One Man’s Trash: Three University of Chicago alumni document Chicago’s scrap metal industry

A heap of scrap metal; photo courtesy of Ben Kolak, Brian Ashby, and Courtney Prokopas
As an undergrad at the University of Chicago, Ben Kolak saw men in battered old pick-up trucks or with old shopping carts picking up whatever miscellaneous pieces of metal they could find in the trash. He was immediately curious about these dedicated hunters, so much so that he decided to make a documentary about it with partners Brian Ashby and Courtney Prokopas. He ended up following the trails of an underground economy, tracing a network of “scrappers,” purchasers, demolition men, and undocumented immigrants trying to make a living.

The resulting film, “Scrappers,” is currently in the editing booth. The trio has been sorting through nearly eighty hours of footage to create the final cut, which will hopefully debut in spring 2009. Ashby is proud to disclose that they’ve been working with director and editor Aaron Wickenden, best known for editing the award-winning film “The War Tapes,” the first documentary to come out of Iraq and the only one shot by American soldiers. “We’ve been selecting the best of the footage, so he doesn’t waste his time,” he remarks. It’s easy to imagine that the footage from this project is as complex as the collected tapes from Iraq, as it spans across the city and across economic and racial divides.

“Scrappers” follows three men at work in the city: Otis, a 73-year-old trained in the art of scrapping by Eastern European immigrants and the father of twelve; Oscar, an illegal Honduran immigrant who crossed into the US inside a shipping crate and turned to scrapping to make money; and Miguel, a Mexican immigrant who uses his established status in the community and the church to aid his own scrapping and metal-purchasing business. Kolak, who selected the subjects of the film, notes, “The scrappers have a high proximity to crime, to robberies, but the [subjects of the film] were honest people; they had a complete devotion to their trade. They were stable entrepreneurs–they had families. It’s an interesting contrast to the popular image.”

They followed the three men for two years, observing their rounds without a camera initially, meeting their families, and only starting to film after having gained their trust. Ashby comments, “They pretty much began to see us as a friend, and didn’t really notice the cameras.” They also visited the factories that process the collected steel and the junkyards. During these visits, they dodged not only allegations of being covert OSHA or EPA inspectors, but also very heavy objects. Ashby recalls, “The junkyards were a really raw, hectic place. All the machinery was moving fast; the guy told us, ‘You don’t need a hardhat.’ And then the forklift stopped two inches away from us. Also, we were doing the wide shots of the machinery, and some kids started throwing stuff at us and yelling ‘snitch.’”

The art of scrapping is quite an old craft in Chicago, but the influx of Hispanic immigrants (many illegal) has changed the game. For years men like Otis dominated the trade: the “neighborhood junk man,” in Kolak’s words, was usually black. The influx of many desperate immigrants heated up the competition across the city, and Oscar and other immigrants learned to stake out certain areas to collect the most trash. Oscar started out in demolition, a job now often taken by illegal immigrants who cannot get anything else. The access to the wreckage from old buildings helps scrappers immensely; as Kolak remarks, “Scavengers always ride off the back of others.” However, the change of the industry necessarily created racial tensions between the older black junkmen and the hungry, young Hispanic newcomers.

This has only made the trade more dangerous for all scrappers, including the three men featured in the film. Kolak remarks, “They had rollercoaster-esque lives; they were used to getting shot at or getting into accidents. What they encountered in a week would traumatize a university student for life.” The trio then rattles off the things that happened during the two years they followed the scrappers: one of Otis’s sons got hit by a car, fortunately escaping serious injury; Otis’s prized pickup truck got impounded several times; he was evicted four times from apartments. Several of Oscar’s friends were deported, even as he himself avoided that fate. The most traumatic event to happen during filming was economic, however.

Ashby comments, “In a bad economy, the scrap market does even better; prices were reaching new highs. In November, the commodity market crashed, and prices went down to ‘50s levels. Sellers had stock they couldn’t sell; the scrappers were the ones who felt [the crash] most.” Ashby adds, “[The three scrappers] aren’t scrapping anymore, but they’re dedicated…They might go back to the trade when prices go back, in a year or two years…We did go back after the [market crash] to see what happens; it provides a sense of closure for the film.”

Ashby says that “Scrappers” is, at heart, not only about these scrap-hunters, but also about a larger urban world. He clarifies, “I thought it was a good subject that would engage the viewer–they’re a part of the urban landscape, and people should know more about how they make money, to see the stories behind them. It also touched upon a number of themes and ideas–economic divides, the urban poor, the working poor…It was a fertile topic.” In addition, “people think of recycling as a government thing, and don’t know much about the private business, which goes all the way to China.” Through Otis, Miguel, and Oscar, we connect to “a world of self-sufficiency–they’re a window to an unregulated world,” in Kolak’s words.

Ashby finds a kind of kinship with the city of Chicago: “I like things unique about place: it’s urban, but there’s a lot of space; it’s flat and banal in many ways, but has some beautiful places; it has many contradictions. It’s also the transition point between the two Americas.” “Scrappers” takes place in the city and surrounding area, from the cheap housing in Hyde Park to the buildings undergoing demolition to the factories in Cicero, Illinois, to the junkyards in far west Chicago. It should take viewers deep into the hidden underground economy of scraps, just as Ben Kolak ventured into that world after seeing the scrap-hunters in the backyard of the University of Chicago.

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