Tales from Our Trash: Sanitation Workers, Sustainable Cities, and the Value of Knowledge

Join us for a conversation with Dr. Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up and anthropologist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation; Commissioner John J. Doherty, NYC Dept. of Sanitation; Mierle Ukeles, artist-in-residence with the NYC Dept. of Sanitation;and Professor Rebecca Bratspies, director of CUNY Law’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER).

The event is the first in CUER’s planned series focusing on trash as a lens for considering issues of sustainability. The focus of the evening’s conversation will be on trash as an issue of inter-generational equity. The discussion aims to create a public sense of connection to New York City’s waste challenges by encouraging people to think past their trash cans and to appreciate the human cost of the vast quantities of material they “throw away.” The event also aims to tap into specialized local knowledge held by sanitation workers. As front-line actors, sanitation workers see the culmination of our consumer-driven society—the sheer volume of detritus we generate on a daily basis. They also know the range that is possible—how much and how little waste a typical family can produce, how much usable material is discarded, and how successful (or not) recycling initiatives have been.

Commemorating Frank Justich’s life and service, this event highlights the contributions sanitation workers make to urban sustainability. The event will be memorialized by Frank Justich’s widow, who speak briefly about what it means to her that this event is commemorating her husband’s life and work.

Featured Speakers

John J. Doherty, a long-time veteran of the Department of Sanitation, returned as the 42nd Commissioner on February 1, 2002. Commissioner Doherty, born and raised in Staten Island, is only the fifth person in the Department of Sanitation’s history to rise through the ranks to become Commissioner.

He began his career with the Department as a Sanitation Worker in 1960. He quickly advanced himself within the Department to hold key positions such as Assistant Chief of Snow Operations, Chief of Bureau Operations, Director of the Bureau of Cleaning and Collection (the Department’s largest division), Deputy Commissioner for Operations, and First Deputy Commissioner. Prior to his three-year sabbatical, he served as the Department’s 40th Commissioner from 1994 through 1998.

Commissioner Doherty is a graduate of the Senior Executive Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also completed New York City’s Top 40, a program that recognized and developed the future leaders of New York City.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is author of the Manifesto for Maintenance Art. Since 1977, when she became the official, unsalaried artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation-a position she still holds-Ukeles has created art that deals with the endless maintenance and service work that “keeps the city alive,” urban waste flows, recycling, ecology, urban sustainability and our power to transform degraded land and water into healthy public places. One of her best-known projects, Touch Sanitation, involved shaking the hand of every New York City sanitation worker and thanking them for “keeping New York City alive.”

Since the late 1980s, much of Ukeles’ work has been created through “I-I-I: Infrastructure Interface Inc,” her conceptual organization, focused on transforming closed landfills into urban parks, with her Percent for Art commission for Freshkills Park in Staten Island, New York since 1989, once the largest municipal landfill in the world, at Danehy Park in Cambridge since 1990, and in Evapotranspiration for Hiriya, an installation at the Tel Aviv Museum proposed for Israel’s largest landfill.

Ukeles works in a variety of mediums, creating installations, performances, permanent public art, and audio and video works. She has completed seven “work ballets,” involving workers, trucks, barges and hundreds of tons of recyclables in places such as New York, Pittsburgh, France, Holland, and Japan. A Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of many grants and fellowships from the NEA and NYSCA, she is represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, NYC.

Dr. Robin Nagle is an anthropologist whose research focuses on the category of material culture known variously as garbage, rubbish, refuse, trash, or waste. She is particularly interested in its labor and infrastructural requirements in urban contexts. She explores the many reasons that labors of waste and logistical necessities of successful large-scale solid waste management are accorded a form of invisibility, despite their essential role in political, economic, environmental, and cultural debate. She also asks what it means for workers to commit to a professional endeavor that carries a significant stigma even as it is fundamental to the city’s well-being. In addition, she looks at how metropolitan regions are literally shaped by trash, since many urban spaces have been formed by landfilling, and how notions of public health and hygiene are inextricably connected to assumptions about appropriate street cleanliness and garbage collection protocols.

In 2006, Nagle was named anthropologist-in-residence with the Department of Sanitation in New York City. She is working with colleagues in the DSNY and at NYU to organize the Department’s archives, to establish an on-going Oral History Project, to create a Wall of Honor for city Sanitation personnel killed on the job, and to found the city’s Sanitation Museum. She has written an ethnography called Picking Up about what it is to be a sanitation worker (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Nagle earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1994. She first came to NYU as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Academic Services within the Graduate School of Arts and Science that same year. She has been director of the Draper Program since 1996.

Rebecca M. Bratspies is a Professor of Law at the CUNY School of Law and the founding director of the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER). She has published widely on regulatory policy-with a focus on environmental democracy, regulating new technologies, and corporate responsibility. Her recent scholarship explores questions of urban sustainability, and the intersection of human rights and environmental regulation. She is a scholar with the Center for Progressive Reform, the Environmental Law Collective and has served as an appointed member of the ABA Standing Committee on Environmental Law, a member of the Executive Committee of the American Association of Law Schools Section on the Environment, and an advisor to the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research.

Before entering academia, Professor Bratspies served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable C. Arlen Beam of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar, Professor Bratspies spent a year seconded to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Environmental Protection Administration. She has taught at the University of Idaho, Michigan State University and NYU. She holds a BA in Biology from Wesleyan University and a J.D. cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania.