if you build it, they will come: placemaking and waste-making in the post-industrial city

At first glance, everything else made some sort of sense except the bocce ball courts. Pulling out every third tree made sense to city planners who were anxious about drug dealing, public drinking, and the other similarly shady details that they suggested had been sheltered in the shadows of the park’s canopy. And dismantling the enormous pergola made sense to anyone who didn’t want a great big rain-shelter in the park. (Seattle is, after all, affectionately called the “Rain City,” and free outdoor shelter space is in absurdly short supply.) Food Not Bombs used to hand out food underneath it on rainy Sunday afternoons, so this generally seemed like a counterproductive move from our perspective—and presumably also from the perspective of the sixty or seventy people who queued up under the shelter to eat with us—but the local business association, which signed off on the new plans for Occidental Park, seemed to have made its peace with the idea. One presumes they had their reasons for imagining the park better off without the proverbial huddled masses huddling proverbially under it during the odd downpour. At the public commentary session I attended (along with quite a few other Food Not Bombs volunteers and homeless advocates), deputy parks superintendent B.J. Brooks suggested that the space previously occupied by the pergola might eventually be earmarked for an outpost of Tully’s Coffee or Starbucks. And this too, from an ever-so-slightly mercenary, pecuniary perspective made sense: Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighbourhood, home to Occidental Park, has long vacillated between mascot (and tourist attraction) for Seattle’s historic identity and magnet for the down-and-out. Anything that attracted extra financial or cultural capital to the neighbourhood could help tip the balance. Such businesses can, according to the city’s Downtown Parks and Public Spaces Taskforce, “activate” a park. Which is to say: “Retail activity can create interest and bring activity to the parks, which will, in turn, improve park safety and perceptions about the parks as attractive, welcoming destinations.” Not at all coincidentally, the taskforce suggests that businesses also act as “‘natural monitors’ to discourage and report uncivil or illegal behavior.” And of course they don’t fail to mention that business in the park contributes to city revenues as well.

Occidental Park’s million-dollar facelift in 2006 was part of the taskforce’s scheme to make the city’s parks more “people friendly and diverse.” They wrote, “As rising numbers of individuals and families look to downtown as a livable and active residential area, it’s time for Seattle to make its downtown parks the beautiful, vibrant and welcoming public spaces they were meant to be. As downtown booms, the parks should bloom.”  Borrowing the euphemisms of “revitalization” and “renaissance” from so many other urban redevelopment projects around the country and the globe, the taskforce seems to be saying that the newly landscaped parks should be part and parcel of the new urban landscapes of prosperity attending the comparative boomtown which Seattle has become in recent years. Their vision for a people-friendly space seems to be circumscribed by a public whose fortunes are wrapped up in the market—what I call a market-public.

Of course, that the park was already friendly (or, at least, not thoroughly hostile) to a different, largely unsheltered kind of public life did not go unmentioned. Far from it, the fact that the park was in regular use by homeless people and substance abusers was consistently mentioned in the same breath as its need for change in newspaper reports and blueprints of the new park. One local resident was quoted as saying, “Almost anything (the city) could do would be an improvement. (The park) has been such a disgrace. On the north side is where the mentally ill people congregate, and the south side is where the drug dealers hang out. This is going to let some sun in.” Implicitly, the interests of the mentally ill, the addicts, and the homeless users of the park are at crossed purposes with Seattle’s sunny social and economic prospects.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Katie Comer, of the local business association, explained the fundamental logic behind the new design: “What we’re trying to do is replace the negative activity with positive activity.”

The park’s facelift, and some of the tensions attending it, I would like to suggest below, scratch at the surface of the intimate relationship between the aspirations of market-publics in cities like Seattle, which have profited from the globalised circulation of goods, services, and finance, and the abject forms of life and economy which are generated at the margins of the markets public.

None of which quite explains the bocce courts.

