Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012: A Look Back

The first trip of 2012 was on the CTA Green Line.  Others followed.

The first trip of 2012 was on the CTA Green Line. Others followed.

The first journey of 2012 was a half-hour trip on the CTA Green Line from my home in Oak Park to downtown Chicago for the annual conference of the American Historical Association.  There, I presented a portion of my current research project on the ways notions of whiteness and environmental health have intertwined in American history from the age of Jefferson to the emergence of the Environmental Justice movement.  This presentation, titled “Race, Soap, and Environmental Inequalities in Gilded-Age America” focused on racist advertisements distributed by several soap and cleanser companies between 1880 and 1914 that used the trope that white skin was clean skin (and nonwhite skin was dirty skin).  I find it difficult to think of Ivory Soap’s boasts of purity without thinking of these advertisements.

In February, the Chicago Architecture Foundation unveiled its “Loop Value: The How Much Does It Cost? Shop” exhibit.  Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies Professor Mike Bryson and I served on the exhibit’s advisory board and taped supplemental video segments on, respectively, the Chicago River and obsolete cellphones.

encyclopediacover-300x300A few days after the AHA conference ended, I made final revisions to The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, about eighteen months after I began work on my first entries for the project.  SAGE Publications released the encyclopedia in two hardback volumes around St. Patrick’s Day (and, soon afterwards, an electronic version).  The hardback version was released just in time for the American Society for Environmental History conference in Madison, where several of the contributors attended the Envirotech breakfast.

PrattlogoIn April, I saw my Roosevelt University senior seminar and Sustainability Studies students walk across the Auditorium Theatre stage to receive their diplomas, ending an academic year that saw the first Sustainability Studies majors in the state of Illinois receive their diplomas two years after we had introduced the major.  By the time the students had graduated, I had agreed to develop a similar curriculum at the Pratt Institute, taking the opportunity to discuss the consequences of production and waste to the design and architecture students who will influence the industrialized world’s waste streams for years to come.

Summertime brought the publication of my review essay “The Births, Deaths, and Rebirths of Great American Cities” in Reviews in American History.  This piece was a consideration of two very different (and excellent) approaches to American urban history in the long nineteenth century, Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston and Nick Yablon’s Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919.  Summer also brought another Wright Plus tour of Oak Park architecture; this year my wife Jen was one of two leaders handling house operations for the entire event, and I volunteered at the E.E. Roberts-designed Howard L. Simmons house.

Ever since publishing Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, I field periodic requests for interviews about crime and scrap recycling.  These requests are usually for feature stories in general-interest periodicals, but Kevin Whiteacre, Director of the Community Research Center and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at the University of Indianapolis, interviewed me in July for his MetalTheft.Net website, which has amassed an impressive array of interviews and interdisciplinary resources about crime and scrap metal.

The interview was published as we packed up (including files ranging from my current research to the ones that inspired Cash for Your Trash) and moved from Chicago to New York City, stopping briefly at roughly the halfway point in Pittsburgh (a city that has changed since I arrived for graduate school in 1994).

Upon arriving at Pratt, I began teaching the initial version of The Sustainable Core and developing upper-division seminars on energy and waste.  The Urban History Association meeting came to my new hometown, and I chaired a panel considering the legacy of Robert Moses for it.  The conference ended just before Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area, although a few attendees (including my dissertation advisor Joel Tarr) were stranded in town for the week because of cancelled flights and trains.

LGA underwaterI also experienced travel disruptions even though I am now a local.  I had intended to fly to Vancouver on Halloween to present my paper “Wasted Potential: Chicago’s Struggle for Effective Consumer Recycling” at the Social Science History Association meeting, but neither I nor my Urban Network co-chair Megan Stubblefield were able to get out of New York ahead of the storm.  Megan lost power for several days; the cancelled trip was the extent of my inconvenience (making me considerably luckier than many of my colleagues and millions in the region).  We sent several messages to conference personnel alerting them to our impending absence (as well as the absences of other participants who emailed in to say they were marooned in New York). Locally, the effects of global climate change on the weather and oceans produced a lot of conversation about how coastal cities should plan for similar events over the coming years, underlining the importance of both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and designing safe, equitable spaces with these changes in mind.

