Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Dumpsters

Do you want to know how to lose faith in humanity and start disliking everyone around you? Shovel (literally shovel) someone else's garbage up for an hour on a Sunday morning.

Let me back up.

Despite this post boldly declaring that we were staying put in our smallish house because I had embraced a minimalist outlook (and the constraints of our budget), we actually moved a couple weeks ago. A series of events (some fortunate, some unfortunate, some neutral) led to us changing our minds and our circumstances, and now we're in a bigger space (more than one bathroom!!!) that really fits us well (a classroom for homeschooling!!)

The new house is very close to the old house. It's about a mile away, crossing one major city street. In fact, we can easily walk between the two. The differences between the two, though, are somewhat shocking.

That short jaunt put us in a different property tax bracket (ten times higher), a different alderman's ward, a different demographic make up (though both are pretty racially diverse), and . . . different dumpsters.

Well, actually, the dumpsters are pretty much the same. The city has dedicated alley dumpsters for trash, yard waste, and recycling. They look the same, plopped down behind houses, in both neighborhoods. But there is definitely a different dumpster culture.

The new house shares an alley with a very well-to-do block behind it. One of the first things I noticed when we were looking at houses was the immaculate state of the alleyways. Spotless! The alleyway behind my old house was frequently overflowing with illegally dumped garbage, a disgusting heap of disrespect and loss of hope.

I have dumpsters located immediately behind my house in both locations, and that means that I am legally responsible for keeping them clean. A recent local news story explores how frustrating this can be. I can get fined because my neighbors (or someone driving in from somewhere else and illegally dumping) leave the alleyway a mess.

This wouldn't be such a problem except for the house next to my old one is owned by this guy. Disbarred for immigration fraud, a former lawyer turned real estate "investor" has gobbled up a ton of very cheap houses in my former zip code, done the bare minimum to get them up to "code," and then rented them out with absolutely no oversight over who lives there or what they do. He's preying on low income individuals who don't have other housing options and leaving them to live in substandard squalor, disrupting neighborhood stability as he rakes in the money.

He has owned the house next to us for most of the time that we lived there. In that time, several families came and went. Many were great neighbors. Many were not. Some fought violently in the streets and left a litany of ordinance violations in their wake. Most were eventually evicted after the complaints stacked up and triggered the city's nuisance property process.

The tenants who were in this house most recently had been, to put it lightly, not great neighbors. They broke out our windows, fought constantly, dumped trash in our yard. There were also at least thirty people living in a two-bedroom house. The ongoing issues were one of the reasons we decided to move.

Ironically, they were finally evicted just one week after we started living in our new house. They also left me some parting gifts when I returned to do some cleaning this weekend.

I wish I could say that I was shocked, taken aback, completely flabbergasted by this. But it was not the first time (though I hope it is the last time) that I had to take a snow shovel and literally scoop up other people's garbage. 

There's something intimate about garbage. Here I was scooping up bras and full, unopened canned goods. I found the cover of a Charles Dickens adaptation for kids. There were the toys that the children had played on for hours upon hours left in heaps. 

It's weird to feel so much sympathy even as you feel so much anger. I had talked to these neighbors several times. Their kids had played with my kids in my backyard. I didn't want to see their life thrown into upheaval with an eviction anymore than I wanted to be scooping up the aftermath of that resolution, but I also didn't want to keep living next to violent outbursts.  

I left the alley in better shape than I found it, but it still doesn't hold a candle to the immaculate cleanliness of the alleyway behind our new house. 

I don't have any conclusions to this post. I don't know how to address gentrification, substandard housing, predatory slumlords, the instability of poverty, or my own place in it. I don't know how to feel about fleeing one neighborhood for a "better" one. I don't know what will happen to my former neighbors. I just know that the materiality of the dumpsters tells a tale of St. Louis in a way that makes all the statistics and handwringing very, very concrete to me. 

While my new neighbors use social media to advertise alley way pick up posts of their gently used and unwanted discards, my old neighborhood will continue to fill up with the haphazardly displaced belongings of evicted tenants. And I will continue to not know what to do or how to feel about it. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Am I On Team Human: A Social Media Project Approach to Overthinking Things

Am I on Team Human? It seems like an odd question. On the one hand, what other team would I be on? Not only am I a member of the human species (the most obvious reason for my allegiance) but I’m also a member of the “humanities” discipline, ostensibly dedicated to researching, cataloging, examining, and spreading what it is to be human.

The question of whether or not I am “on Team Human” references a podcast titled Team Human. I stumbled upon it looking for something to listen to on a long drive. It’s hosted by Douglas Rushkoff and features thoughtful and thought-provoking conversations with experts across a range of disciplines as they examine the intersection of technology and humanity. Rushkoff’s tagline is that Team Human is the “last best hope” for humanity.

I’ve listened to a half dozen or so of these episodes since my initial stumble upon them, and I recommend them. They’re interesting, and they definitely touch upon relevant questions that we should be asking.

That said, I haven’t been able to figure out if I align myself with “Team Human” as an opposition force. Am I against the rising technology around us? Do I believe that it is negatively impacting (or even eradicating) humanity? Can I be on Team Human if a robot vacuums my floors?

While many of the episodes in this series have caught my interest, it’s the very first one I listened to (which is actually a two-parter) that has stuck with me. I listened to the first part in its entirety without distraction as I drove a very long and uneventful stretch of Midwestern highway, and then I listened to the second part on that same stretch of highway heading the other direction two days later.

For both episodes, I was left vacillating rapidly between cries of “YES” and “are you fucking kidding me?” This is unusual. Something that makes me move between total agreement and almost angry disagreement so many times is . . . worthwhile? Intriguing? Probably sitting at the intersection of some contradiction worth exploring?

The episodes in question feature a conversation between Rushkoff and his college best friend Walter Kirn (author of the novel Up in the Air that became the George Clooney movie). The conversation is easy and engaging, and it winds through several different topics. I tried to summarize what I agreed with and what I disagreed with, but it didn’t work. The concerns were too tangled, and my own thoughts were bouncing too quickly into subtopics, wandering off into the woods.

I’ve been wanting to unpack my thoughts on this conversation for almost two months now, and I’ve finally decided that the only way to really do it is to listen to it again, pause when I get to something that makes me have something to say, and then write about it.

So that’s what I will be doing. I’m going to find out if I’m on Team Human or not. And if you have an interest in the intersections of technology, humanity, and the future of both, you might be interested in giving these episodes a listen and asking yourself that question with me. (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here). 

Photo: Mike Mozart