Monthly Archives: April 2015

Pratt Sustainability Studies Minor Resources

Registration for Fall 2015 is upon us at Pratt, and the Institute has updated its website. Students wanting to register for sections relevant to the Sustainability Studies minor can click on this link, scroll down to the bottom half, and click on each linked course to see scheduling and availability of sections. Next term, my classes include a Friday morning section of SUST 201 The Sustainable Core and a Tuesday afternoon section of SUST 405 Production, Consumption, and Waste.

Students interested in declaring the minor should speak to their advisor and also to me prior to declaring. The minor declaration form may be downloaded here.

Victory Auto Wreckers and the Long History of Junk as a Dirty Word

chinews-victory-auto-wreckers-launch-20150121Personal history frequently dovetails with broader historical trends. That was my experience this week after seeing news about a staple of my childhood.

Most kids who grew up in Chicago households with televisions over the past fifty years have probably seen ads for Victory Auto Wreckers. Most scrap and salvage businesses do not advertise on television, but rare was the White Sox game or Saturday afternoon movie of my youth that did not feature at least one Victory ad.

Most of the ones I saw are lost to history, but one 1985 Victory Auto Wreckers ad has aired on Chicago television for thirty years. Victory Auto Wreckers is in the news in 2015 because the business has decided to finally update its ad. Although the phone number, address, name, and type of business has remained unchanged, Victory wants to update its image. Owner Kyle Weisner, who took over the business from his father since the last ad was filmed, spoke with Wailin Wong of The Distance (which then provided the story to the Chicago Tribune website) about the image problem.

….change — and an all-new commercial — is finally coming to Victory, which was founded in 1945 by two World War II veterans and is located in Bensenville, Ill., just beyond the southern edge of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A place like Victory, where broken-down cars are stripped and flattened, seems like an unlikely candidate for a makeover. But the business has invested millions of dollars into upgrading its facilities and reshaping its image from a dirty junkyard to a modern recycling center, complete with its own mobile app.
“The commercial shows a shot of the yard, and you see it almost looks like it was filmed on a rainy day,” Kyle says. “It’s so muddy and disgusting, and everything is haphazard and all over the place. Now it’s paved. It’s beautiful. You can come in here after work with your suit on or your loafers or whatever, and not have to worry about getting dirty. …It’s something that we’ve never had before. We’ve entered the 21st century.”

CashforYourTrashWhat I love about this quote is how explicitly it uses the rhetoric scrap recycling businesses have used to distinguish their businesses from waste and filth for a century. This point is a continuity through the history of scrap recycling, as I noted in my 2005 book Cash for Your Trash. While popular perceptions of recycling in the 21st century link it to environmentally virtuous, ethical behavior, the acts of reclaiming and reprocessing post-consumer and post-industrial materials bore stigma in the early 20th century. Progressive reformers like Jane Addams railed against scrap businesses endangering the physical and moral health of urban children. Zoning ordinances after World War I sought to keep such businesses out of sight and out of mind of most residents.
In response, scrap and salvage businesses published trade magazines and founded trade associations to advocate for their work. As they did, they distinguished themselves as modern agents of material conservation far removed from “primitive junk dealing.”

Time and again, scrap recyclers have distanced themselves from the term “junk” and its dirty connotations. During the debates over what became the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, Scrap Age defended its constituents against potential regulations requiring yards not to provide visible blight on the nation’s highways. It also instructed readers to avoid using the work “junk” in their names and descriptions of their businesses, going so far as to say “the name of this game is ‘scrap.’ Anything else is a disservice to your firm, your industry, and your future.” (See p. 127 of Cash for Your Trash for the full citation.)

Half a century after the Highway Beautification Act debates, Victory Auto Wreckers continues the rhetorical attempt to define scrap as modern rather than dirty. I look forward to seeing the new ad and wonder whether any kids in 2015 will have any different idea of what goes on inside a salvage facility after watching it. If history is a guide, attempts at an image change will face challenges.

“A Gesture of Kindness”

In 1995, the Karl Hendricks Trio released their album “A Gesture of Kindness.” Artwork for the album was provided by Chris Ware.

Twenty years later, Karl faces medical bills after surgery for oral cancer. Chris Ware has generously donated his original artwork for auction to help Karl and his family. The auction is live until April 16. Here are a few photos of the artwork; the auction listing has more, as well as a full description of the pieces.



All proceeds go to benefit Karl Hendricks and his family. Thanks to Chris Ware for his gesture of kindness.

UPDATE: The auction has concluded, with the artwork selling for $2809.08. Thanks again to Chris, to Jon Solomon for running the auction, and to the bidders.

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, November 2015)

C&WcoverNow that it’s on the NYU Press website, I should mention my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States is coming out at the end of 2015.

From the press:

When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate,” he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty.

From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society’s wastes have been managed.

Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic “purity” was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity.

Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea that non-whites are “dirty” remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.


“What an innovative study! In Clean and White, Carl Zimring addresses an age-old critique of racism that posits white as clean and good and black as dirty and bad. In so doing, he elevates the discussion by demonstrating the cultural roots of this nefarious comparison within the context of environmental racism. Those interested in both questions of race and modern environmentalism will benefit from reading this book.”

—Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City

I’ll write more about the book on this blog as the publication date draws near. For today, as we observe the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech ahead of his April 4, 1968 assassination, it is worth remembering that he died in Memphis supporting a strike by hundreds of African-American sanitation workers. The strikers (and the circumstances leading up to the strike) are the subject of this book’s final chapter.