Wednesday, September 09, 2015

You Could Run A School Like Ours On This Stuff

My wife and I recently returned from New York City. We were there to help our daughter get settled into her new life as a student at NYU, a campus that must be among the most densely populated in US, located as it is in the heart of one of our most densely populated cities. I'm an advocate for increasing density in our cities on environmental grounds, a position for which I've advocated on these pages. It's a topic that generates more controversy around here than when I take a stand against spanking or guns.

We were staying at a hotel in Tribeca and as is my habit when visiting new places, I was up at the crack of dawn to take long walks. To give you an idea, one morning I walked the seam of Broadway from Canal Street to 83rd on the upper west side. On another day, my wife joined me on a jaunt across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn. But before setting out each morning, I enjoyed a relatively quiet (by New York standards) stroll around Soho where, daily, I found the most compelling evidence ever for urban density, at least if you're a preschool teacher.

Soho retailers and restaurants leave the best stuff in their curbside garbage piles. If our play-based, cooperative school was located in Manhattan, I would be raiding those piles on a daily basis. I mean, just take a look at the pictures below. These all came from a tour of less than 30 minutes on the morning of the day we flew back to Seattle.

You could run a school like ours on this stuff. Some days were better than others. This was sort of an average day.

One of my mantras is that preschools don't exist to use stuff: one of our major societal function is to finish using stuff.

People ask, "But what will the kids do with it?" I don't need to know. I've been doing this long enough to know that they will find plenty to do with most of it, often amazing things. We have far junkier junk on our playground already. And the few items that lay fallow? Well, big deal, it was already garbage.

I've done a little dumpster diving here in Seattle, but that takes more commitment than just raiding one of these tidy curbside piles. And I'm not the only one; even during the creation of this photo essay, I saw several items go home with happy foragers.

I think this may be one of my biggest knee-jerk aversions to education corporations like Pearson Education. They're making billions off selling new stuff to schools when the best stuff is just lying around, free for the taking. If I were the king of early childhood education, I can guarantee we would do it both better and cheaper.

And just look how tidily the cardboard is packed up. It's a middle class bag lady's dream.

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Anonymous said...

As a recent NYC transplant (and thrifty freecycler to boot) I have come to understand why you see stuff like this. Obviously, there's the consumerism and waste aspect (magnified by the density and extreme wealth), but it's also HARD to transport things around/out of Manhattan. Your local area becomes very small when you have to haul things via arms, subway and cab! Then there's bedbugs and other yuck that accumulates so quickly here.

But the cool thing is people are fond of leaving these things on stoops and sidewalks for the very purpose of giving them to others as they get them out of their own small spaces. The density certainly has the potential to make efficient use of such things, particularly if set up with a curb alert system.

Anonymous said...

As a lifelong New Yorker, I remember the days when SOHO was a haven for artists and warehouses. My high school art teacher would regularly make trips to pick up all the remanants on street corners from print shops, automotive places, metal and woodworking joints. It was how most artists got their supplies.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Oh, the tubes! The cardboard! The milk cartons! The shelves! Here in Phoenix our garbage goes in cans. If it doesn't fit, there are four weeks a year when it can be picked up from the curb. It can only be out the two weeks prior to pick up. Still, for those two weeks, I keep an eye out curbside!

I tell parents all the time, if there's any question, bring it in. If I don't want it or can't find someone who does, I have a garbage can and I can throw it out as well as you can.

Karen McCarthy said...

I wish you were the king of early childhood education.

Rafer Nelsen said...

Like most 5 year olds, my son loves to build using cardboard boxes. I am in the wine business, so he sees a fair amount come into the house, and he builds all the time with them; robots, barns, firehouses, castles (complete with crenelations), you name it. Currently he is sleeping with a rather large cardboard contraption he built for his "stuffed up animals". I get lots of ideas from his use of cardboard.

Chantel said...

You know that you ARE the king of early childhood education, right? I am attempting to channel my 'inner Teacher Tom' as I embark upon a short term preschool position in a place where there is almost no stuff like you see in this photo essay. I'm trying to decide and figure out how to bring at least a little 'garbage' in without disturbing the peace too much. Thank you for your endless inspiration. :)

NissimHadassah Lerner said...

Just looking at the photos make me want to pack up a bunch of this stuff and take it home!! HOW DID YOU RESIST???

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