“Trashed Out”: An archaeological reading of the foreclosure mess

Ian Straughn (Brown University)
I. Foreclosure Alley and the trash stream
Familiar are the images of the victims from hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and other natural and man-made disasters salvaging what they can from the ruins of their houses. Those items, whether sentimental mementos or the practical things of every day use, constitute the starting point, resources from which to build again and reverse the processes of destruction that have unwittingly taken hold. What happens when the decision is not to resist ruin whether by conscious decision or the force of circumstances? Is this the point where the archaeological record takes hold; is this the moment of its beginning?
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Late this September as the current financial crisis was beginning to fully unravel correspondent Lisa Ling of SoCal Connected aired a story entitled “Foreclosure Alley” which describes some of the messy details of the collapsing housing bubble gripping much of California’s “inland empire” along interstate 15. The report documented the work of a crew hired by the bank to prepare a recently foreclosed property for a short sale in an effort to staunch the bleeding that these profligate lenders have come to experience. We watch as four men engage in what they call a “trash out” in which all manner of material culture is removed from the abandoned property for disposal in the nearest landfill. Such a clean-up would seem hardly the stuff of investigative journalism and attention grabbing web-TV were it not for the fact that the particular house being “trashed-out” is hardly filled with garbage; instead it still houses all manner of good quality consumer goods that appear well maintained. Big-screen tvs, computers, furniture, family photos, personal documents, cabinets filled-with food not yet starting to molder, are all part of a well decorated vision of suburban middle-class America frozen in its Pompeiian moment. The crew chief speculates that whoever owned these items probably could not find the money for a truck and storage unit. Our correspondent opines about the many families facing foreclosure who find themselves in spirals of depression that may cloud their judgment and ability to rationally handle the situation. This is echoed in the reflections of Paul Reyes, who comments in a recent article for Harper’s about his experience working the crew of his father’s junk removal business. He writes: “each excavation [is] a peek into a state of mind, like dismantling some diorama of dejection” (Reyes 2008).

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