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Robin Nagle

Robin Nagle thinks that New York City’s sanitation workers deserve a lot more respect — as well as their own museum, reports Clyde Haberman in The New York Times (1/15/08). Robin teaches anthropology at New York University, and she thinks it’s not enough to think of the people who collect the city’s trash as “sanitation workers.” She thinks they should also be thought of as “folk sociologists.” She explains: “They can give you a demographic and sort of a sociological and anthropological interpretation of a given block or a given section of the city that’s remarkably detailed.”

You might say Robin Nagle is a “trashologist.” But more important, she’s a woman on a mission — and, in fact, she’s officially the Sanitation Department’s “anthropologist in residence.” She firmly believes that the city’s 7,775 uniformed sanitation workers (most of whom are men) need at least some of the same kind of attention given to firefighters and police. “I’m not saying that we should take away anything from Police or Fire,” says Robin, “but let’s share the love a little bit.” After all, their job has its hazards, too, but it isn’t exactly front-page news when a sanitation worker is killed. Robin has other concerns, too.

“One of my central questions … is what is it like to wear a uniform and do a job that is basically stigmatized to the point where I know many men — not so much the women but the men — who won’t let their neighbors know what they do for a living.” Noting that the city has museums devoted to just about any subject you could imagine, it also should have sanitation museum. To that end, Robin recently organized an temporary sanitation exhibition, including “lectures on the city’s smelly past.” However, Robin admits it’s not easy “to convey the ripeness, the stench, of New York, through most of its history,” adding: “One of the side effects of doing the job well is that it creates its own invisibility.” ~ Tim Manners, editor