I used to read Michael Helm’s City Miner magazine, a thoughtful journal devoted to the environment, progressive politics, and the free-wheeling cultural life of northern California.
City Miner folded in 1980. But Helm is still involved in the world of letters, as the publisher of City Miner Books, and he’s still a maverick: he wonders whether it’s worth cutting down the trees to print most of what’s published today.
He’s also the part-time manager of Urban Ore, a salvage yard in Berkeley, and it’s his unique perspective on the gritty underside of urban life I find most compelling. Thanks to Beth Bosk, who talked to Helm for New Settler Interview (P.O. Box 730, Willits, CA 95490), for permission to reprint these excerpts.
BOSK: Half the week you are a small press publisher. The other half you manage a salvage yard.
HELM: When we talk of diversity as an important aspect of the natural world, we often leave ourselves out. Yet our personalities are psychic ecosystems, and there is very little in our culture that encourages us to maintain diversity in our personalities. We are pressured toward standardization and specialization. So, it’s a constant struggle to maintain the awareness that we are really complex.
I don’t believe in career. I think career is a trap that makes people go crazy. I think it’s better to be good at many things than to be really exceptional at one.
Salvaging and publishing are connected on several levels. I probably have a little coyote and raccoon in me. I like to poke around and find interesting things to salvage. There’s tremendous stuff out there, and you winnow through and find something you like.
I have an old anarchist friend whose definition of freedom is: “How many hours during the day are you doing something you want to do?” I like the balance I have now. There is a realism about the yard because I’m dealing with a wide spectrum of people. In the salvage business I’m in touch with real life on a level that the literary publishing business makes me forget.
Practically, managing a salvage yard is a great way to make a living because there is so much waste in this culture. Fifteen years ago, I dropped out of corporate life and got into salvage — actually, it was called junk back then. I wanted to write poetry and have more leisure time. So I bought a pick-up truck and started a moving business. In the process of moving people, I hauled their trash away. It amazed me how much of it could still be used and was really worth something. People would say, “Look, I don’t need this. Do you want it?” Or somebody would just leave and the landlord would call me up and say, “I want all this shit out of here. Today.”
I had truckloads of household items — furniture, music systems, pottery, books. A friend of mine had a garage he wasn’t using, and I started storing everything there. When the garage got full, I would have a sale. It was a source of income and a way of recycling, though the word “recycling” wasn’t being used then.
Urban Ore actually started as an on-site recycling business right at the Berkeley dump.
We decided to move what was salvaged at the dump to a separate site, so that it would be perceived differently. People have an idea that if you are selling something at a dump, it is worthless.
At that time everything coming in was free. But it occurred to me that people could be paid to bring things in, thus creating much more business. We arranged the site so they could come by and unload easily, and so anyone foraging through would not have to wade through plaster and broken sheetrock and lumber and tar paper.
BOSK: The “midden,” was a place where Indians threw bones, dulled stone implements, shards of pottery, things for which they had no further use. In the California Coastal Zone, middens are protected; their status is high. Dumps, on the other hand, are at the bottom of the scale. Dumps today are places where things that can still be used are taken to be destroyed, rather than where destroyed things are taken. In between the midden and the dump is the salvage operation. What is salvage in your mind?
HELM: At Urban Ore, there’s an expression: “A large enough pile of anything is worth something.”
Basically what we have now in the cities is a system designed to manufacture garbage. Compactor trucks pick up trash, mix and crush everything, and take it to landfills. If the dumps were to close — if there weren’t any place to take trash — probably people would cut their consumption and think twice about what they brought home.
As the economy has pinched more and more people, the old prejudice against “second-hand” things has changed. There is a recognition that old things were made well and are durable. Something that is twenty years old probably will last longer than something made today. I have a ’65 Chevy pickup that is better built than anything you’ll find on the road now. I’ve been driving it for fifteen years and will probably be able to drive it another twenty.
An interesting dimension of the salvage business is that things that have survived long enough to be recyclable become a cultural store of value by which people can judge the present.
