of the city. I look forward to hearing her speak tomorrow!

Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.