Book Review: Picking Up- On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

Picking Up cover

Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle.

Robin Nagle. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

On a visit to New York in March as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip, I was presented with a wealth of book buying opportunities. I was unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are my bank balance or my boyfriend) limited by BA’s baggage allowance, so I had to be highly selective about what I bought. Picking Up was one of the lucky few (well, 7) that made the cut. I enjoy books about cities, but I especially like books that approach a city from a direction that’s a little bit different. And, as Robin Nagle makes abundantly clear, what public service is more overlooked than rubbish collection?

All of us create trash in great quantities, but its a troubling category of stuff we mostly ignore. We particularly ignore how much care and attention it requires from a large, well-organized workforce. What would life be like if the people responsible for managing the waste of contemporary society were not on the streets every day? What do their jobs entail? Why don’t they get the kudos they deserve?

(Nagle, 2013; p.12)

Picking Up blends statistics, history and personal stories to tell a rich and detailed story of the Department of Sanitation New York (or DSNY- the book contains a helpful glossary so you can get your head around all the acronyms and slang that the sanitation workers use). The DSNY only receives public and media attention when something goes wrong; you don’t often stop to be grateful when your rubbish is collected on time, but you certainly do kick up a stink (pun intended) when a collection is missed. So Nagle had to work hard to gain the trust of the DSNY and its employees, first getting access to their archives, then being allowed to observe garages and collection trucks on their rounds, then, finally, getting a job as a sanitation worker herself. Her fascination with the topic, and her dedication to finding out more about the complex system that prevents New York City from drowning in its own waste, is evident in her writing.

Nagle uses her own transition from curious outsider to tolerated observer and finally valued colleague to structure the book. As she learns how to lift properly, how to navigate bureaucratic politics, and how to operate the complex and dangerous machinery (you are statistically more likely to die on the job as a sanitation worker in New York than a police officer or fireman) so does the reader. Well, not literally, but I felt like I was discovering more about this overlooked world with Nagle, rather than just being told about it.

An anthropologist by trade, Nagle is fascinated by what the ways that society deals with rubbish can tell us about ourselves and the societal norms we construct. The book doesn’t contain much theory- it is clearly aimed at a non-academic audience, but what is included adds a depth that I think the rest of the book could have benefited from. The discussion about the term ‘throwing away’ and its implications for how society views waste, for example, is fascinating.

I work from home quite often, so I regularly see my local sanitation workers coming to collect our rubbish and recycling on Thursday mornings. Before reading Picking Up, I might have glanced up to see what the noise was. Now, I am much more aware of the service they perform. Picking Up takes a new perspective on New York City, a difficult thing to do for one of the world’s most observed and represented cities. But it also encourages you to think differently about your own city, and what more can you ask from a book than to change your perspective?

The American Dream and Global Citizenship: Politics through Music at Wembley Stadium

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Opened in 2007, the current Wembley Stadium is visually impressive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This month, I have been lucky enough to see two concerts at Wembley Stadium in the space of two weeks. On the 5th of June, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and on the 16th, I saw the second of Coldplay’s 4-day run. They are two very different artists, with two very different performance styles.  However, both used the opportunity  of 70,000(ish) strong audiences to promote political viewpoints, although the two viewpoints, and the way they were were presented, were also very different.

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Wembley Stadium has a capacity of 90,000, but this is reduced to about 70000 for concerts. This is the stage set up for Bruce Springsteen’s concert on the 5th June 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Bruce Springsteen has always been known for his vocal political stance. A liberal, he has campaigned against nuclear power and on behalf of Amnesty International, supported labour unions and gay rights and gay marriage, and endorsed two Democrat presidential candidates, John Kerry and Barack Obama. He also uses his music to explore political ideas, particularly class relations and the impact of economic recession on American towns and cities. Songs such as Born in the USA (1984), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), and Death to my Hometown (2012) are powerful criticisms of some of the biggest faults in American society. Springsteen’s live performances are legendary; he has been known to perform for four hours straight. The staging is simple, he does not use elaborate lighting or pyrotechnics, he allows the music to speak for itself. He is a consummate showman; he performs every song with the energy of a finale, and his skill and passion are obvious.