A lot of the material that is post World War II — anything made out of particle board or pressed wood — either doesn’t get into the salvage yard at all, or gets recycled once and falls apart. I’ve heard that in twenty years two-by-fours will be made out of particle board held together by glue. That bears on the lumber industry’s forest management practices. They don’t believe that real forests are necessary anymore. All they need to have is quick-growth balsa wood that they can chop up and put super glue on — all of which is disposable.
There is a connection between that and planning. A sustainable timber policy would be to insist that anything we make from wood has to last as long as it takes to replace the trees we cut down to make it. Some of us are moving toward that concept. Paul Hawken, one of the progressive economists, says that we’re evolving from an economy based on disposable goods to one based on more efficient use of energy, on methods of production that use fewer resources and more knowledge. He calls this the information economy.
But then there is the question of income. There are a lot of people who don’t have the money to take advantage of this shift. Even if we started building everything to last, the old things would still be good and they’d be lower-priced because they are old. That’s another aspect of recycling and salvage. There’s an egalitarian access, ultimately, for everybody.
BOSK: Every time we invent and mass manufacture something that is disposable, like Styrofoam, we’re making our planet more disposable.
HELM: There is definitely a connection between sustainability and recycling. In a healthy economy, eighty percent of what’s manufactured would be recycled. Things that were built to last would be passed from generation to generation. The emphasis on primary production gets reduced. The salvage business is, in a sense, a repository for craftsmanship and quality, things that are well-built and built to last.
BOSK: How does urban salvage differ from rural salvage?
HELM: I remember visiting some friends who asked me if I would take a load to the dump. Somewhat naively, I said, “Oh sure” — thinking, “treasure.” It turned out to be this pile of absolutely worthless stuff. There was nothing anyone could use — frayed pieces of tar roofing, nails that were rusted, rocks.
It made me realize that rural people make more use of what they already have. On almost every homestead that I know of, people have their own junk pile somewhere on the property where they throw their things, figuring that at some point they will use them. Most rural people compost their food scraps or feed them to their animals. The more rural the area, the less waste.
BOSK: Who are your customers at Urban Ore and why do they want salvage?
HELM: There aren’t many wild places in urban landscapes, and I think the odd juxtaposition of the materials at Urban Ore attracts a freer spirit.
Urban Ore provides an outlet for imagination. Once something is second-hand, the whole pattern of advertising is removed from it. Most people are incredibly intimidated to take something new and use it for a reason other than its original purpose. But once it’s second-hand, that goes out the window. If you want to convert a 1957 Chevy convertible into a hot tub, you can.
Certain people who come into the yard are looking for something to spark their imagination. You can see them eyeing things, trying to discover a new use for something. A lot of it is pretty pedestrian and foolish, but that’s fun, too. Fraternity guys buy cracked used toilets because they just want something to fill with ice and put beer cans in. They think it’s funny. Well, cracked ceramic is better for the ozone shield than Styrofoam.
Solid core doors can be used as desktops. Claw foot tubs can hold goldfish in the back yard. A lot of the iron and metal water piping gets used for stakes for terracing gardens. There’s an art contingent that comes into the yard. People will buy a piece of rusted iron because they like the way it looks. Photographers are interested in the effect of light on things that have aged. There is room for human personalities to interact.
BOSK: Bargaining is a part of it, too.
HELM: People come in and they’ll say, “I’m not into recycling. I’m just cheap.” For them, it’s just rock-hard economics. But a lot of people combine that bargaining spirit with a sense of ecology, a desire not to exploit the Earth.
I have a lot of discretion, too. I assess who the person is and his or her ability to pay. The yuppies do get soaked a little more because I know they have the money; also, they’re disinclined to bargain as much. The rich don’t lower themselves to haggling about a price.
