Free stuff on Berkeley’s streets: Blight and/or opportunity?

Stuffed animals and a maquette discarded on a Berkeley street. Photo: Jim Rosenau
Stuffed animals and a maquette discarded on a Berkeley street. Photo: Jim Rosenau

By Jim Rosenau

The annual exodus of UC Berkeley students brings with it a not so welcome dumping of furniture and other sundry possessions on streets around the city, particularly near the campus. The city last week reminded tenants and landlords to help keep streets clean by using city services. It included with its release a list of resources to use when dealing with unwanted items. However for artist Jim Rosenau, while he too encourages responsible discarding, the appearance of free stuff on the streets is tantamount to a thrilling treasure hunt. 

“Hippie Christmas” is what they called it in Madison, WI, when the students moved out and put their household belongings on the curb, a former Madisonian tells me. In my near-campus Berkeley neighborhood the curbs today are sprinkled with furniture and household goods (and quite a few bads) that departing students left behind. It’s easy to find fault with mattresses and fax machines on the curb, but for me, the enduring culture of free boxes is like a daily Easter egg hunt.

"I can spot a fresh cardboard box on the curb at 20 m.p.h." Photo: Jim Rosenau
“I can spot a fresh cardboard box on the curb at 20 m.p.h.” Photo: Jim Rosenau

Long before there was Craigslist, a sharing economy or Freecycle, there were free boxes. And they worked. You took excess goods to a nearby free box, sometimes made of wood, and passers-by took what they liked. Many free boxes were messy and they were never permitted by the city. Today, all but one of these is gone while the practice continues, typically in unmarked cardboard boxes that last just days.


Every ride to my studio, every errand about town, offers the chance to spot a new find on the curb. From my bike seat I can see what’s out there better than the drivers, though I am looking harder than most. In fact, I make it a practice as part of my artwork to gather something every day. It’s what Agnes Varda in her 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I, called, “the simple dignity of bending down to pick things up.”

Each of us trains our mind’s eye to pick out what we desire from the background. Some guys know at a glance the model and year of every muscle car. You might be one of those people who notice a fresh haircut or new clothes. I can spot a fresh cardboard box on the curb at 20 m.p.h. I can’t help it; I want first dibs.

Some of us have that squirrel DNA switched on and feel the daily need to collect. It’s really only problematic for those who can’t get rid of an equal volume each year. Long ago I taught myself to relish the other side of the equation, so I am constantly (and a bit self-righteously) getting rid of things too. Thus, I can collect anything I like if I have room for it. The collection gets better, not bigger.

It’s a cheap thrill to make these connections when and where I can. If I find a vase, any vase, I leave it for Carol on Parker St. who loves to give flowers to friends and neighbors. All I have to do is drop it off on her porch. Further down Parker St. I have a talented friend to whom I bring appliances that might be repairable.

Trucks all lined up in a row curbside. Photo: Jim Rosenau
Trucks all lined up in a row curbside. Photo: Jim Rosenau

A few favorite finds come to mind. I use a WWII-issue pair of wire cutters, meant for slipping through concertina wire but which are capable of cutting a 16 penny nail without straining. There is the prized copy of Photoshop, collected with its registration code intact. These stand out among the stream of hardware, packaging supplies, books for my artwork, even a few that I read.

The nature of Free Stuff is that it comes with permission to alter and winnow according to whim. Last year I found a pre-1900 mahogany pump organ across the street with a “Free” sign taped to it. My daughter and some passers-by helped me wheel it to my yard, where it sat until I resolved that I would take it apart to reduce the volume, saving its keyboard and all the interesting carved bits. I trust that few readers were craving a pump organ to add to their parlors. All things do not deserve preservation. 

Reduce, reuse, religion

It’s not hard to argue that recycling and reuse approach the level of religion here. As my friend John Barry was quoted saying in a 2015 Berkeleyside interview, “There’s no doubt that the virtue of recycling has been oversold. It’s the perfect ‘solution,’ for our consumer society. You can buy all the stuff you want, but if you recycle the cardboard packaging, you’re absolved.”

While I do not kid myself into thinking I am making a big difference by collecting and repurposing your cast-offs, I prefer my practice to any other kind of shopping. Fundamentally much of my artwork is about the meanings, intentional and unintentional, of everyday stuff.

Photo: Jim Rosenau
Have we come to believe that our trash cans are vessels of personal failure? Photo: Jim Rosenau

Perhaps we have come to believe that our dark gray trash cans are not just a last resort but vessels of personal failure. If there is no “away,” anything that keeps molecules out of the trash is better than admitting defeat. Sure, anything left out with quick resale value will be scooped up fast, but even the wisdom of crowds is unlikely to reunite your Tupperware containers with their lids.

On some things we may give up. That broken Ikea bookshelf, what my friend Myra calls, “pre-landfill,” might be there for lack of a hex key, a truck or more likely — motivation. It’s hard to believe that the owner seriously believes someone wants it.

Clearly there are problems with the culture of free stuff on the streets, though I suspect these are mostly objections about scale, quantity and the slide towards outright dumping. A well-managed, short-term free box should not be the seed from which a mattress sprouts. In this richly ambiguous practice, both delightful and infuriating, there ought to be some understanding of what’s OK and not OK.

Here are few suggestions for your consideration.

Do’s:

  • Keep it together. Bag up devices and doohickeys with all their manuals and bits, when possible
  • Keep it small. If it requires a truck there are fewer who might bite.
  • Keep it clean. A tidy curb is a happy curb.
  • Keep it dry. Wet stuff is lonely stuff.
  • Label broken or working devices
  • To report illegal dumping call 311.

Don’t’s:

  • Please don’t leave food out at night for possums and worse.
  • Please don’t put lead-lined tube TV’s and archaic electronics on the curb. There is no TV Fairy to collect it while you sleep. These should be recycled.
  • Please don’t leave things out for more than a few days. The wisdom of crowds works better online.
  • Never use someone else’s curb; that’s clearly illegal dumping.
  • Rusting cans of paint? Take them to Alameda County’s Hazardous Waste location.

Resources for donating, discarding responsibly

Among the many other places you might donate used goods, here are my most useful suggestions (and check out the city’s list of resources too).

  • Friends of the Berkley Public Library has a fine used-book store on Channing below Telegraph.
  • Little Free Libraries have cropped up in all the neighborhoods I visit. These are cute but not able to accept large donations.
  • Urban Ore is the largest reuse facility in town and deserves everyone’s support.
  • East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Temescal mostly features low-cost arts and crafts feedstock.
  • The Craigslist/Free is a really active page. Depending on what you list you might be overwhelmed by the replies. At this writing there were 132 current listings in Berkeley.
  • Rooster is a newer online service to list local free stuff. They also accept trades, loans and other benevolent local offers. Much easier to use than Freecycle and plenty of traffic.
  • Freecycle is a worldwide network of email-based sharing lists. Tightly administered, Berkeley’s list is large and active.
  • org is funded by the county and has the most comprehensive resource list.
baby in a bucket
Babies in a bucket. Photo: Jim Rosenau

Jim Rosenau has been making thematic furniture from old books and other found materials since 2002. He will be exhibiting his work at the upcoming Bay Area Book Festival. See his work at This Into That.

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