From the Series: Evil Infrastructures
Somerset’s scrapyards become visible under two sets of circumstances. The first is when an “open burn,” as residents call them, demands the attention of the local fire department. Open burns make headlines: “Thick Smoke Pours from Philadelphia Junkyard Fire,” a May 2015 news report read. “Heavy smoke could be seen pouring from a fire along train tracks in Philadelphia Monday evening. A ten-foot-high pile of junk . . . caught fire around 7:25 p.m. causing smoke to spread over surrounding areas.” The fire was under control an hour later, but there was no public follow-up by municipal departments into what might have caused the event. There was no investigation into what burned, or what might have escaped in the smoke. It was as if open burns were an accepted effect of the scrapyards, a necessary activity that just needed to be kept under control.
Illegal dumping was the second circumstance under which the city would respond to complaints around Somerset’s scrapyards. Unlike the fires, which came from inside the yards, dumping happened outside the walls, down the block and in adjacent lots. Responsibility for dumping fell under the jurisdiction of the city’s Streets Department; the scrapyards themselves were not responsible for what happened around the corner or a block down, even if their business did draw abandoned materials. Disjuncture around jurisdiction was part of the problem: who could issue citations and what department should be called for which matters were open questions for the community surrounding the yards. Residents and local organizations compared notes, but municipal responses were inconsistent and enforcement complex.
In February 2016, I discussed the ongoing issues around hazardous exposure from Somerset’s scrapyards with a local enforcement agent. To neighborhood residents, it was clear that the city allowed the scrapyards to continue operating even though they violated basic laws. Although scrapyards were far from his area of expertise or jurisdiction, the enforcement agent remarked: “The scrapyards are a kind of necessary evil. They’re providing a messy service and no one really wants to deal with them.” His response underscored the tension that emerged in community discussions as well: scrapyards were bad neighbors because they unleashed toxics on the community, but they were an important piece of the local economy, particularly in the River Wards planning district where Somerset is located.
In a community marked by postwar economic disinvestment, scrapping was an accessible way to make a living. Then, too, many scrapyards were locally owned small businesses, some of which had been in the family for generations. Scrapping was a not insignificant part of the Philadelphia economy. In fact, a recent article on the state of Philadelphia’s scrap-metal economy heroically pits the work of local scrappers against metal mines and climate change: “Every bit of copper a scrapper pulls from an old TV left on the sidewalk is one less bit of copper pulled from the earth. Scrap metal recycling staves off mines and their enormous costs in pollution, energy, and in many cases, human misery.” Scrapping is less stigmatized in Philadelphia’s blue-collar culture, where the activity supports the late-industrial city, which was named the “workshop of the world” during its height of industrial production.
The scrapyards are a messy service, as the enforcement agent declared, because they make it possible to put the used-up materials of the workshop of the world back into production cycles. In the context of Somerset and the River Wards planning district, scrapping clears the way for redevelopment (which has mostly come in the form of gentrification). Scrapyards are an essential late-industrial lever, converting twentieth-century infrastructures into twenty-first-century infrastructures, but elsewhere. Or, as the article in Philadelphia’s Grid Magazine put it, “Scrap metal recycling is a salve to the wounds inflicted by our industrial age.” That’s part of their service.
The mess of toxics is the necessary evil in this scrapyard story: groundwater contamination, dumping of dilapidated domestic household items, open burns, clouds of dust from trucks of all sizes that traffic materials in and out of the yards to other, bigger yards. Material recycling is messy; it’s not just the metals that get dropped off at the scrapyard, but often what the metals are encased in as well. Vacant lots and associated sidewalks are used to break down found goods and extract valuable metals, such that the mess extends beyond the yards themselves. Scrapping and metal recycling are necessarily toxic and necessarily messy; there is no way around that. But do the externalities have to have such a direct and proximate impact on community health? Could this necessary infrastructure be moved elsewhere? Scrap-metal recycling clearly has a place in Philadelphia, but does that place need to be twenty feet from someone’s front door?
In the current landscape, 42 percent of the city’s registered scrapyards are located in the River Wards planning district, one of eighteen that comprise Philadelphia. River Wards is zoned mixed-use, which means industrial, commercial, and residential land is situated side by side. Land-use policies are a leftover from former industrial eras, when River Wards was designed to house factory workers and their families. Today’s industrial activity is highly concentrated in this district, in which the political economic effects of disinvestment have created an amenable terrain.
Recent city planning processes and zoning updates have grandfathered Somerset’s scrapyards into the shifting River Wards business terrain. Short of policy that would limit industrial activity, local stakeholders are pushing for policy that would require that residents of the neighborhood vet new land use and businesses. One of Somerset’s scrapyards, for example, has been up for sale since the beginning of 2016. Local community members would like to see the lot become something other than another scrapyard. This is a tall order since scrap lots, like other former industrial sites scattered through the district, are brownfields. Rather than a salve for the industrial age, the scrap infrastructure of the workshop of the world is a sunk cost, an evil history of the future.