For me, one of the things that makes Springsteen’s political songs so powerful is the way that they continue to resonate with current events, sometimes even decades after they were first recorded. Towards the end of the concert, Springsteen performed American Skin (41 Shots). First performed at Madison Square Gardens at the end of a 1999-2000 world tour, the song was written about Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old who was shot dead outside of his apartment block in the Bronx by four New York City police officers. They fired 41 bullets at the unarmed man. In 2012, Springsteen dedicated a performance of the song to Trayvon Martin, who was killed by police in Florida that year. With the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, it is painfully apparent that the song’s lyric “you can get killed just for living in your American skin” is just as true now as it ever was.

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Springsteen does not use elaborate staging at his live concerts, allowing his music and performance do the talking (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Coldplay use elaborate visual effects in their live performances (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

To say Coldplay’s style of performance is not as understated as Springsteen’s is putting it mildly. The show was visually spectacular, including pyrotechnics, videos, and light-up wristbands which are given to every member of the audience creating a beautiful effect throughout the stadium. Their performance may be more dramatic than Springsteen’s but their politics is not as obvious. Their lyrics are not overtly political, and the band members are not as clear about their personal politics as Springsteen.

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Love buttons, which were handed out at Coldplay’s concerts. The band is a supporter of the Love Button Movement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

You could find politics at Coldplay’s concert however, if you looked closely. As you entered the stadium, you were offered the wristbands and some button badges with the word ‘love’ on them. On closer inspection, the buttons turned out to have 3 web addresses on the rim; www.coldplay.com, www.globalcitizen.org, and www.lovebutton.org. The Coldplay address is fairly self-explanatory, but the other two I had to follow up. Global Citizen is a website that encourages people to take action to fight extreme poverty and inequality; safe, legal, actions like sharing videos, signing petitions and donating money. The Love Button Movement is a kind of ‘pay it forward’ campaign- it encourages participants to give strangers love buttons and overcome the “fears that keep us from seeing what we have in common.” This upbeat attitude fits in with Coldplay’s performance style and the buoyant tone of the band’s last 2 albums. It would be easy to sneer at them for this approach, this kind of politics can be seen as naive and overly optimistic. However, I am inclined to agree with journalist Richard Bradley when he says “We have plenty of bands singing about why George Bush is a crummy president, and that’s fine. Let Coldplay sing about love. Isn’t that political enough?” Let Coldplay promote global citizenship and love, sometimes a little positivity is exactly what I need.

Both Global Citizen and the Love Button Movement take a positive approach to alternative politics which is very different to Springsteen’s scathing critique of the American dream- the campaigns provide small, manageable actions that people can take to make the world a better place, whilst Springsteen’s lyrics can sometimes leave me feeling a little hopeless. I am not going to say I prefer one approach over the other- I think both Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay are fantastic musicians and performers, and I admire the fact that they both use their influential position as incredibly popular acts to try and make a difference. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the old, if a little distasteful, saying goes.

Sources and Further Reading

Bradley, Richard. “The Politics of Coldplay.” The Huffington Post. Last modified 25th May 2011, accessed 21st June 2016. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bradley/the-politics-of-coldplay_b_2671.html

Kershaw, Tom. “The Religion and Political Views of Bruce Springsteen.” The Hollowverse. Last modified 15th May 2012, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at  http://hollowverse.com/bruce-springsteen/

Kershaw, Tom. “The Religion and Political Views of Chris Martin.” The Hollowverse. Last modified 15th May 2012, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at http://hollowverse.com/chris-martin/ 

Pearlman, Mischa. “The 11 Best Political Songs by Bruce Springsteen.” TeamRock. Last modified 31st August 2015, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at http://teamrock.com/feature/2015-08-31/the-11-best-political-songs-by-bruce-springsteen

 

Protest Stickers: Berlin

Paul de Gregorio has worked in fundraising since 1996; he is currently Head of Mobile at Open, a fundraising and communications agency. In his day job he finds ways to inspire the public to take action for some of the charities and not for profit organisations here in the UK and increasingly overseas. He blogs about it here. He’s also a fellow protest sticker-spotter, a habit he indulged on a recent trip to Berlin. In this post, Paul showcases some of the stickers he found, as well as reflecting on a museum exhibition he visited about antisemitic and racist stickers. He’s sometimes posts pictures of the stickers he finds on Instagram.


