Monthly Archives: March 2013

NPR Story on Arthur Wood and the Broken Angel

Arthur Wood's home, the Broken Angel.

Arthur Wood’s home, the Broken Angel.

The Broken Angel’s creator faces eviction from his home of 34 years this weekend.  A couple of weeks ago, two benefits for Arthur Wood took place and today NPR ran a segment about his story.

The building was featured in the film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, which follows the comedian as he puts together a free hip-hop concert in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn in 2004. “It’s a monument to Brooklyn, my dear,” Cynthia Wood, Arthur’s wife, explains to Chappelle.

Chappelle is invited in by the couple, who look like time travelers from the Age of Aquarius. They named their home after a figurine they discovered broken and scattered in the street. Arthur put the pieces back together.

The Woods bought the property in 1979 for $2,100 in cash. They gradually transformed the 19th-century brick building into what’s been hailed as a work of 21st-century art.

“He took a tenement and he transformed it with a lot of materials people have classified as discards and tossed away into dumps,” says Carl Zimring, who teaches at the renowned Pratt Institute art school a few blocks away. “And turned that into a coherent form of art — a folk art, an art that very much relied on the materials that Brooklyn had to offer.”

In its heyday, Broken Angel towered nine stories over the street. Arthur took out most of the floors, creating a soaring open space with stained glass windows.

“This is all made from stuff collected from automobile accidents, and broken glass, and whatever,” Arthur says. “These are very pretty when the light hits, and it spreads all around.”

Thanks to Joel Rose for telling Arthur’s story. Here is hoping that because more people get to hear it that it helps Arthur in his fight.

Register for Fall 2013 Pratt Sustainability Courses

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

How do humans live in concert with the environment? Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

Here at the Pratt Institute, I am offering two sustainability seminars for Fall 2013.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them.  (I hope to have news soon of other curricular options for these courses; check this space in April.)

One of these courses focuses  how we design goods, and what implications our designs have for the environment as they age.  If you have ever wondered how recycling works, or want to learn ways of minimizing waste in the design of everything from clothes to buildings, consider registering in SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste.  The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-24 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Fall 2013: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)

In addition to that seminar, I am leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the third offering of SUST 201P The Sustainable Core.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.

SUST 201P The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Fall 2013: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses, please feel free to contact me at

Wasted: A Talk About the Consequences of Waste

NYPIRG_wastedLast night, I had the pleasure of joining NYPIRG for the “Wasted: Photographic & Sculptural Works Addressing Solid Waste” event at Pratt’s Student Union in which students displayed a week’s worth of the material they collected for disposal. Each of the students who participated spoke about their experiences, and Kristina Andreotta and I made some introductory remarks about some of the social and environmental consequences of our disposal. Here are my remarks:

Thank you for inviting me to join you this evening. I am an environmental historian concerned with how we define and manage waste, and how those decisions affect the environment and society. My classes include The Sustainable Core, Production Consumption and Waste, and Power Pollution and Profit. In all of these classes, we consider how we create waste and how we might reduce waste in the future. One of the challenges is realizing that trash is more a verb than a noun. Nothing is innately trash; trash is a choice we have to dispose of all kinds of materials.

What I like about this event is you are making your waste disposal visible. One of the major themes in the history of waste is how we have developed practices to make our waste invisible. When we classify packaging, foods, and other goods as wastes, we then put this unwanted items in a garbage can or even a recycling bin. Once they are in the can, our relationship with that material comes to an end. Someone empties that can into a dumpster or another can, then a truck comes along and takes the disposed materials away. Where? We might follow the truck, but few people are that curious. What’s important is the waste is taken out of sight and out of mind. It might have consequences, but we don’t see them.

The only times we become aware of those consequences is when something is brought to our attention. Sometimes, this focus is environmental. Locally, litter on the sidewalk might bother us. Globally, we may be disturbed by media accounts of environmental damage. When Captain Charles Moore sailed his boat through the Pacific Ocean in 1997, he came across a mass of floating plastic debris. He discovered that this mass was larger than the state of Texas, and is one of several gigantic patches of plastic floating in the Earth’s oceans. This floating waste is killing several species of aquatic birds who mistake it for foods they can digest. The wandering albatross, the world’s largest bird of flight, may disappear in part due to this waste.

The social cost to our waste management practices is also significant. Handling garbage and recyclables is dangerous work. Waste may include old detergent bottles or cleansers that damage lungs, eyes, and skin. Broken metal and glass can cause wounds. Even the equipment used to process wastes poses hazards.

Last Saturday morning, Luis Camarillo was working at the Chambers Paper Fibres Corporation here in Brooklyn. He was loading paper into a truck when he fell in and was crushed by the truck’s hydraulic compactor. He was 18 years old. Unfortunately, stories like his are not rare. The waste trades have higher workplace accident incidence rates than the mining industry does. All too often in the United States, the workers who are hurt or killed are African American or Hispanic, because the most dangerous jobs in the trade are performed by African Americans and Hispanics. Most waste facilities in this country are located near or in African American or Hispanic communities. Our waste may go out of our sight, but it burdens other people and places. By keeping your waste in sight, you compel us to ask why we throw so much out of our lives and into vulnerable places. Thank you for doing this and thank you for inviting me to join you.

