February 10, 2013
by Sara Shepherd
The blue, metal garbage container at the Social Service League Thrift Store defies its outward appearance as just another alleyway trash bin.
Thrift store employees aren’t the only ones who put things into it. And trash truck drivers aren’t the only ones who take things out. Over the past decade, maybe longer, the bin has evolved into its own unlikely circular micro-economy and a gathering place for both people who live comfortably and the down-on-their-luck. In a project he’s calling “Give Take Give,” Lawrence artist David Loewenstein is documenting the phenomenon.
Trash bin “community” members know the container as a prime spot to forage for interesting or useful things — and also a haven where they can leave things someone else might want or need.
Cast-off or broken items from the thrift store, at 905 Rhode Island St., go into the trash bin, Loewenstein says. But some donors drop their items in the trash bin instead of taking them inside, either because they arrive after-hours or just because they know someone will find them there.
Not having the soupy, smelly restaurant trash of many other downtown bins helps. There’s also a few unwritten rules.
“People know not to throw dirty garbage in here,” Loewenstein says. “For the most part, they understand this isn’t what this is about.” Also, when trash bin diggers come across a great find they don’t need for themselves, they pull it to the top or set it on a nearby fence, in hopes it will get noticed. Sometimes electrically or mechanically savvy hobbyists pull out a broken item, take it home to fix, then return it to the bin for someone else to find and enjoy.
On a frigid-but-sunny afternoon in January, Loewenstein is curved over the bin — he won’t climb inside it, a personal boundary — with camera and note pad in hand. Rifling through the top layers of stuff, he unearths a retro breakfast-in-bed table, lots of shoes in relatively good condition, a stick horse head with no stick, a toy police truck, a costume witch hat, a glazed coil pot — the list goes on and on. During this inventory, one of several he’s conducted since last summer, there’s one find he wants to keep: a piece of paper bearing colorful doodles and “Happy Mothers Day” in a child’s handwriting. It’s dated May 2000.
“The things that are most interesting to me are the personal things,” Loewenstein says.
They were undoubtedly valuable to someone at one time, he says, but even those things eventually get thrown away. That’s probably true about most anything in the trash bin. Here’s a sampling from Loewenstein’s July 31 inventory:
Desk lamp, gnarly gray comforter, empty box of Trojan Ecstasy condoms with fire and ice lubricant, emergency services documents for someone with kidney stones, painkiller prescription receipts for ibuprofen, ondansetron and oxycodone
Turkey shaped couch pillow, tabletop children's soccer game, heavily used black Converse low-tops, Yamaha electronic Portasound keyboard, one baby doll intact, one baby doll head
As Loewenstein digs, a neighborhood resident and off-duty store volunteer stops by to check out what’s in the trash bin that day. A woman dropping off donations inside the store walks over to see what’s going on. A guy no one knows offers everyone cigarettes (no takers). That’s another thing about the trash bin: it brings people together whose paths might never cross otherwise, Loewenstein says — like hipsters hunting for treasures and poor people diving for items they need but can’t afford, or financially sound residents donating items and drug addicts wandering the alley.
When Lawrence resident and Kansas University graduate Rachel Vaughn began research for her doctoral dissertation on waste economies and "Dumpster diving," she expected to find only poor people scavenging the bin behind the Social Service League.
She was wrong.
“There was this sort of diversity of voices,” Vaughn says. “People were going to this and other spaces for lots of different reasons, coming from lots of different social positions, many different needs.”
Vaughn says the Social Service League’s “little Dumpster that could” should be a point of pride for the community, not seen as shameful or gross. Plus, she says, it may inspire answers to a larger question about public spaces and this country’s growing economy of waste: “How do we deal with this huge conundrum of creating stuff? And what do we do with it?”
Funding from the Rocket Grants program is fueling Loewenstein’s project. The grants — a partnership of the Spencer Museum of Art, the Charlotte Street Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts — aim to support innovative, public-oriented work in nontraditional spaces. “By shedding light on ... an alternate economy hidden in plain sight,” a Rocket Grant writeup says, “Loewenstein hopes to inspire others to reflect on how gifts of labor, teaching and time can help bind people together in a connected circuit of goodwill.”
Loewenstein’s home and studio are within a block of the thrift store, and he’s long considered doing a project on the trash bin but worried publicity might change its dynamics. When the city approved plans for a multistory hotel to go up at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, in the empty lot across the alley from the bin, Loewenstein decided he shouldn’t risk losing his opportunity.
“The hotel’s going to dramatically change the environment. There’s a good chance this won’t even be accessible anymore,” he says. “I thought I’d better capture it while it’s still here.”