“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?
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).

However, many of the postings responding to “Foreclosure Alley,” regardless of how representative this particular vision of the foreclosure crisis may be, become fixated on the colossal waste involved in the process of the “trash out.” With business booming for the clean out crews there is no time to dawdle. While they may keep almost anything they find if they are able to take it home with them that day, in practice the crew members rarely do. Most of it goes directly into the trash stream and is hauled away to the nearest, cheapest, or least regulatory of the landfills and disposal centers. We watch as decorative items, plants, end tables, lamps and all manner of clothes, everything in perfectly good condition get shoved into heavy-duty black trash bags or the huge green receptacles that are easily lifted into the refuse truck. In the account by Reyes, the picture is one of far more squalor, but he too is no less clear about the enormity of the waste that comes from these operations.
Yet, I would suggest that it is neither the size of the piles that are destined for the local incinerator, and here I am reminded of that final scene at the end of Citizen Cane where we finally learn what is rosebud as the sled is engulfed in the flames, or the emotional wreckage that attaches to these perfectly good things which is most shocking. Rather, in this climate of fear, it is the thought of dispossession, that middle-class America might be forced to severe its ties to the very material culture that so defines this particular identification. When the dumpsters of colleges and universities fill-up in the seasonal ritual of dorm-room clearance, we hardly bat an eye. This particular “trashing out” can be dismissed and even condoned as part of the ritual preparations for a new life-stage. Similarly, when such foreclosures happen to the storage units and their contents become auctioned off to the highest bidder, the emotional outpourings are minimal. Here, the site of destruction is not the home, but a liminal space, a staging ground where material culture becomes dislocated from its domestic context to fulfill new chapters in the biographical social life of things – be it trash, thrift shop, recycling or, for the lucky, art.
II. Trashing in: Archaeological opportunity or heritage responsibility
Is there a role for archaeology in what is happening? Reyes has referred above to the process of trashing out as an excavation. The process itself is far from an effort at salvage, although it is ripe for metaphorical play with mortgage holders and even whole communities as “underwater.” One possibility is to suggest that garbage archaeology no longer needs to happen exclusively at the landfill, and some have already begun to take steps in that direction with an archaeology of the contemporary past. There is now an opportunity to bring those skills to the suburbs where the trash stream intersects in catastrophic ways with a domestic sphere that has ceased to function. This might take the form of an ethno-archaeological project that examines the very process of abandonment and the site formation principles that would be applicable in the past. Such research might have potential applicability to the world’s largest archaeological site, the ruin field of early Islamic period Samarra, capital of the Abbasid caliphate during much of the 9th century CE and perhaps one of the medieval world’s biggest speculative real-estate bubbles. More recently it has been doubly abandoned given the present inability of the state or the occupation forces to protect the site from deliberate destruction by looters and the construction of military bases.
This raises an issue different from whether these foreclosed homes are an archaeological opportunity, but whether archaeologists have assumed the responsibility to preserve something of what is happening here, as sites in the making. The opportunities and responsibilities may not be mutually exclusive of course as the archaeological recording may serve as the form by which we document the material transformation of an American landscape and the consumer culture that has driven it, particularly in the post-war period. But should we go beyond the recording and actually preserve these sites intact, in their entirety, the way we might other historic buildings? Or is preservation more exclusively the domain of our achievements as a nation and not our failures? A related question is to consider what we might do to preserve such a moment as the foreclosed home in its state of readiness for the “trash out.” At a certain level such ruination defies the attempt to freeze the very taphonomic processes that, in this case, might most interest the archaeologists. Is that moment of abandonment just too fleeting to capture in the ways that allow us to archive it in perpetuity? Archaeologist Shannon Dawdy in her recent keynote address at TAG-NYC (May 2008) raised a similar concern about the ruins of New Orleans post-Katrina.
III. Left behind: Archaeology and abandonment
In choosing to follow the trail of the material culture left behind, archaeology runs the risk of forgetting the continuity of the lives that have severed their connections with things that have now become relegated to a past, perhaps the past. These acts of abandonment may signify a certain kind of social death, but they may too readily be confused with death itself. My point is not to argue that we must simultaneously chase after those who have chosen or who have been forced to move on. In fact there might be something redemptive in not pursuing that path. It opens the space for a hopeful commentary in which to imagine that we can cultivate new sets of relations with the material worlds that we inhabit, relationships that might not end in such destructive outcomes. Not knowing where those agents of abandonment go next allows for readings of this new American (U.S.) potlatch as a liberating gesture, one that might cause us to pause about our own dismay at perfectly good things instantaneously reclassified as trash. Accumulation and abandonment are at the core of the archaeological record, yet our ability to reflect on the ways in which we value these two modes of engagement with our things is severely compromised. Perhaps it is time to get over our horror over what is left behind and rethink our, often implicit, some times explicit, valorization of that which is acquired.
Reyes, P. 2008: “Bleak Houses: Digging through the ruins of the mortgage crisis.” Harper’s October 2008 (31-45)

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

  1. It’s great to see such an in-depth analysis of a controversial topic. You rarely see people digging into the consequences beyond the obvious monetary side.

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