On the other hand, we get people who are barely surviving, probably homeless, and on a rock-bottom level in terms of their ability to survive in a city. For example, you get a guy like Jamie who calls and says he’s got this pedestal sink he wants to bring in. So here’s this guy with a shopping cart which he’s borrowed from the Safeway, and he’s walking this pedestal sink across town two or three miles to the salvage yard. When he gets here. it turns out to be this beige pedestal sink with good chunks of the enamel broken off and you can see the iron beneath it. It’s something nobody would buy.
There are a lot of people like him who have no money, yet don’t want a hand-out. He wants to give something to get something. He’s a scavenger. Obviously somebody threw that sink out, figuring it was worthless; he saw it, and he thought, “Ah. Here’s a chance for me to make some money.” So I gave the guy five bucks for the effort of doing it, and somehow that all fits into the betterment of the urban scenario.
BOSK: A neighborhood can tolerate its scavengers much better than its predators.
HELM: Yes. There’s a difference between scavenging and ripping off. Scavengers are nature’s cleanup crew. Things that are lying around have to be taken care of in one way or another. People in the salvage network include everyone from drop-out Ph.Ds to people who got kicked out of school in the seventh grade. They don’t fit into the consensus reality.
I’m that kind of person, too. I wouldn’t work forty hours a week in a 9 to 5 structure, and almost all the people I know have that quality about them. They have found their niche and they can cover their basic living expenses.
In Mexico City there are thousands, if not millions, of people who make their living by hustling in the real free market. They don’t have a shop or a storefront, but they have a little pushcart, or a hibachi: somebody is making a little food; somebody has woven something and is selling that; somebody else is selling Chicklets, or pottery. There are an incredible number of family-oriented businesses that exist totally outside the institutionally defined framework.
Poor people in our country — both urban and rural — don’t have an identity. When you walk by someone who is cooking up some food in Mexico City, no one would think to say, “What do you do for a living?” They are just there. They are real people, and that’s what they are doing.
But here, it’s illegal for someone to do that — because the store-owners, the restaurant people don’t want anyone competing with them. Here, you have to go through a licensing process and spend thousands of dollars to have the right to have a livelihood.
A few years ago, I wondered why somebody hadn’t thought of setting up a stand on Telegraph Avenue in San Francisco for selling baked potatoes in the winter, with a little sour cream and some chives. It just seemed like such an easy thing to do. It would be an inexpensive street-food item, something people would enjoy and be nourished by.
So I checked it out. I learned that I couldn’t do it unless I prepared the potatoes in a kitchen that was up to specific standards: the oven had to be of a certain size and be capable of certain temperatures; there had to be stainless steel counters. I had to give up the idea — it would have cost too much to set up.
Right now there are thousands of homeless people in our cities. Some of those people could be making income and servicing other homeless people by street vending. But we don’t have the freedom to do that here. It’s curious: we have this sense that this is a very free country, but you’re free only if you fit in.
One of the reasons it’s so terrible to be homeless in this culture is that basically everything is fenced off and contained and prescribed. So that if you are not part of an institutional affiliation in some way, you’ve got nothing. You’re worse off being poor on the streets of an American city than almost anywhere else in the world. You’re an outcast. No one wants to deal with you. There is too little sense of the commons.
BOSK: In the South, just twenty years ago, there were “literacy requirements” barring voter registration. Blacks had to explain the meaning of the Constitution according to some arbitrary standard, and often were not permitted to register. You couldn’t have any impact on the politics of your place.
In California today, we have voter residency requirements. You cannot register with a post office box or general delivery, so if you’re without a home, you can’t vote. People who have the most dire need for government help have the least power to elect people who might meet their needs.
HELM: If you’re homeless, you can’t get assistance. You don’t have an address. There are all of these Catch 22s.
Affordable housing has been destroyed in urban areas. More than half the homeless had places to live before the gentrification in the city. All those seventy-five-dollar-a-month rooms were destroyed and replaced by $600-a-month apartments. Faced with the choice of not having money to eat or paying rent, most of these people decided to live on the street.
Working in the salvage yard, what comes home to me every day is that there is a tremendous number of urban poor people who are almost like India’s untouchables. Our euphemism is that they’ve fallen through “the safety net.”
