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Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York Cityby Robin Nagle
Synopses & Reviews
Americas largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000 tons from households each day on average. But New Yorkers dont 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 Citys 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 Departments 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 wasnt quite enough—so she joined the force herself. Driving the hulking trucks, she obtained an insiders perspective on the complex kinships, arcane rules, and obscure lingo unique to the realm of sanitation workers.
Nagle chronicles New York Citys four-hundred-year struggle with trash, and traces the citys 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 its 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.
"Inspired by a graduate school project and a seminar she taught on 'Garbage in Gotham,' Nagle, NYU professor and the current and first ever anthropologist-in-residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation, examines why the garbage men and women are the most important people on the payroll. The city's 8.2 million residents are well-served by a relatively small army: a mere 9,216 workers are responsible for carting off the 12,000 tons of garbage and recyclables produced each day, in addition to sweeping 6,000 miles of streets multiple times a week — the author contends that the city is cleaner than it's ever been. Nagle worked as a garbage woman to better understand her subject, and that experience, combined with years of research, results in an intimate look at the mostly male work force as they risk injury and endure insult while doing the city's dirty work. She also provides a fascinating capsule history of the department and the city's 400-year relationship with waste. Citing the mind-bogglingly expansive Fresh Kills landfill as evidence of humanity's remarkable ability to consume 'geological' quantities of stuff, Nagle asks, 'Who keeps us safe from ourselves?' Her investigation makes the answer abundantly clear. Agent: Michelle Tessler, Tessler Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“Meticulous . . . [Nagles] passion for the subject really comes to life.” —The New York Times
New York City produces more than twelve thousand tons of household trash and recyclables a day. As quickly as it accumulates, its hauled away. But who makes that happen? Whats life like for the workers with careers built around garbage?
In Picking Up, the anthropologist Robin Nagle takes us inside New York Citys Department of Sanitation, a largely unseen and often unloved army responsible for keeping the city alive. Nagle spent a decade with sanitation people of all ranks to learn what it takes to manage Gothams garbage. She even took the job herself, driving trucks and plowing snow while enduring the physical aches, public abuse, and risk of injury that are constant realities of the job. Nagle offers an insiders perspective on the complex hierarchies, intricate rules, and obscure language unique to this mostly invisible world.
Not just a contemporary account, Picking Up charts New York Citys four-hundred-year struggle with trash. It traces the citys waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to todays far more vigorous practices, which have made the city cleaner than its been in decades.
Complete with vividly evoked characters and memorable descriptions of the sights and smells of the job, Picking Up reveals the vital role sanitation workers play in every city across the globe.
About the Author
Robin Nagle has been anthropologist-in-residence at New York Citys Department of Sanitation since 2006. She is a clinical associate professor of anthropology and urban studies at New York University, where she also directs the Draper Interdisciplinary Masters Program in Humanities and Social Thought.
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