2012 was a year of great change, and 2013 promises to be eventful as well. Pratt Institute students will have the opportunity to tackle the issues raised in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in three SUST courses, The Sustainable Core; Power, Pollution, & Profit; and Production, Consumption, & Waste.  I’m also planning presentations and publications on the history of waste and its consequences and will announce details of these closer to the relevant dates. Thanks for reading these occasional missives in 2012, and I wish you a happy, healthy new year ahead.

“Are You Related to the Crime Guy?”

CityThatBecameSafeSome academics write one or two books over a lifetime. Depending on the books, that can be an excellent career. Some academics write many more; I learned how to teach world history from Peter Stearns as he was churning out one book per year, as well as editing a journal, teaching a survey course, advising graduate students and serving as dean of a college.

My father has (happily) avoided ever serving as a dean, but he has been a prolific author for as long as I can remember. A criminologist, his books on violence, imprisonment, capital punishment, juvenile crime, firearms, and a range of related subjects have focused on the use of empirical data to inform legal policy.

A major theme in his research is that the United States does not have unusually high levels of crimes such as burglary, but rather the United States has unusually high rates of violent crimes such as homicide, and this was especially evident in rates measured in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In the middle of the last decade, he observed that violent crime rates were on a decline throughout the United States, and especially in the nation’s largest city, where crime rates began dropping under Mayor David Dinkins and continued to drop over the next twenty years.

Three years ago, he spent the year at NYU’s Straus Institute researching what had happened in New York City (across all five boroughs, across wildly diverse socioeconomic areas, and across mayoral administrations Democratic, Republican, and Independent). The resulting book, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control has turned out to be the highest-profile book of his career, getting discussed in forums as diverse as Scientific American and The Atlantic as well as on a variety of radio and television programs. Shortly after I moved to Brooklyn to teach at Pratt, my new chair asked me “are you related to the crime guy?” Yes. As it happens, my arrival in New York City coincided with my father becoming something of a local celebrity. No mean feat for someone who has called northern California home since Reagan’s first term.

Roundups of the most notable books of 2012 are popping up in the year’s final days. The oddest to date was discovering The City That Became Safe on Microsoft-founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates’s top-ten list. This means that, somehow, my father has made it to GeekWire.  No rational observer of my father’s uses of technology over the years would have anticipated that development.

The City That Became Safe is available from Oxford University Press.  A good summary of the book may be found in this interview.

As to the other question I get, I am neither the science writer Carl Zimmer nor am I (to the best of my knowledge) related to him.  But I enjoy his work as well.

Apocalypse Now?

earth_on_fireI am told by a few people that the world is ending on December 21, 2012. If that is the case, thanks for reading.  I suppose I won’t need to pay close attention to all of those meetings I have planned in 2013.

In the event that the doomsayers are incorrect, there will be a new post on this blog tomorrow morning. The subject, timely as it would be after avoiding an apocalypse, is The City That Became Safe.

The Best Music of 2012

After a post about shopping and its consequences, here I am with a post that might encourage shopping.  As recorded music is largely for sale as electronic files (although most of the following records are also available as vinyl releases), one could purchase them all without the use of a shopping bag.

I don’t listen to the hundreds of records per year I used to when I worked at radio stations, but from what I did hear, 2012 was a particularly strong year for recorded music.

The-Karl-Hendricks-Trio-The-Adult-SectionMy favorite record of the year is The Karl Hendricks Trio’s The Adult Section (Comedy Minus One). For twenty years, Karl Hendricks has used the ostensibly simple setup of Gibson Les Paul, bass guitar, drums, and an occasional second guitar to make some of the most literate and muscular music in any genre.  His previous album, 2007’s The World Says was a wonderful assessment of life at middle age, and The Adult Section continues with that theme (and not only in the record’s title track).”Dreams Ha” is my favorite song for reasons I ramble on a bit in this post.