BOSK: You live in an unusual neighborhood. The planners call it the “M-zone,” for “mixed use.”
HELM: Life in the M-zone! In Berkeley, the M-zone is the last ungentrified area. Major forces are trying to turn it into a huge industrial commercial-consumer park. It is a very big issue with people living there.
In the M-zone we see re-development as the equivalent of clear-cutting a forest, then replacing it with one kind of tree. Instead of a mixed forest of hardwoods and firs, you end up with nothing but Douglas fir all the same age and height, and a totally different plant and animal community. In a city, it’s exactly the same thing. Uneven-aged buildings, like an uneven-aged forest, make for a more vital neighborhood.
The architecture of a place like the M-zone allows for a diverse community of people — not only creative people, but also those who want to live marginally; that’s what they do, and they have a role, too. Once gentrification happens in a city, large development money starts coming in and small businesses get replaced by very large corporations. If you limit the supply of housing by eliminating non-code structures, then the value of code housing is much higher. Real estate agents and contractors and developers have vested interests in limiting the supply of housing, and limiting who can do it. That’s the real basis for the codes.
In cities, the abandoned industrial infrastructure is the wild zone where urban people without much money go. You’re not supposed to live in a warehouse, but you do. You get yourself whatever you need to make it comfortable. Part of it is the art of being invisible. What goes on inside an old brick warehouse is much like what goes on in the country. The difference is, in an urban setting, people feel, “Well, I can do this for five years, maybe ten — if I’m real lucky.” In the country, you figure you are there for the duration.
BOSK: You appear to have strong faith in the urban-rural connection.
HELM: It is absolutely essential that the connections between freedom-loving wild-zone people in cities and rural people be developed. We’re natural allies and we can help each other in lost of ways. It’s too facile to say, “That’s the city and that’s the country, and you are either one or the other.”
When I started City Miner in 1975, a lot of people had already given up the cities. But most of the people in this country live in urban areas, and to just write those people off altogether is arrogant.
I see the recycling business and resource conservation as being in tandem and that’s an immediate connection between rural and urban places. A lot of us in the “alternative culture” have had a hard time finding a way to make a livelihood in a way we feel good about. Friends of mine have made their livelihoods through resource rehabilitation work: tree planting, habitat restoration, fisheries. Both urban and rural dwellers can reduce resource exploitation through conservation. A lot of urban people are never going to be rural people.
The idea of the market is really the source of the city — that’s how cities originally came about. Traders and barterers and people who really like action — those are really urban people. They might enjoy a rural environment as a retreat, but I don’t think they’ll be there all the time.
Cities at their best offer a celebration of human diversity. At their worst, cities are pathological. In cities people often grow hard. They have to deal with so many other people everyday that it becomes overwhelming. And since it’s impossible to have an intimate interaction with everyone, people develop ways of cutting each other off politely, or when it gets totally pathological, violently. Even in the yard I have to watch myself to keep from getting callous. In the country, on the other hand, people are a scarcer resource; thus they value each other more.
Cities that are organized as neighborhoods — which is the way they traditionally evolved — have a sense of grace. Our tremendous mobility, the power of multi-national corporations — every force of organized society is now destroying neighborhoods. That makes it more impersonal, and when it is impersonal, by definition, it won’t be convivial. The M-zone is the place where planners still have a chance to plan for conviviality.
BOSK: Urban planners think in terms of five-year dreams. Rural bioregionalists think in terms of 700-year timber harvest plans, multi-generational homesteading, believing it takes generations to acquire the intimate knowledge you need to keep a place vital.
HELM: If cities were properly planned — or better, if they were allowed to grow organically rather than being “planned” — they could be incredible. But there is tremendous resistance to that.
A part of me thinks it is a losing struggle. The other part of me is not willing to accept that without trying to resist. You act as if what you are doing will make a difference, but you also realize it might not, or that the major difference is in your own life, or the lives of the people you come in contact with and care about. You have that immediate satisfaction of doing something you think is worth doing, and of trying to do it with a certain amount of integrity and heart.
