Great New Books in the Humanities: Picking Up by Robin Nagle
Join us for a dialogue with NYC Department of Sanitation Commissioner, John Doherty, and Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. The conversation will be moderated by Gwynneth Malin, Director of the Humanities Initiative at NYU. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City will be sold at 20% off at the event.
America’s largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000 tons from households each day on average. But New Yorkers don’t give it much attention. They leave their trash on the curb or drop it in a litter basket, and promptly forget about it. And why not? On a schedule so regular you could almost set your watch by it, someone always comes to take it away.
But who, exactly, is that someone? And why is he—or she—so unknown?
In Picking Up, the anthropologist Robin Nagle introduces us to the men and women of New York City’s Department of Sanitation and makes clear why this small army of uniformed workers is the most important labor force on the streets. Seeking to understand every aspect of the Department’s mission, Nagle accompanied crews on their routes, questioned supervisors and commissioners, and listened to story after story about blizzards, hazardous wastes, and the insults of everyday New Yorkers. But the more time she spent with the DSNY, the more Nagle realized that observing wasn’t quite enough—so she joined the force herself. Driving the hulking trucks, she obtained an insider’s perspective on the complex kinships, arcane rules, and obscure lingo unique to the realm of sanitation workers.
Nagle chronicles New York City’s four-hundred-year struggle with trash, and traces the city’s waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to the far more rigorous practices of today, when the Big Apple is as clean as it’s ever been.
Throughout, Nagle reveals the many unexpected ways in which sanitation workers stand between our seemingly well-ordered lives and the sea of refuse that would otherwise overwhelm us. In the process, she changes the way we understand cities—and ourselves within them.
About John J. Doherty:
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.
About Robin Nagle:
Dr. 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 is also finishing an ethnography about what it is to be a sanitation worker. The book, called Picking Up, is 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.
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