Bocce ball isn’t very popular in Seattle, you see. Even mayor Greg Nickels, a strong proponent of the new park, needed a bocce lesson when he held the park’s opening ceremonies in 2006, (ibid). One of my Food Not Bombs comrades who grew up in New England contrasted Seattle’s near-nonexistent love of bocce ball with her experiences of Italian-American neighbourhoods in North Boston, where bocce ball is the done thing: “Did they think if they installed bocce courts, packs of old Italian men would suddenly materialise in the park?”

She may be onto something. While bocce is probably not Seattle’s next big thing, the bocce courts were suggested by a New York design firm which specialises in what it calls “placemaking.” (Or, if you like: “If you build it, they will come,” as my friend described the apparent logic behind the bocce courts and the heralded Italian septuagenarians.) The group, Project for Public Spaces, calls placemaking “both a philosophy and a process.” On paper, this approach to planning “takes root when a community expresses needs and desires about places in their lives,” (ibid). In the case of Occidental Park, though, the firm’s suggestions for activating the park were openly “heretical” to local residents’ sensibilities—in the president’s own words, no less—taking more after the landscape architecture of Copenhagen than the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, at planning meetings, local residents had the chance to red-light the worst of these suggested heresies. The astroturf remained a mere splotch of green pencil. And the park’s existing totem poles, ivy, and firefighter statue escaped the proposed chopping block. (While the trees weren’t so lucky, they were at least in some way commemorated by the post-facto judgement of the courts in favour of several residents who sued to keep them in the park.) Bocce courts and brick paving (replacing the old cobblestones) mustn’t have seemed like much of a concession, in comparison.

Nonetheless, the Costneresque globalism at work here (Seattle-come-Copenhagen-come-North-Boston-by-way-of-New-York) reflects a speculative, utopic vision of the future of public life shared by a lot of urban redevelopment projects (along with the vitalistic euphemisms—which sound a bit worn out these days, ironically enough). Envisioning Seattle’s park of the future, for example, the taskforce describes “a vibrant gathering space for a broad, urban democracy.” Their meeting notes add variety of evocative sketches of this urban vision, from “a visual outdoor gallery” to “the backyard for downtown residents… a place for a picnic, barbecue, or a glass of wine,” (ibid).

It’s telling that they describe it as a backyard, rather than, say, a living room. (A place to play a very civil game of bocce ball, but not to get a night’s sleep. A place to drink a glass of wine, but not a forty-ounce of malt liquor.) The market-public conjured up in this speculative vision invariably engages in a relatively civil (read: bourgeois, or at least not especially cheap) kind of public life, and then has somewhere to go home to at night. (City attourney Mark Sidran’s civility laws in the 1990s, after all, included an 11pm curfew for the parks.)

But it’s even more telling that, surpassing all these sketches, the very first priority listed for the park of the future is that it be “clean, clean, clean,” (ibid).

In other words: “Out, damned spot.”

The grit and disorder of urban living are characteristic stumbling blocks for the speculative urban utopianisms of city planners and developers. From the renaissance in the last thirty years of “broken windows” theories of public order to the sixteenth century French edict to lock up one’s own “sullied waters” indoors, described in Dominique LaPorte’s The History of Shit (1993), cities have often reckoned their worth by the identification and negation of what, in contrast, seems derelict, dis-eased, and dirty. What is, in anthropologist Mary Douglas’ terms, “matter out of place.” But the secret of these incipient utopianisms is that they are never very far away from their erstwhile dystopias. While the ideals of civilisation (“making civil”) are put to work fashioning “socially useful values and goods,” LaPorte explains, waste is every bit as much their product, discursive and material: “The necessary outcome of socially profitable production, it is the inevitable by-product of cleanliness, order, and beauty,” (14). Cities in particular, he writes, embody the intimate antagonisms between the civil utopianism of the market and its roots in the production of waste:

“The town, as opposed to the country, becomes the site of the rot-proof and advances a new space of the visible. Where shit was, so shall gold be. And with its entrance, gold proclaims its implicit and ambivalent relation to excrement. Beautified, ordered, aggrandized, and sublimated, the town opposes itself to the mud of the countryside. But in so doing, it also exposes itself, in the notoriously virginal face of nature, as a place of corruption. ‘The bourgeois reeks!’ ‘He stinks of money!’ So says the citoyen… If the shit that glows in the fields becomes the lasting gold of city streets, the stench of shit lingers where gold sleeps,” (LaPorte 1993, 39).