PsychedelicpillcoverNeil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)
Finally Crazy Horse get the sprawling, epic studio record that represents them. Yes, finally.  Psychedelic Pill makes the live document Arc/Weld sound truncated and small by comparison.  As Crazy Horse’s members inch closer to seventy years of age, they lose no aggressiveness, but (as Karl Hendricks does) they play songs that address where they are in life. “Ramada Inn” is my second-favorite song of the year, simultaneously epic and compact as Neil uses few words to tell the shared life story of a man, a woman, and a bottle.

PoliceTeethPolice Teeth, Police Teeth (Latest Flame)
This blast of Bellingham, WA punk invites repeat play, especially the songs “My V-4 Weighs a Ton” and “Where’s My Fucking Hug?”  Insidiously catchy, loud, and angry music, and it always seems like it ends too soon.  (Thus the temptation for repeat play.)  Police Teeth was a quartet on its previous album, but the band loses nothing in its current incarnation as a trio.  Their set in Chicago last March was one of the best shows I saw all year, and I hope they find a way to come to the east coast before too long.

ChrisBrokawGamblersEcstasyChris Brokaw, Gambler’s Ecstacy (12XU)
Chris Brokaw’s guitars and/or drums are on many of the best records released over the past quarter of a century.  Aside from his work as a member of Codeine and Come, he’s also worked as a sideman on many records, including several of Steve Wynn’s finest solo records.  (Here Come the Miracles, as good a record as Wynn’s made, is largely a guitar duel between Wynn and Brokaw.)

Most of Brokaw’s solo work is instrumental, but in 2005, he recorded a wonderful, largely acoustic set of songs called (after a lyric in Suicide’s “I Remember”) Incredible Love. Gambler’s Ecstacy is the followup, with a bit more electric guitar.

TeethTheStrainTeeth, The Strain (self-released)
John Grabski III had five kinds of cancer and about four months to live when he and his brother Benjamin drove from upstate New York to Chicago to make a record with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio studios.  There, John recorded the vocals, drums, and guitars of this album. The fury he left behind sounds like a man at the height of his powers. I do not  know whether to call it metal or grunge, but it is loud, heavy, and a hell of a way to go out. John’s mantra was ROCK VS. CANCER — ROCK WINS, and this statement is empirical proof.

HoganPainCoverKelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti-)
Kelly Hogan is something of an institution in Chicago, where she moved in the nineties after being something of an institution in Athens, Georgia.  One of the best parts about living near FitzGerald’s in the near western suburbs is the variety of Bloodshot-related alt.country that would play the room (although even more opportunities were afforded by venturing to the Hideout).

Hogan’s spent most of the past decade doing backup vocals for others, including her friend Neko Case.  Here she steps out with a bunch of songs by the likes of Vic Chesnutt and (on the title track) Robyn Hitchcock, and gets Booker T. Jones to produce it.

TheGaryRemainsThe Gary, Remains (Sick Room Records)
Texas rock, one of the finer varieties this side of Roky Erickson or Gary Floyd.  Think the louder, less country-inflected music by both of those singers, combined with the sensibilities of such non-Texas trios as Silkworm and Shellac, and you get an idea of The Gary’s approach, sound, and high level of songwriting. The album closer “Call the Dogs” is their finest moment, but Remains is a strong, cohesive album throughout.

thefloatRebecca Gates and the Consortium, The Float (Parcematone)
Rebecca Gates is most famous as the singing, guitar-playing half of the Spinanes, who made several fine albums back in the nineties.  Her first album since 2001 sounds like she’s never been away. Oddly, it sounds just like she started where she left off with the John McEntire produced Ruby Series and its gentle synthesizers.

PaulKellySpringAndFallPaul Kelly, Spring and Fall (Gawd Aggie – Australian release)
Paul Kelly is one of the few people on earth who can vie for the title of Greatest Living Songwriter.  He is less prolific now than he was a quarter of a century ago (when it seems as if he had a couple dozen great new songs every year), but his standards of quality remain high.  Spring and Fall is a quiet, contemplative, and largely acoustic record made with Kelly’s nephew Dan Kelly, which goes well with Kelly’s remarkable How to Make Gravy memoir from a couple of years ago.

