A collective of canners–those who fish out glass and metal from garbage cans and recycling bins–have been asked by their landlord to purchase the Bushwick property upon which they operate if they want to stay in place. Even though the L train tracks run directly below (forestalling most high-rise construction), the asking price is still a steep $3.9 million, leaving their fate unclear.
“Our landlord is good to us, but I struggle just to pay the $4,100 in rent,” says Ana Martinez de Luco, who runs the “Sure We Can” collective, the only licensed non-profit entity of its kind in New York City. The company was created seven years ago by Eugene Gadsden, a former canner turned community activist, and De Luco, a Roman Catholic nun, as a 501(c)(3) (with the help of some philanthropic residents and UN contacts). Operating at its Bushwick location for the last three and a half years, it provides guaranteed fixed payouts for the cans brought on site, along with additional amounts for those who sort and stack their inventory.
“This is the last thing you do for a living, when you can’t find anything else,” De Luco said.
The job involves long hours of back-breaking work with heavy, potentially dangerous materials (both serrated edges and more unseemly elements lurk in garbage cans). Pungent odors of dried soda and alcohol, along with a constant clanking sound, are additional occupational hazards. The very top earners, after spending the entire day roaming for and collecting cans, followed by sorting and stacking at the site, might be lucky to take home $60 for the day.
But at the collective, the canners are at least able to unload and recoup their five cent deposits at a venue free from harassment (society is often hostile to canners, and even “redemption centers” at grocery stores consider them a nuisance, or take advantage by offering varying rates).
“The canners heave heavy bags after roaming the neighborhoods all day,” said De Luco, who worked as a canner herself after making the choice to become homeless ten years ago (in part to get more insight on how to help the poor). “The convenience and camaraderie created by this location are hard to overstate. We could never dream of a better place.”
In addition to safety, the protected environment allows a sense of community to foster for people at the extreme margins of society–those with few perks or bright spots in their lives.
“We have every race, every background here,” De Luco said. “You’ll see an old Chinese man and a young Jamaican man making signs with their hands. They don’t share a language, so they’re using nonverbal cues to ‘make a trade’ so they can each stack a full tray of one particular brand to earn extra money. Over time, they even become friends.”
In addition to an unloading site, a labyrinth of indoor and outdoor facilities include designated sorting areas, storage lockers (to keep belongings), a community garden, compost tumblers, and even a local community artwork showcase.
“The surrounding community is very supportive,” said Lorenzo Masnah, an artist who is currently doing an “art residency” at the center, while also volunteering to help the canners with computer and English classes.
Records indicate the McKibbin Street property, owned by Otto Perez, was purchased in 2000 for roughly $200,000. De Luco said the area was mostly ignored as an outback to the city until recently, when it grew popular and “started to be treated like an extension of Manhattan.” Though Sure We Can signed a five-year renewal of its lease in March 2013, groups of 4-5 men in business suits started appearing on the site last summer, surveying the property.
“That’s when I knew something might be happening,” De Luco said. She contacted the landlord, who indicated that Sure We Can would have first priority–but that it had to buy at the current market price. Without community support or some type of grant or financial aid, such a scenario is extremely unlikely.
In the meantime, the canning collective continues busily apace. The weather may permeate with blazing heat or frigid cold, De Luco claimed, but there is always a canner knocking on the outside gate, indicating the need and demand for such a location to remain.
“I’m getting older,” De Luco said. “I want to reach sixty knowing I was able to make this place secure for them.”