The contemporary markets and market-publics upon which globalising, post-industrial cities like Seattle have often hung their collective aspirations have been built on just such kinds of placemaking and waste-making. On one hand, if you build the bocce courts (or the stadium, the art museum, the symphony hall, and so on) the markets-public will come. On the other hand, the abject people and things exempted or excepted from these public efforts will have to go somewhere else.

Not without payoffs of a kind, mind you. Despite a progressive divestment from the urban safety net by upper tiers of government over the last thirty years so, for example, Seattle’s economic successes have allowed it to channel its tax revenues to the human services budget and insulate many of these programs from cuts made at the state and federal levels.

But these projects also produce and segregate urban cultural economies. Market value and marketability are reckoned dialectically—an accumulation of value at one end of the spectrum implies a comparative depreciation at another. And market-publics reckon value spectacularly through public circulation, and are therefore bounded by spectacular wastelands. Elsewhere, I have written mainly about waste as the discursive and material counterpart of these markets and publics. But, of course, markets and publics must exist in space, as must the waste they make. The geographies through which they are performed and produced are often metropolitan in scale. The “shining city upon a hill” of popular imagination is inevitably superimposed onto erstwhile metropolises of surplus and waste, surfeit and want.

With all this in mind, maybe the full irony of the following observation become clear: On the Sunday after the Occidental Park’s grand reopening, when the chain-link barriers had come down and Food Not Bombs was once again able to hand out food from the middle of the park, neither the old Italian men nor the young urban professionals materialised to take advantage of the bocce courts; But undeterred by the new courts, or the absent canopy, the crowd of hungry and homeless people waiting to eat with us was no smaller than on any given Sunday in the old park; And, while they waited, some of them were playing bocce ball.

(This is an excerpt adapted from my doctoral dissertation, completed in 2013.)

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dumpster-divers and the smoothies of wrath

My favourite dumpster is locked.

I’ve been coming here for a few years, but now the lid is closed, and there’s a cable lock threaded through it to keep scavengers out. Scavengers like me.

Until now, I’ve poked happily about in the soggy detritus without obstacle. Hiding in plain sight at the end of a gravel driveway, outside the chain-link fence of a warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, the dumpster always promised at least a few unopened bottles of top-dollar organic fruit smoothies to the intrepid dumpster-diver. Mango Madness. Orange Carrot. Hermetically sealed and conserved by Seattle’s frigid night air, they were nonetheless too close to their sell-by dates to be worth shipping, so they ended up here. On the right night, there were hundreds of them. There probably still are.

So why lock them up? My research with dumpster-divers and grocers in Seattle and other cities around the US, Canada, and Australasia, explores the politics and the cultural economy of waste—particularly food waste. It echoes John Steinbeck’s dry observation of depression-era surplus and scarcity in The Grapes of Wrath: “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price.” According to the USDA, for example, 5.4 billion pounds of unspoiled food are discarded by US merchants each year. A simple thought experiment and some rudimentary economics suggest that, if these edible surpluses were given away indiscriminately, the principles of supply and demand would undercut food prices. To paraphrase Steinbeck: Who would pay five dollars for a smoothie when they could pull ten of them out of the trash for nothing? In other words, what we throw away remains significant in its absence.

Of course, dumpsters are not locked out of sheer Machiavellian cunning. Nor is food discarded with a calculating twirl of the capitalist’s moustache. Rather, food is wasted because it circulates according to its exchange value rather than its use value. Eleven perfectly good eggs and one cracked one are no longer legible in the way an intact dozen is, for example. And a bruised apple merely takes up space on a shelf next to another perfect one. A thing’s exchange value is, by definition, reckoned through comparisons. The apple that won’t sell, or won’t sell quickly enough, disappears from the shelves to make room for newer stock. So right up until the point of sale (or disposal), its value is virtual. Like Schrodinger’s cat, its fate waits upon one decisive moment.

