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In A Booming New York, Meet The City's Invisible Trash Pickers

The modern-day successors of ragmen, New York's trash pickers (or "canners") are credited with recycling 60% of the city's glass and aluminum. Why don't we notice this hidden economy?

Trash for cash in NYC
Trash for cash in NYC
Julie Zaugg

NEW YORK — The city's still asleep. It's pitch-dark, and the long strip of Brooklyn's Graham Avenue, normally swamped with traffic, is quiet. In the bitter cold, a dark figure appears on the other side of the road. It's Pierre Simmons, one of many seemingly invisible trash pickers who rummage through New York's garbage looking for bottles and cans to recycle.

He shows us his most indispensable work tool, a shopping cart. Loaded down as it is, it looks like some kind of fantastic beast. Inside are a mountain of plastic bags, canvas beggar's bags and unfolded cardboard boxes. Large blue IKEA shopping bags hang from its flanks like a monstrous fur. Simmons grabs the cart and starts pushing it out along the sidewalk. With his Sony headphones on, his blue U.S. Open cap, his leather jacket and brown sneakers, he could easily melt into the crowd.

He moves with agility, almost furtively. He never takes his eyes off the street. When he sees a trash can, he scampers towards it, examines it and plunges his hand inside to extract a can or a bottle. "I collect aluminum cans and PET bottles," the 62-year-old explains in his deep voice and with a New York accent. "I collect glass too, but it's heavier and harder to transport."

He stops in front of a building and quickly goes through the garbage bags left outside. "You have to be careful," he says. "It's easy to cut yourself with broken glass or to prick yourself with a syringe." Over time, he's found all sorts of things — cellphones, money, guns, even a human arm once.

Photo: Sure expand=1] We Can screenshot

Simmons was born in Harlem and gew up in the Bronx, and he hasn't always been a trash picker. "A few years ago, I was working in advertising while studying musicology," he says. He can play bass, guitar and the piano. But like many, he lost his job during the financial crisis. "My life completely fell apart," he recalls. "In the span of a few months, I found myself without an apartment, and I was sleeping under a tree." So he decided to make a living collecting cans and bottles to recycle.

It wasn't an easy choice. "I see it as a humbling exercise," he says, slightly lowering his voice. "To do what I do, you have to let go of your pride."

Simmons is just one of a 5,000-strong army whose trash soldiers roam the streets of New York City. "Canners," they like to call themselves. There are some African-Americans, but "most of them are Latino or Chinese immigrants," notes Ana Martinez de Luco, a Spanish nun who became a sort of Mother Teresa to these trash pickers. "They don't speak a word of English and would struggle to find a job in the formal economy," she says of the immigrants.

Not a bad living

They all have their own stories. "Some are homeless and can't do anything else," Simmons explains as he pushes his shaky cart on a bridge over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which divides Brooklyn in half. "Others are doing it on top of their jobs to give their children or grandchildren the opportunity they themselves didn't have." Among them are also retired people who do it to earn a little extra money. Some are over 80.

Photo: Sure expand=1] We Can screenshot

Recyclable bottles and cans can bring up to 5 cents apiece. "A trash picker can earn up to $100 a day," Pierre says. "Me, I make between $500 and $600 a week if I do it every day. Otherwise, more like $200."

By comparison, the U.S. minimum wage yields about $1,160 per month for someone working full-time. With his earnings, Simmons can pay his apartment rent and lead a modest life. "It's like an addiction," he says. "I see all these bottles, and I feel I have to pick them up, even when I'm not working," he says. "It's as if people had dropped money and left it there."

The sun has risen, and the streets are packed with schoolchildren and deliverymen. They pass Pierre without even seeing him. Suddenly, a waste department truck drives into the small street with a whistling sound. "Damn, the city's recycling service," he says, throwing himself on a pile of garbage bags. He quickly goes through it. Nothing. There's another trash picker two blocks down from here. He got here before Pierre.

"There's quite a lot of competition between canners," he says. "Each has his territory, and it's best not to encroach on other people's." Simmons works the same route every day. He picked this one because it goes through the gentrified neighborhood of Williamsburg. Where there's money, there are bottles. The Grail is to befriend a few concierges. The previous month, one of them gave him 25 bags full of cans, a goldmine for Simmons.

Cashing in

It's almost 1 p.m., and Simmons' cart is overflowing with bottles. Time to take them to Sure We Can, the collection and recycling center opened by Ana Martinez de Luco and Engene Gadsden, a homeless trash picker. They teamed up in 2005 to create a place where canners could bring their collections and get the deposit money back.

Sure We Can from Anna Fawcus on Vimeo.

Passing the graffiti-covered metallic shutters is like entering a parallel world. Mounds of transparent plastic bags filled with PET bottles and cans are piled up, sometimes reaching 32-feet high. A rooster is wandering about while the radio plays an old jazz tune. The smell of wood fire from an old stove mingles with the unpleasingly sweet fragrance of rancid soda and beer.

Wrapped up in a down jacket, Ana Martinez de Luco is waiting next to a pile of cases containing glass bottles. She's waiting for the drink company's truck. "They're late," she says. Sure We Can has deals with most major corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Heineken, for them to come and collect their cans and bottles. And they pay the deposits to the 300 trash pickers that come to this center. Last year, 6.8 million bottles and cans were brought here.

If trash pickers are the successors of 19th century ragmen, the emergence of this job actually dates back to the 1980s. "At that time, several U.S. states passed laws forcing their citizens to separate plastic, glass and aluminum, and to recycle them," explains Anne Scheinberg, a Dutch researcher who specializes in this phenomenon. In exchange, they would get a deposit. The legislation in New York was passed in 1983. In 2009, it was extended to water bottles. "But 5 cents wasn't enough," Martinez de Luco notes. "Most people didn't bother bringing their bottles and cans back."

Enter the trash pickers. Now, almost 60% of the glass and aluminum recycled in the Big Apple come from canners. They compete with the city waste department's recycling branch. "They don't like us too much," says Martinez de Luco, a short-haired woman who worked for a Catholic organization at the UN before signing a contract with the recycling company Sims Recycling.

Simmons has finished counting his collection: 194 PET bottles, five cases of cans, and a mountain of glass. He sorted everything by brand and carefully placed it in a pile of red plastic cases. "That's worth about $30," he says, disappointed. "It wasn't a good day."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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