Mission-Of-Burma-UnsoundMission of Burma, Unsound (Fire)
It has been about thirty years since Mission of Burma broke up, and about a decade since they reformed.  I am of the opinion that their recorded work since the reunion is superior to their output the first time around.  Unsound, like Psychedelic Pill, is proof that AARP eligibility need not make old rockers go gently into that good night.

I also heard demos this year from Eleventh Dream Day and Joel R.L. Phelps, and while I wouldn’t count those tapes toward 2012, they bode well for music to be released in 2013.

Consumption and Its Consequences: Shopping Bags

Shopping consumes billions of bags each year.  Where do they go?

Holiday shopping consumes millions of bags each year. Where do they go?

Among the hundreds of entries in The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage are several pertaining to shopping. As we are in the peak of the holiday season, an apt one to consider is the entry on shopping bags, in which Scott Lukas notes that the vast majority of shopping bags used worldwide (over one trillion annually) are non-degradable single-use plastic bags.

There are numerous impacts associated with shopping bags. Plastic bags have been the subject of the most ridicule. In terms of their production, plastic bags require the use of petroleum. Aesthetics and quality of life are a concern with bag use. Plastic bags litter many nations, including South Africa, whose citizens have dubbed the bag the “national flower.” [Marine animals] are particularly affected by plastic bags. They often mistake bags for food and, after ingestion, die from intestinal blockage. Plastic bags have a long life cycle and may take 20–1,000 years to biodegrade. Plastic bags are sometimes culprits in the blockage of water drains. They were attributed as part of the cause of severe flooding damage in the 1988 and 1998 floods in Bangladesh, a country that later banned them in 2002. Bags are also expensive in terms of the cleanup that is needed to deal with them.

Lukas goes on to discuss alternatives to single-use plastic bags in use around the world, including biodegradables and high-status durable bags advertising brands such as department stores and fashion lines. For more on this subject and many others relating to shopping, see if your local library has The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage.

Give the Gift of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste This Season

encyclopediacover-300x300Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and the start of the gift-giving season. As we begin an especially active season for conspicuous consumption, it is a perfect time to learn more about how we consume everything ranging from food to toys. For the public or academic library in your life, what could be a better gift this year than The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage? 

Available in both two-volume hardcover edition and easily searchable electronic edition, the encyclopedia explores the topic of consumption across multiple disciplines within the social sciences and is a valuable reference for policymakers and students in fields ranging from anthropology to history. For more information about the encyclopedia and how your library might order either a hardback or electronic copy, see SAGE’s site for the book.

Hanukkah is a festival celebrating the miracle of resource conservation over eight days. We can’t promise that The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste can deliver miracles, but it may inform more enlightened consumption in the days and nights ahead.

Fresh Garbage for Ed Cassidy

EdCassidyThe drummer Ed Cassidy died this week at age 89.  Cassidy’s career was long and varied, including gigs in the fifties with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cannonball Adderley, and a stint with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder in the Rising Sons one decade later.  He is most famous for founding and playing in Spirit with his stepson Randy California.

The first song on the first, eponymous Spirit album is “Fresh Garbage.”  If there is a theme song for my career, “Fresh Garbage” is it.  Written by singer Jay Ferguson, the lyrics are to the point:

Look beneath your lid some morning,
See those things you didn’t quite consume-
The world’s a can for your fresh garbage

While plenty of songs reference waste, pollution, and the dirty work required to keep homes and neighborhoods clean, “Fresh Garbage” is as pithy as it gets.  That’s one reason why the song was the inspiration for one of my WRCT shows fifteen years ago. Another reason is it is so catchy.  Anyway, to remember the long career of Ed Cassidy, here’s a link to that first track on Spirit.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7MQ5rxUZsc]