Of course, what makes that moment decisive is the finality of the dumpster—the “point of no return” in the social life of a thing. In other words, most people are averse to digging through the trash. And for this reason, businesses often don’t see a need to lock up their waste. Increasingly, however, dumpster-divers are showing up on their radar. For many of Seattle’s dumpster-divers, for example, the aforementioned “Juice Dumpster” had become as much a household name as the company’s brand name itself. (Along with the “Chocolate Dumpster,” the “Burrito Dumpster,” etc.) Until now, they didn’t trouble the distributor enough to lock it up. I’ve known dumpster-divers to openly clamber into it in front of the employees—I even once met a sanitation worker who saved some bottles for himself before emptying the rest into his garbage truck. However the popularity of this dumpster has grown over the four years in which I’ve been conducting this research. And recently, a threshold has been crossed. Dumpster-divers I have interviewed in other cities have told me similar stories—of certain dumpsters’ high profile and their consequent enclosure.

The proliferation of locked dumpsters, then, may be proportional to the growing public profile of dumpster-divers’ cultural and political activities in general. From the appearance of subcultural movements like freeganism which embrace dumpster-diving, squatting, and other modes of surplus living, to movements like Food Not Bombs and Occupy Wall Street which depend on free access to food, space, and other resources to take direct political action, urban scavengers represent an ongoing effort to turn commercial waste into new kinds of food sovereignty, non-market value, and political influence.

This raises a variety of questions about the ways in which businesses, governments, and the scavengers will respond to each other. It seems likely that more dumpsters will be locked up, for one thing. In turn, dumpster-divers have always been creative about gaining entry. They’re bound to become more creative. I’m left wondering what will become of my favourite dumpster.

(Originally published at “Food Anthropology“, January 6 2012.)

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dumpsters, forbidden fruit, and the social afterlife of things

On any given Sunday, the Pike Place Market is a busy place. At the peak of the summer, “busy” can mean almost sixty thousand visitors in a day. And in the space of a year, it may mean ten million, tourists and locals alike, most of them there to shop. The market is one of Seattle’s most iconic attractions, with a spectacular range of shops and stalls. Maybe most iconic are the post-card-perfect rows of fruit and vegetables. And from those rows, many of the visitors are here looking for just the right apple. Or pear. Or tomato, or avocado, and so on. With stalls vying to attract the attention of ten million passersby, inevitably a lot of apples won’t make the cut. The dumpsters here virtually overflow with slightly bruised peaches, perfectly tender mangos, and barely wilted lettuce—part of an estimated 96 billion pounds of edible food thrown away in the US every year. Food which has reached the end, not of its usefulness, but of its social life.

Fortunately for the abandoned peach, pear, or avocado, there are also often people working to intercept it before it hits the dumpster. On any given Sunday for the better part of the last five years, I’ve been one of them. My doctoral research investigates the economic and cultural relationships between waste and want in cities like Seattle, through the work of groups like Seattle’s chapter of Food Not Bombs—an international network of volunteers who solicit leftover produce from vendors like those at Pike Place, prepare it, and distribute it publicly, for free, to anyone who wants it.

My research asks: what becomes of the estimated five billion pounds of useable food items discarded annually by retailers, when they cease to be viable commodities? What sort of a cultural afterlife is in store for trash once it is taken off the market? One conclusion the research points to is that while most of it does find its way to the landfill, a significant amount remains useful, and is reclaimed by efforts like Food Not Bombs. Such post-commodities are put to productive cultural work in a variety of ways that never make it into the calculation of a nation’s “GDP,” but that are still an important part of its cultural life. (In other words, it’s not just “the economy, stupid.”)

