Professor: Urban outcasts know true meaning of city life

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    Beneath the growing concern for perfectly kept lawns, fast-paced cars and high-class shopping centers, the true meaning and life of a city is lost, said Jeff Ferrell, sociology professor and AddRan distinguished lecturer, who spoke last night to about 75 students and faculty members at Palko Hall.

    The perfection put into each blade of grass, solitary car rides to work and building expensive skyscrapers leaves little room for the spontaneity of listening to a street musician on the sidewalk, running into a friend on the way to work and seeing the murals of graffiti artists on the sides of buildings, Ferrell said.

    It is this spontaneity, Ferrell said, that actually makes a city a city: “an interweaving of human interactions.”

    And it is the people living on the margins of a city – homeless groups, dumpster divers, graffiti artists, bicycle activists – who are trying to make way for what Ferrell describes as “salvaging a city.”

    He said to salvage something does not necessarily mean to reclaim or get back something that was lost, but also to take what is remaining and save it.

    And that is exactly the agenda of the numerous groups Ferrell has studied for the past 15 years, from Reclaim the Streets, a group in London who advocates to stop freeway building, to skater punks who use rusty railings and empty swimming pools as a source of fun and pleasure, to Food Not Bombs, a group that finds wasted food in the dumpsters, cooks it for homeless people and is one of the trash rummager groups he still works with today.

    It is the trash rummagers in particular that Ferrell uses as an example of salvagers.

    Here he meets not only the expected homeless people living out of a shopping cart, but minimally employed workers still in their uniforms and immigrants ineligible for a well-paying job.

    “They came ironically for the American dream and now live off the leftovers of the American dream,” Ferrell said.

    But they are content, he said.

    In fact, these are some of the happiest people he knows, he said.

    “They see every day as an adventure,” he said, “You don’t have to buy a season pass to Six Flags or a sports car, they have reanimated the city with surprise and pleasure.”

    Inside dumpsters he said he and his fellow divers have found everything from food to newly packaged clothes, to car parts and jewelry. Ferrell’s tie, watch, bracelet, shirt and shoes he was wearing were all found in a dumpster.

    Ferrell said it is because of the strive for perfection to have fancy dinner meals, buy fashionable clothes and drive expensive cars that trash rummagers like himself are able to live off these people’s fleeting wants and extreme waste.

    However, it is marginalized groups that tend to be criminalized, Ferrell said. Dumpster diving is now seen as theft from the city property, and he said the Food Not Bombs group members were arrested for feeding the homeless without permits.

    “Rather than ostracizing those who work for the margins and salvage, we might want to imagine them as pioneers – saving the city for us,” Ferrell said. “It is not enough to live in the city – but live for the city.”