Green Events at Pratt Institute

Green-week-2013-banner-470x260Earth Day is still a month away, but the Pratt Institute has green on its mind right now. (And not just because of St. Patrick’s Day.) Green Week 2013 is upon us, and here is a schedule (including action campaigns that start Monday).

I’m participating in three related events. NYPIRG holds “Wasted” at the Pratt Student Union 8pm Thursday. Learn about the garbage we produce from students who will display the results of their disposal this week. I will make brief remarks.

On Saturday, the Center for Sustainable Design Studies presents the third annual Sustainability Crash Course. I’ll discuss the history of upcycling aluminum at 11:15am.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Hello Etsy takes place at the Pratt Institute. I will moderate the “Reimagining Consumption” panel featuring Robin Chase of Zipcare, Michelle Long of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies, and Karen Brown of the Center for Ecoliteracy Sunday at 9am.

Consult the Green Week schedule for many events, activities, and campaigns around campus.

Benefits for Brooklyn Artist Arthur Wood at Broken Angel March 15

Arthur Wood's home, the Broken Angel.

Arthur Wood’s home, the Broken Angel.

Artist Arthur Wood has lived in his house for thirty-four years, using discarded material he found in dumps to transform it into a unique and legendary space known as the Broken Angel.  If you rent the film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, you can see the fruits of his labors. If you live in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, you’ve probably met Arthur.  If you walk down the block where Quincy dead-ends into Downing, you cannot miss the Broken Angel.

Arthur Wood purchased the 4-story brick tenement building at 4-8 Downing Street in 1979 for $2,000. He lived in the house with his wife Cynthia and raised their son Christopher who is now a stone carver. The artist explored ideas about design and vernacular architecture with improvised construction to add new floors and rooms to the original building, to the point where the structure reaches 104 feet, or about 9 stories above the sidewalk. The site has been compared to Watts Towers in Los Angeles for the ad hoc construction and is acknowledged for its value as folk art and as part of the cultural heritage.

This beautiful artistic landmark has inspired many people with its intricate arches, stunning, gravity defying angles and it’s sheer asymmetry in a landscape which is all too dull and predictable. Much of the material it was built from was sourced from the garbage and dumps of NYC, showing the truth in the old maxim; “One Man’s Garbage is Another Man’s Treasure.”

Arthur is being evicted this week after a long legal battle to stay in his home.  Tomorrow (on the Ides of March) a pair of benefits for Arthur are taking place.  The first is an all-ages afternoon block party at the Broken Angel. The second, an after party, is a dance party fundraiser (21 and over) at the Irondale Center.  Details on both events may be found at this Facebook page.

“Reimagining Consumption” at Hello Etsy

hello_etsy_2013Hello Etsy at Pratt: Reimagine the Marketplace is a conference at Pratt  March 22-24 that will include talks and workshops to (as the people at Etsy put it) “empower independent, creative business owners (and those who soon will be) to explore new methods of production, new patterns of consumption, and more lasting and purposeful ways of working. It’s about building the creative economy of the future — one that is connected, human-scaled, joyful, and lasting.”

Etsy reached out to Pratt to brainstorm possible speakers, and the resulting lineup reflects that input.

Appealing to thinkers and doers alike, Hello Etsy at Pratt will include high profile speakers like Jeremy Rifkin, Robin Chase, Chris Anderson, Stewart Wallis, Laurie Santos, Rachel Chong, Alex Blumberg, Rasanath Das, Michelle Long, Charles Eisenstein, Majora Carter, Michael Carroll, Dr. Thomas Schutte, and Chad Dickerson, as well as workshops that will offer entirely unique experiences in an atmosphere of inspired thinking.

I will moderate the discussion “Reimagining Consumption” on Sunday morning, March 24.  For more about the conference, including ticketing, visit Etsy’s post about it.

Upcycling Presentation at Pratt Sustainability Crash Course March 23

crash_corse_2013_banner_final-470x260Watch this space for more details, but I will participate in Pratt’s 2013 Sustainability Crash Course on Saturday, March 23.

Imagine being able to spend one amazing day immersed in learning about sustainable design—and meeting the people who have pioneered new thinking and practices. On Saturday, March 23, 2013, Pratt’s CSDS will present the third annual Sustainability Crash Course, a day-long series of workshops with a host of experts from Pratt’s sustainable design faculty and elsewhere. This will be great chance to hear experts discuss everything from Ecology and Biomimicry to Packaging Design and Life-Cycle Analysis. With over 20 speakers, it is sure to be a fantastic day of exploration and inspiration!

My part of the program will consider upcycling in historical perspective. For more information, including how to register, see the Crash Course website.