One of the most important ways they are put to work is to support those people who are homeless and hungry. Over fifty million Americans experience food insecurity annually, and many of them seek assistance from groups like Food Not Bombs, which rely on would-be waste. The research suggests that, like their discarded diet, these people, too are often not factored into the market (in part, they are assumed not to have been potential customers). In a sense, like edible, wasted food, these individuals are at the edge, not of their personal lives, but of social life.

Another conclusion this research points to is that very similar cultural prejudices apply to both discarded food and to the people who subsist on it. That is to say public anxieties about the safety or unsightliness of discarded food, on one hand, and of the hungry and homeless, on the other hand, are closely related and are often disproportionate to the actual hazards they pose. In contrast to the widely promoted post-card imagery of places like the Pike Place Market, for example, there is considerable political pressure in Seattle to keep the activities of outdoor meal distributors like Food Not Bombs out of the public eye, lest they inspire public fear or dis-ease. The research suggests that these fears are a key component of laws restricting the public distribution of food in numerous American cities.

(Originally published at “Anthropolog,” spring 2011.)

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dirty secrets and back-to-front commodity fetishism

One seven-inch, purple, translucent, gelatinous, vibrating, dildo. Used.

It’s funny what people donate to thrift stores.

They tend not to come up and hand it to you. It’s usually at the bottom of a black plastic bag of old clothes, or a box of cracked coffee cups. (Extrapolating from my professional experience, old coffee cups outnumber the human race by about five to one.)

They usually drop off the box and leave before you can look inside, so you rarely get to connect a face to the used diapers, or the broken glass, or the dildo. (Real, if not typical, examples.) It’s a back-to-front sort of commodity fetishism. Instead of a commodity’s usual ersatz status—a stand-in for the sum total of social relationships which make a thing valuable or desirable to any given person, as Marx meant the term—in this case a possession stands in for one single truant owner in the eyes of the larger social body. (Or, at least, in the eyes of those of us working in receiving that day.) A sticky little microcosm.

On this occasion, a pair of nondescript girls drove up, dropped off their nondescript cardboard box politely and left. Inside were some chipped coffee cups and a smaller box with a picture of a purple vibrator on it. In my experience, when you work at a thrift store, you can’t judge a box by its label. (Most of the books don’t have covers anymore, otherwise I wouldn’t have to muddle my metaphors). So I looked inside. And because prudishness is only a virtue if you’ve never gone through someone else’s trash, or if you have no sense of humour, I ignored the evidence of its former pursuits and pulled it out to show my coworkers. It still worked… This was probably a mistaken donation. But then again, maybe they thought we could sell it cheaply (in which case they overestimated the market for secondhand sex toys). Instead, we put in fresh batteries and gave it to someone’s housemate as a birthday present. I don’t know what they did with it.


Now it’s two months later, and I’m at a dinner party. The sort of party at which one talks with relish about things that don’t demand a lot of emotional disclosure—the weather and the meaning of life are both equally well-suited topics—with well-tailored people one will never meet again. We’re telling work stories.

Remember, prudishness is, in my opinion, a maladaptive cultural trait, so I take some joy in telling the vibrator story in polite company.

“Guess what someone donated to my work once,” I say. In my glee, I neglect to tell my newer acquaintances I work at a thrift store. A nondescript girl I haven’t been introduced to furrows her brow at me from across the coffee table. I relish the adjectives. Seven-inch. I illustrate with my hands. Purple. The girl across the table seems familiar. Translucent. Gelatinous. Vibrating. And right as I get to Dildo, a horrified sort of recognition crosses her face.

I know where you work,” she blurts out a little too quickly.

And I realise where I’ve seen her before. She shrinks a little into her seat. “‘Cause I’ve, uh, seen you there,” she explains. And no one else in the room seems to acknowledge it, but there’s an embarrassed accord between us. It’s a kind of back-to-front commodity fetish—the possession you don’t want to identify with. But now it has a name and a face.

(This piece was originally written in 2004 after a short stint working in a charity shop in Davis, California. It appeared in Tablet Magazine in December of that year.)

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