The things you deal with in a city have rural equivalents. The tractors and the bulldozers are just two steps behind everybody who’s trying to preserve and restore the forests. In a city, they are two steps behind, too. They’re going to knock down this old building where twenty people live, and replace it with some high-priced item which those people can’t afford.
In cities, the automobile is the single most destructive force. It affects not only air quality, but crime as well. You need mobility to be a good thief. So neighborhood preservation is really tied to controlling the automobile.
But I say this as someone who hardly ever uses public transportation. I go around in my pickup truck. Why? Public transportation is designed to be un-convivial, and it’s a hassle. So I don’t use it; most people don’t use it. It would be better to have some jitneys instead of these big, diesel-spewing buses. Mass transportation does not have to mean massive transit.
BOSK: How do you relate everything you’re talking about to the concept that we’re in a “new age”?
HELM: I have a problem with new age because it seems to bespeak an us-and-them attitude. It’s a new form of elitism. There has always been both a dominant culture and an alternative culture. The dominant culture will probably stay dominant unless it mucks up too badly by way of greed and ignorance of the ecology.
Perhaps that will happen. There are certain objective realities to which we have to pay attention. Traditional cultures were much more in tune with those underlying processes. Indian cultures and native indigenous cultures and European pre-industrial cultures were very much in touch with natural cycles, the seasons of the year, and how ecosystems function — even though they didn’t use a modern scientific technology to describe it.
Bioregionalism — the concept I prefer over new age — is a way to bring post-industrial technocratic man back into a balance with the planetary processes. We can’t all become Indians, but we can learn to live on a sustainable basis, and to see the forests and the rivers and the soil and other animal forms as being connected to us. If we violate them, we’re going to end up paying the cost — which is always a truer measure of value than the “price” — because we are ultimately interdependent.
I think we are living at the tail end of the industrial age rather than a new age. The dominant institutions are still attempting to exploit and rationalize through those old concepts. Are we going to put a stop to it and move in a different direction, or is the whole thing going to be pushed until it collapses?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano is a novel about post-industrial society. A revolution has destroyed the technological culture. But afterward, as the revolutionaries are congratulating each other, one of them looks out the window and sees a group of people huddled in the rubble, and one of those people is saying, “You know, if we take this part here and take this other part there, we could put them together and we could make a tool.”
So the guy turns from the window and he says, “Why did we do it?” He could see a movement toward the re-creation of the culture that had been destroyed. It was an on-going process and there would never be, in a certain sense, an end to it all.
And the other man answers: “For the record.”
Ultimately, that’s my own bottom line. I do something because I have an inclination to do it, because it feels right to me to do it. Why people choose to do what they do has to come from some inner place that isn’t subject to qualification or logical explanation. There is a diversity and a unity, and there’s a cooperation and a certain amount of conflict.
It’s just that with our tools, we’ve created this Frankenstein situation. We’ve deified our tools and we’ve become their artifacts. Rather than liberating us, our tools have defined our potential as human beings. A weird inversion has happened.
I think that we need to realize that the tools are not God. The tools are just inventions; we need to decide how much to use these tools, and in what way.
BOSK: To return to the vocabulary of waste and sustainability — I dislike the word “conservation.” “Salvage” connotes a rescue operation. “Conservation” connotes a locking into a lifestyle: being told what to do, how to use things, not being allowed to experiment with excess.
HELM: And I dislike the word “recycling” because it seems so antiseptic. It doesn’t have a human element to it. It’s too abstract.
Conservation is an idea I like as “the right thing to do.” But salvage is a process. It’s more alive. Salvaging and scavenging include the elements of judgement and discrimination and imagination and freedom.
When people ask me what I do, I say, “I run a salvage yard.” That feels comfortable to me. It doesn’t have any pretension associated with it. I’m not a do-good conservationist. I’m not a pristine recycler. I’m a junk man.