In my day job I help charities and non-profit organisations generate mass response to their campaigns and appeals.

In my spare time, down time between meetings and when I’m on holiday I spend an extraordinary amount of time taking pictures of political stickers on my mobile. I do it because I want to amplify some of the messages I see, but also because I find their designs a good source of inspiration for my day job.

Berlin is always a good place to find this stuff. On a recent trip I was lucky enough to be in town for the Sticky Messages exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The exhibition, to give it its full name, “Sticky Messages. Antisemitic and racist stickers from 1880 to the present”, was a detailed look at the history of the political sticker in Germany over time.

The exhibition itself is great, and whilst at the exhibition I learnt all about Irmela Mensah-Schramm.  She is a 70 year old woman, well known in Germany for her personal commitment to the removal of neo-Nazi messages from public places. For the last 30 years Irmela has been scraping off and spray painting over all the neo-Nazi messages she finds. From time to time this has put her into conflict with local Nazis. But she continues to do it. Having removed over 70,000 stickers since she started, she’s now a hero of mine! You can hear more of her wonderful story in the film below.

You can also read more about her here.

And what follows are a tiny handful of the stickers I found on that trip…

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I saw this one on the day we arrived which coincided with a big anti-Nazi protest.

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This one reads “Shut you mouth, Germany!”

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I’ve seen this one all over Europe. And it’s easily found online which makes it so easily to replicate.

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The last three I found on Karl Marx Allee, usually a great place to find stickers. I love these three the most because they were plastered all over terrible advertising and I could tell by people watching that they were getting noticed.

Paul de Gregorio

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All photographs are my copyright. You can use them, I’d just like you to ask and credit me.

You can find me on Twitter, Instagram & Flickr.

Times Are A Changin’: Temporality, Memory and Social Movements in the Digital Age

Times Are A Changin'

The Times Are A Changin’ Symposium was held at the University of Westminster on the 2nd and 3rd of June 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at Times Are A Changing: Temporality, Memory and Social Movements in the Digital Age, a two-day symposium at the University of Westminster organised by Dr. Samuel Merrill and Dr. Anastasia Kavada. I really enjoyed the chance to meet new people, listen to some fantastic presentations and engage with some new concepts. Most of the other attendees were from Memory Studies or Media Studies, so there were a lot of new ideas for me to think about, particularly around the key themes of the symposium, temporality and memory.

As a Geographer, I am aware of just how significant time is (although space will always be my favourite!) However, the ways that different temporalities can impact, and be used by, activists and social movements is not something I had considered before. In her paper, Dr. Veronica Barassi argued that temporalities are constructed through practice, which means that activists can resist or reproduce hegemonic temporalities through their actions. Dr. Kavada’s presentation about the recent Nuit Debout protests in France provided a good example of this. The activists varied the speed at which they posted on social media depending on when they wanted attention; they would increase the intensity of posts before a important protest or meeting, for example. Dr. Kavada called this ‘temporal agency’; activists can gain power by negotiating with, or interfering in, temporal rhythms. It could be interesting to think through these ideas in the context of my PhD as the activists involved in my case studies had very different media technologies available to them, which all involved different temporalities.

The other key theme of the symposium was memory. For some activists and social movements, the memory of past events, people, and movements can be an important source of inspiration, morale, and identity. There were several papers relating to the various ways in which activists carry out ‘memory-work,’ such as Lorenzo Zamponi’s paper on #ioricordo, a hashtag created to memorialise the 2001 Genoa G8 protests. Archives have a significant role to play in the preservation of memory. Foteini Aravani, the Digital Curator at the Museum of London, gave a fascinating presentation about the museum’s experiences collecting items and digital media relating to recent protests, such as Occupy London. You do not have to be a museum to create an archive, however, and some movements choose to keep their own records.  Dr. Anne Kaun’s paper, entitled “Archiving Protest: Changing Temporal Regimes of the Archive,” discussed how modern social movement groups create their own digital archives. Occupy Wall Street had an archiving working group in order to capture representations of the movement from their own perspective. For my case study on the Battle of Cable Street, I am focusing on the various ways in which the Battle has been remembered, and how these memories are constructed and used, so this element of the symposium was also very helpful for me.

