Wasting Space: Composting for Change in New York

Sandy Nurse and Renee Peperone, co-founders and co-facilitators of BK ROT, stand in two newly-built compost bins at the lot on Jefferson St, smiling and squinting in the afternoon sun on a spring day. As a writer working with local compost systems, I’ve seen a lot of people take selfies inside compost bins, where the trash goes. Grim as I am, I always read it as a sort of permaculturist memento mori: some day we all will be dirt.

For Sandy and Renee, though, I read their position inside the bins as putting people in compost, and thinking about the kinds of roles people have when we build compost systems.

The idea behind BK ROT is this: youth-powered compost pickup and processing in community gardens that creates well-paying, expert jobs, and centralizes youth of color in environmental stewardship. Since 2013, the group has worked with four youths to collect compost from 45 households and two drop-off sites in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick and process it at two community gardens. The youth provide the labor for collection and processing, handle customer interactions, and represent the organization at public events. They are paid $15 per hour for their work.

The project took shape alongside larger changes in organic waste management in New York City: the introduction of municipal curbside organics collection, a mandate for commercial composting, and city support for volunteer-based community composting projects.

BK ROT does something unique by placing waste labor first in its design for urban compost. Sandy explains that their focus on labor comes in response to a variety of problems with the way the compost industry is taking shape in New York City, including the often exclusive market for green jobs, the generally exploitive market for waste jobs [see this or this or this], and the exclusivity of the volunteer labor pools responsible for much of the City’s community compost infrastructure. In addition, BK ROT works to deploy a vision for public space in Bushwick that runs counter to both the historical overburdening of North Brooklyn with waste transfer and disposal sites, and the gentrification of Bushwick.

In the following stories, I describe the work of BK ROT as Sandy and Renee struggle to implement an alternative vision of urban green space and waste labor.

Sandy and Renee in the bins at El Garden. Source: bkrot.org. Used with permission.

Sandy and Renee in the bins at El Garden. Source: bkrot.org. Used with permission.

Visions of Access

There is a line of thinking in urban agriculture circles that suggests that community gardens can be empowering spaces for city dwellers who are otherwise denied their right to the city. But other voices argue that community gardens play a contradictory role in neighborhoods, simultaneously creating alternative food systems, and entrenching the neoliberalization of government by putting the management of public space in the hands of under-compensated citizens. Part of this process includes the role of community garden spaces in “environmental gentrification,” in which creating green spaces in low-rent communities of Color helps to attract developers and affluent renters.

BK ROT has had a conflicted role in this process: while Sandy initially conceived the project to challenge the exclusionary politics she saw in urban greening, she also recognizes the role that it can have in furthering the appeal of Bushwick to white and moneyed outsiders.

The first official home for BK ROT—El Garden—was created by 596 Acres, a community garden network that Renee associates with “the new guard” that has separated from the radical roots of community gardens. In the 1970s and 1980s, the community gardens were projects that responded to the city’s failure to create safe spaces and green spaces for residents. The 596 lots, according to Renee, don’t meet local needs as much as they provide new spaces for hobbyists. From my experiences in El Garden, the space fits Renee’s diagnosis.

By June I’d gotten into a schedule with BK ROT, biking to Bushwick every Sunday for a few hours of smelly, arduous labor. Hilary, a perennial volunteer, compares this routine to church: a place you go on Sundays that’s altogether not-quite-enjoyable but makes you feel better about yourself and the world. When I showed up on June 21st, I was on my way to compost church, prepared—and dressed—for physical labor and the smells of compost-gone-anaerobic. But when I turned the corner onto Jefferson St, I heard live alt rock playing, and when I walked into the garden I saw 20-30 mostly white people chatting. There was a tent set up near the compost bins. I locked my bike up to a sign outside, and went in to try to figure out what was going on, and if it made sense for me to be there.

I didn’t see Renee or Sandy, but Hilary was chatting with her friends by the snack table. She explained that the garden was having a picnic! She didn’t share my sense of disruption, and I tried to chat with her for a minute before excusing myself to grab a plate and check out the snack table.

Andrew and Antoine—two of the youth workers—were eyeing the table as well, but their plates were empty. I didn’t blame them. The centerpiece was a steel bowl of raw, chopped kale—not a massaged kale salad, but simply kale. To the side was an undressed mix of cold lima beans and chickpeas. To drink there was a dispenser labeled “lemonade” that held lemon-flavored water. A white woman saw the kids’ empty plates and asked if they were hungry. Andrew shook his head. “Do you want some kale?” she asked.

The bowl of kale was unforgiveable to me. Kale has been much-lampooned as a gentrifier’s food—my favorite depiction is in the “Settlers of Brooklyn” video, a parody of the popular board game Settlers of Cataan, in which kale features as a resource with which settlers can build out their colonies into new areas of Brooklyn that are “virtually uninhabited by young adults with wealthy parents.” Kale isn’t only a tool of gentrification: it’s healthy, it grows late and easily, and functions in a variety of non-white cuisines. These leaves are thick with meaning (even if they’re too thick with cellulose to eat raw). However, watching a white woman offer raw kale to Black high school students demonstrated that this space was not designed with Andrew and Antoine in mind.

I see this a lot in my fieldwork: people who work in gardens try to convince young black men to eat raw unseasoned vegetables. The culinary missionaries are working in what Julie Guthman calls the “if they only knew” framework of organic advocates: if people who don’t love vegetables could only eat a fresh-picked tomato, they’d see how much they love and need fresh food. The problem with this is that tastes aren’t universal, and that my taste for raw tomatoes comes from a place of privilege.

Know Waste Lands, with wildflower garden in the foreground and compost bins in the background. Source: Whose Street? Community Mural Project. Used with permission.

