Ask a Garbologist – By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Robin Nagle, the anthropologist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation, will be responding to readers’ questions about her work as a garbologist.
Readers who would like to ask Dr. Nagle a question should do so in the comments box below. Her first set of responses will be published on Wednesday.
Dr. Nagle was named anthropologist-in-residence for the city’s Department of Sanitation in 2006, but her fascination with garbage started in childhood. Her father took her camping in the Adirondacks one summer in the 1970s, and behind the lean-to at their campsite in the middle of a seemingly pristine forest they discovered a small open-air dump. She was horrified that hikers and campers could be so thoughtless. “Who did they think was going to clean up their mess?” she asked.
After graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, Dr. Nagle started to design a research project with the Department of Sanitation around a variation on that question from her childhood: Who cleans up after New Yorkers? More specifically, what is it to be a sanitation worker in the city today? What does it mean to put on the uniform, navigate the streets, heft the weight, and learn the city from a unique and intimate perspective? Why does the most important uniformed force on the streets face a persistent stigma, and how do sanitation folk reconcile that contradiction?
In searching for answers to these and a host of related questions, Dr. Nagle has spent many hours accompanying sanitation workers on their rounds, flinging trash side-by-side with them, interviewing women and men of various ranks. She held the job herself for a brief time. The initial questions have evolved into several new initiatives. The Sanitation Department archives are being collected, organized and cataloged for the first time. They will be a resource for scholars and students in many fields who want a better understanding of a crucial but little-studied aspect of urban history. Likewise, the Sanitation Oral History Project, a collaboration between N.Y.U., Columbia, the Sanitation Department and the parks department, aims to collect life histories of sanitation personnel and members of the public who have a connection to the city’s solid waste issues. Both the archives and the oral history project will become facets of the Sanitation Museum, which is in the planning stages.
Dr. Nagle, who lives in West Harlem, also teaches anthropology and urban studies at N.Y.U., where she runs the Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought. Her book about the Department of Sanitation in New York, called “Picking Up,” will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.