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2006 08 29
Imagining Toronto | The City of Salvage

It's Tuesday, the morning before a carnival of sorts arises spontaneously here in the Junction. In only a dozen hours the streets will be bright with the colours and sounds and smells of this bi-weekly bazaar, this veritable gala -- of garbage. In the hours before the City's sanitation trucks come grinding and gnashing down the street, a whole population of pickers will pass through on foot, on bike, or driving cars or pick-up trucks rescuing useful or saleable objects discarded by west end residents on garbage night.

It's one of the city's oldest stories. An old wooden dresser, stored in your garage or basement for years, finally makes it to the curb. It's scratched, dinged, out of fashion, and unwanted. You put it out early in the evening, and when you look out an hour later, it's gone. So is the stack of cracked flower pots you set beside it, and the rusted steel bed frame you'd propped against the hydro pole. Ten months later the apartment house down the street is disgorging tenants at the end of the month, and you spot a dresser at the curb that looks strangely familiar. Or you attend a garden party at the home of friends who live around the corner, and admire their artful arrangement of planters placed whole and broken like an archaeological tel. You think you recognise your own discarded pots among them. Or you're strolling out for brunch on Queen Street, and see, in the window of one of those fabuously expensive vintage and antique furniture stores, a slightly refurbished version of your own discarded bed frame, asking price $340.

Do you feel intrigued? Disgusted? Violated? Or exhilarated? Can you claim, in all honesty, that you have never picked a chair or bookshelf out of the garbage, or would have had nobody been looking?

It's garbage night tonight, and sometime after dark Peter and I will cruise out on our bikes looking for objects to salvage. We won't be looking for anything in particular, although discarded bicycles are always useful because even if the gears are rusted beyond repair, the tires are often in new or nearly new condition. So are building materials, especially vintage and new baseboards and wood trim. As we restore our 96 year-old west Toronto home, it's gratifying to rescue period fittings and fixtures abandoned by other homeowners installing slate flooring and butler's pantries they'll rip out again eight years from now. We'll also keep eyes alert for old, multi-paned windows suitable for remaking into mirrors we make for ourselves or give as gifts to friends. For this same purpose we make a point of bringing home discarded mirror glass that can be cut to size later. Often enough, though, we have found objects we were looking for in particular: a wooden bookcase to build into the basement; a set of bifold doors for a closet, enough 2x4s to build storage shelving in the garage, old bricks and stone for garden work, a complete set of cut crystal wine goblets a few weeks before hosting a garden party.

And as we cruise out into the night, we won't be alone. There are scrap dealers who lurch up and down the avenues tossing aluminum, copper, and other metals into the back of rusted pick-up trucks, to be sold later to salvage yards and recycled. There are wizened old men (and usually they are only men) digging through recycling boxes for pop cans and beer bottles they can sell for small amounts of money. There are antique pickers who cruise rapidly along the streets in low cars, hoping to spot vintage dressers, tables, and bed frames to sell to dealers. There are men and women furtively unscrewing the knobs from abandoned furniture, to use or sell or add to private hoards. There are individuals and couples out for walks, who'll stop and pick something out of the trash to carry or wheel home to a second (or third) life. And then there are those who stand at their living room windows shaking their heads in bemusement or disgust as their own waste is hauled away by the city's salvage army.

Torontonians have an ambivalent relationship with our waste. While we applaud recycling programs and cringe a little guiltily at news stories about sludge trucks dumping our refuse in Michigan, and even nod appreciatively at articles about salvage and re-use, many of us seem to want such activities to go on out of sight. There's a contradictory possessiveness: in many cases we don't want what we've thrown out, but we don't want anyone else to see value in it, either. Their doing so calls into question our own capriciousness with respect to things, our own wastefulness.

But if our ancestors were hunters and gatherers before they became farmers and city dwellers, some of these old tendencies still live on deep within us. In this sense we might view the city as a giant woodland offering all the materials we need for shelter and food, if we know when and where to look. All of our goods need not be imported or delivered wrapped in plastic; some of them -- perhaps many of them -- might be found amid the undergrowth of our own urban habitat.

(The above image of rubble on the Leslie Street Spit was taken by Chelseagirl and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 08/29 at 10:39 AM

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