by Lydia Gans
On Saturday, August 20, Alliance Recycling on Peralta Street in West Oakland closed its doors for good, promptly at noon. For 30 years, Alliance has been recycling tons of materials that would otherwise be taken to the landfill.
For many months, the owners and supporters of the recycling center have been resisting attempts by the neighbors and by Oakland officials to close them down.
The closure will cause considerable hardship for the recyclers, the men and women who walk many hours pulling recyclable materials out of trash cans or dumpsters, loading their carts or bicycles, and hauling it to Peralta Street.
For many, the income is essential to provide their basic needs; for others, it gives some extra security in case of emergencies. Many of the recyclers are poor and homeless.
On that final Saturday morning, recyclers came and dropped off what were their last loads. Some stayed to share an early meal brought by Food Not Bombs volunteers.
Friends of the Alliance Center employees and people who had followed its struggles to stay open, mingled and talked quietly with each other.
There was not much to be said, but most of them stayed for the entire morning, drifting away only after the door was finally closed for good.
The recyclers talked about their years of recycling and the uncertainty about their future. There is no other recycling center large enough within a reasonable distance.
Mike has been recycling for 19 years in West Oakland. I asked him what he’s going to do and he shrugged, saying, “I’ll go someplace else.”
But there is only National Recycling Corp. on 14th Street near Mandela Parkway in Oakland and Berkeley Recycling Center on Gilman Street. “14th Street,” he says, “that’s so small. Won’t be able to handle all this traffic. No way. Gilman is not equipped to handle it either.”
Tony, a longtime recycler, said glumly, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Then his mood changed and he warned that “now that they’re shutting this down, the crime will go up on this side of town. They’re going to start doing some bad stuff over here. They shouldn’t shut it down.”
He was not the only one who warned of “bad stuff” and increasing crime. But it is hardly likely that the City of Oakland will let this happen. Gentrification is on the agenda. The warnings were more a way of giving vent to their anger at the intolerance of neighbors who had pressured Oakland officials to close Alliance.
One of the recyclers, Christopher Childs, expressed concern for the workers at Alliance who will now be unemployed. “They depend on this place, so what are they going to do now?” he asked.
The movie Dogtown Redemption by filmmaker Amir Soltani is a powerful story of the lives of three recyclers and the Oakland recycling scene. The film shows the recyclers bringing their loaded carts to Alliance Recycling, scenes of homeless encampments and isolated places where some of them live.
It shows their friendships and their loves, their caring for each other. And there are scenes of City Council meetings and public protests and the politics involved in trying to keep the recycling center from being closed down. The movie is being shown in multiple venues and receiving high praise.
Soltani spent the Saturday morning talking with people at the recycling center. About his movie he says, “The closure of Alliance was in a way the last chapter of that story, so I felt I had to be there. It’s also a chapter in this area’s economic history.
“The city closed Alliance by intentionally attacking the shopping cart recyclers. (There was) never any concern for what happens to Alliance’s employees and no concerns for what happens to the shopping cart recyclers. So it’s about where are these people going to survive, how are they going to survive. There was no communication with them. They’re never part of any of the deliberations, they were just referred to as nuisances, as addicts.”
I asked recycler Darlene Bailey whether the recent protests on July 12 and July 19 at the Oakland City Council had done any good. “I didn’t think it would,” she said. “They were complaining about doors open during business hours. It was always gonna be something. Told them to put garbage over there, come back the next day, charge them a thousand dollars and they told them to put it over there. Always something.”
Oakland officials failed to listen to the recyclers — the poor residents of their own city — whose survival was at stake.
That was true for the press too. The San Francisco Chronicle, in a story on the closure, quoted at great length numerous complaints from the neighbors, including accusing the recyclers of theft from their back yards. No reporter sought a response from a recycler. Nowhere was the recyclers’ side given. (I sent the recyclers’ side in a letter to the editor and even that was not printed.)
Joe Liesner, a member of Food Not Bombs, spent the last Saturday morning at Alliance, just as he had spent Thursday afternoons there for the last six years with the recyclers, serving them a hot meal and checking in with them on the latest news.
When he heard about the closing, he said, “At first I thought, well it would just be a sad day and then I realized that I couldn’t let that day go by without honoring, celebrating, protesting. It was kind of all those things in one. The six years I had known these people, I actually in a small way had gotten to be part of what is a very vibrant, lively and loyal community. People meet each other there, catch up with each other, and I wanted to make a meal for that final day.”
Liesner asserted, “The recyclers realize they are a community and that their community has been broken up. They’re not going to have the same kind of camaraderie. They knew the security guards, the security guards knew them. It was really a family of sorts. They’re not going to have a place to meet each other.
“The community, which is heartbreaking to me, will not disappear completely. They’ll be collecting their cans and seeing each other on the street, but they won’t have this central meeting place, a place to eat and a place to be kind of more human beings, where they can get a good feeling, sit on the tailgate of our truck and eat where we bring produce to share.”
I asked Joe Liesner the same question I asked of the recyclers: “What are you going to do now?”
He said, “I’m not going to stop. The crew that I work with on Thursday has agreed that we’ll keep making our meal and hopefully we’ll find a place where people will come, meet and be together on Thursdays. We’re looking now.”
Amir Soltani, too, has made it clear that he will continue to advocate and work with concerned people in the community to find a way to help the recyclers.
As the door was closing and people drifted away, a crew was taking down the Frog sculpture under the watchful eyes of the man who was buying it. The gorilla also has been sold and was waiting to be picked up. Someone was heard to comment, “The forces of capitalism won — money, politics, gentrification won out over the needs of the powerless.”