Shot over eight years, DOGTOWN REDEMPTION is not only the intimate story of recyclers in West Oakland but a journey through a landscape of love and loss, devotion and addiction, prejudice and poverty.
A surprising number of Americans make their living off a vast river of trash. DOGTOWN REDEMPTION follows this river, and its inhabitants in a lively, bustling yet invisible corner of California. Every year, Californians buy about 22 billion carbonated and non-carbonated drinks in aluminum, glass, and plastic containers—a river of trash. Under California law beverage containers can be redeemed for a few cents per container. As a result of this legal innovation, trash can be turned into cash—a lifeline for a subculture of marginalized recyclers: the unemployed and underemployed, the elderly, the mentally and physically disabled, former criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes can reclaim the pride and joy that comes with having a job.
We follow the lives of three recyclers: Jason Witt, the titan of recycling; Landon Goodwin, a former minister, and addict who struggles with his own fall from grace; and Miss Hayok Kay, the ultimate outsider, formerly a Polkacide drummer from a prominent Korean-American family, now at the mercy of the elements and predators. Through them, we are introduced to the art, science, economics and politics of recycling: what it offers, how it touches the poor and why it matters to all of us.
We follow their lives through the prism of a single recycling center: Alliance Metals, located in West Oakland. With annual sales in the millions, Alliance is an anomaly in an otherwise depressed neighborhood that has witnessed the steady flight, erosion and collapse of American industry. Its owner, Jay Anast, purchases bottles and cans from shopping cart recyclers. His business operates as a financial hub and community center, turning Alliance not only into a center of economic activity but a Fellini set populated with the most improbable of characters—the pirates of trash. By virtually any measure, the denizens of the recycling center—the poorest of the poor—should be dead. But they defy Darwin. Poverty has turned them into the masters of improvisation and ingenuity.
In the view of the residents of Magnolia Row and other new developments in West Oakland, Jay’s time is up. His business is noisy, smelly, ugly and dirty—a giant garbage can. It attracts blight: scavengers, drug dealers, and criminals who depress, destroy and disrespect the promise of the American dream. The rattle of the shopping carts, missing garbage cans, litter on the streets, public defecation, theft, crime and trespassing are offered as evidence that the recyclers are not only stealing garbage but are a blight upon the neighborhood.
Dogged by addiction, mental health issues, homelessness and poverty, the recyclers' grip on life remains tenuous. Recycling serves as the only constant in their life. Yet with commodity prices collapsing, the neighbors calling for a ban on shopping cart traffic, and the city launching a sting against Alliance Metals, their way of life is threatened from all sides. As the battle for the future of the recycling center heats up, a larger debate over the history, culture and future of West Oakland grows more intense.
The question of who owns our garbage makes these otherwise marginal characters important voices in a conflict over race, class and space in a modern American city. And that war is not only one waged on the streets, but also at City Hall—a battle over who defines the rules that equate poverty and recycling with blight, crime and theft.
DOGTOWN REDEMPTION humanizes and celebrates this other America; the America that many of us do not see. That a small recycling center has allowed so many to survive on a daily basis—for years, even decades—is a minor miracle. A reminder that even in trash there can be life, love and redemption.