Know Waste Lands, with wildflower garden in the foreground and compost bins in the background. Source: Whose Street? Community Mural Project. Used with permission.

Two months later, BK ROT hosted another party: an open house for their new space: Know Waste Lands (KWL). Unlike El Garden, KWL was designed with openness in mind. The new lot is right underneath a train station, in the acute angle formed by two well-traveled streets. Not only is it in a highly trafficked area, but it provides a tempting shortcut between two streets. You can see right through it. Furthermore, Sandy, Renee and Hilary did a lot to publicize this event—distributing fliers in grocery stores and bodegas in both English and Spanish, and talking with community leaders about the new space. And a team of mural painters—Raul and Fernanda—had been designing a mural for the space, using interviews with neighbors who had lived on the block since before Bushwick started gentrifying.

Unlike the El Garden party, the KWL party made the space feel actually open. People walked in off the street, and the resulting crowd was mostly Brown and Spanish-speaking. Iyeshima and Antoine explained the role of BK ROT in the garden, and people lingered to talk to them about compost, treating them as the experts they were. In addition to pumpkin and apple pies I’d baked (which, in fairness, disgusted Iyeshima), we served empanadas from a local empanada shop, apple cider and hot coffee. Sandy taught Antoine how to make s’mores. A story in the Brooklyn Paper called the space “the prettiest dump in town.”

Clearly, KWL is colored by a different intentionality than El Garden—structurally, socially, culturally. But Sandy and Renee also insist that the waste itself—the fact that the space was developed around waste—has something to do with the openness. “Everyone creates waste,” Renee explained when I talked to her about different feel you get in Know Waste Lands. Of course everyone creates waste, but doesn’t everyone eat food, too? And while not everyone wants to eat the locally-grown kale that EL Garden offers, not everyone feels the need to compost locally.

However, waste doesn’t necessarily stratify people the same way food does. Food plays a big role in performing class identity; waste less so. Furthermore, waste doesn’t come with the kind of ownership that food does; while most of the food grown in a community garden is spoken for by its growers, people aren’t nearly so possessive with waste.

A pigeon breeder who has kept his flock on the roof of his apartment building for decades came down for the party, and, upon learning what BK ROT was, offered up hundreds of pounds of pigeon droppings, which the garden used to create fertile new beds for wildflowers.

A dump is accessible in a way that a farm often isn’t. Especially a pretty dump.

Figure 3: Food scraps being mixed with wood chips at Know Waste Lands. Photo by author.

Figure 3: Food scraps being mixed with wood chips at Know Waste Lands. Photo by author.

Trash is Work

When I get to KWL and walk my bike over to Sandy’s work station where she’s putting together the new compost bins, she puts down her impact drill and tells me she has gossip that she wants to share. She’s in her first Twitter war. She dishes.

A nearby anarchist collective called The Base has been offering compost collection for several months. You can drop off food scraps there, and they take them to a community garden in the nearby neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. For a few months now, the Base has been posting on Twitter about their free compost collection. Sandy, like me, is not a prolific Twitter user, and had just that day noticed that The Base was tagging BK ROT in their posts. Nothing explicit, just a call for people to drop off their food scraps at the base, followed by the hashtag #bkrot.

Sandy worried the announcements would be confusing and detract from BK ROT’s efforts to build a customer base, and sent Daniel a direct message asking him to stop tagging BK ROT. He responded by publicly posting:

I guess we confused some people by including other groups that compost in our tweets. While we do not charge, @BKROT does charge/

Followed immediately by:

Mind you, @BKROT‘s charges people to pick up compost & uses that funds for youth jobs, which is a positive thing.

The separation between these two tweets suggests that the “we do it for free” framework, when separated from “they charge to pay youth” is still an important selling point for Daniel’s project. Sandy was naturally frustrated by the first tweet, and explained:

@thetinyraccoon We charge households $15/month and use the funds exclusively to pay low-income Black and Brown for their hard work.

To which The Base responded:

@BKROT I know. I read the website. I wanted to be clear because apparently previous tweets were not as clear about what we do.

Sandy was frustrated by the Twitter war. She was disappointed that The Base would try to cut in on BK ROT’s market, and that they would try to use “free composting” as a selling point when BK ROT was working so hard to define composting as valuable labor that deserved pay. She understood that people wanted to have options in terms of composting, and that offering a free compost drop-off service was great for people who couldn’t afford BK ROT’s service. But if The Base was going to try to compete with BK ROT for people’s food scraps and dollars, then they weren’t helping local projects.

Putting value on the labor that goes into composting is difficult when the primary models for dealing with food scraps are either volunteer labor or municipal collection. For Sandy, a central purpose of BK ROT is creating a framework for valuing the labor that goes into waste management.

There’s a lot of work in ecological practices that should be happening in the community, [it takes] a lot of labor that’s not valued, that’s generally seen as gardeners, or people who have time coming in and doing that for others for free, which, kind of refers back to a level of privilege, and so this project mostly just tries to find ways to put value on that work and then create opportunities for the people who don’t get to get that kind of work or who are usually less considered for it to put them in the center of it and in this case it’s low-income minority youth, black youth, undocumented youth, Latinos…

In BK ROT’s vision of the sustainable city, compost becomes a tool for creating a new kind of waste labor that is valued, respected, and inclusive, and for building new kinds of green spaces that can maintain an openness that urban agriculture sometimes fails to accomplish.

Featured image: Public art at Know Waste Lands. Source: brooklynstreetart.com. Used with permission.

Dr. Guy Schaffer is a recent graduate of the PhD program in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His research examines the relationship between municipal and community compost in New York City, with a focus on the interaction between visions of the green city and sensory engagements with decay. Contact.


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