I have only mentioned a few of the great papers and speakers from Times Are A Changin’, there was so much interesting research presented that I can’t discuss it all. Suffice it to say that the symposium gave me a lot to think about, and I am confident that my own research will be better because I went. With that in mind, I would like to thank Sam Merrill and Anastasia Kavada for organising the symposium, and particularly Sam Merrill for inviting me. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Turbulent Londoners: Daisy Parsons, 1890-1957

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Daisy Parsons, a Suffragette and the first female Mayor of West Ham.


 

Daisy Parsons

Daisy Parsons, MBE (Source: Newham Story).

Daisy Parsons was a formidable woman. Despite leaving school at the age of 12 to help support her family she became a force to be reckoned with in East End politics, working closely with Sylvia Pankhurst in the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), then going on to become the first female Mayor of West Ham.

Born Marguerite Lena Millo on the 25th of May 1890, Daisy must have had a difficult childhood. She was born in Poplar in East London, her family moving to nearby Canning Town when Daisy was 8 months old. She had 5 younger brothers, and because her father was an invalid, her mother had to take on washing and charring work. Daisy was given a certificate of exemption in 1902 so that she could leave Beckton Road School early to look after her brothers, a necessity she always regretted. When she was 14 she left home to work as a maid, but later became a cigarette packer at the Carreras Tobacco Company in Aldgate, because the pay was better. Women and girls were paid 3d for every 1000 cigarettes they packed (most managed about 3000 a day).

It was whilst working at the tobacco company that Daisy had her first contact with the trade union movement; male employees at the factory had a fixed lunch hour and a space to eat because their union had fought for them. Female employees had to eat in the toilets! Daisy’s husband Tom was a driver for Stepney Borough Council and an active union member. They married in December 1908 when Daisy was 18.

Daisy obviously had a keen interest in politics in her own right- she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and the International Labour Party, and was one of the founding members and the secretary of the ELFS. She was remembered as being assertive and persuasive. She was clearly not one to shy away from action- at Suffragette demonstrations she carried a ‘Saturday Nights’ (a length of hemp rope tied at one end, a sort of improvised cosh) hidden up her sleeve in case she needed to defend herself.

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Daisy was part of a deputation to the Prime Minister from the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. She is on the far right of this image (Source: Janice Brooker).

Daisy took part in a deputation of working women to Prime Minister Asquith on the 12th of June 1914, trying to persuade him of the necessity of female suffrage. By this point she had 2 daughters, and was also looking after her niece. Daisy stuck with Sylvia Pankhurst after the split with her mother and sister, and ELFS worked tirelessly during the first world war, setting up a Mother and Child Welfare Centre in West Ham to help women who were struggling whilst their husbands were away, or had been killed.

When women over 30 were given the right to vote in 1918 Daisy still couldn’t vote because she was only 29! This did not deter her from moving into mainstream local politics however, and she was elected as a Labour Councillor for Beckton ward in 1922. She became deputy Mayor of West Ham in 1931, and Mayor in 1936. She also became a Justice of the Peace in 1933, and an Alderman of West Ham in 1935. During World War 2 Daisy organised the evacuation of local children and helped to organise the Women’s Voluntary Service. Her efforts did not spare her from tragedy however; her brother and niece were killed in the Blitz.

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Daisy Parsons at the opening of the Beckton Lido in August 1927 (Source: Newham Photos).

Daisy Parsons was obviously respected and admired. She was awarded the Freedom of West Ham in 1939, the highest honour which the borough can bestow, and was made an MBE in 1951 in recognition of her public service. She had gone from radical Suffragette to respected local official, but I get the impression she retained her determined and caring nature.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Daisy Parsons, MBE.’ The Newham Story. No date, accessed 21st March 2016.  http://newhamstory.com/node/991

Brooker, Janice. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ Lost in London. Last modified 1st May 2007, accessed 21st March 2016. http://www.brooker.talktalk.net/daisy_parsons.htm

McCarthy, Ka. ‘Daisy Parsons.’ The Great British Community. Last modified 8th March 2016, accessed 21st March 2016. http://greatbritishcommunity.org/daisy-parsons/