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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Urban Ore

Air Date: Week of

Nathan Johnson reports from Berkeley, California, on the uncertain fate of a store called Urban Ore, which two decades ago staked out a run-down corner of the city as a place to capture and resell stuff that would otherwise go to the dump. Now others have recognized the value of the neighborhood itself, and the store is being squeezed out.


CURWOOD: In Berkeley, California, a store which pioneered the idea that there's a gold mine in the city's unwanted junk is suffering from its own success. Urban Ore staked out a run-down corner of the city two decades ago as a place to capture and resell stuff that would otherwise go to the dump. Now, as Nathan Johnson reports, the neighborhood redevelopment that the junk store helped to promote is putting the squeeze on Urban Ore itself.

(Disco music)

JOHNSON: Urban Ore feels like a thrift store version of Home Depot, Office Max, and Circuit City all in one, only funkier.

WOMAN: I like this one with this piece on it, though.


WOMAN: Yeah. And it's solid through there.

JOHNSON: It's a giant super-store where builders and artists, college students, and eccentric pack rats can buy and sell just about everything.

KNAPP: We have a large section of doors, with around 2000 doors, all organized by type of doors.

JOHNSON: Dan Knapp is Urban Ore's founder and president. He's a robust man, built like a blacksmith, with a PhD in sociology.

KNAPP: Then we have another big section of windows. There's probably 3 to 4000 windows in here. We have bathtubs, probably 50 at a time.

JOHNSON: This is just what's outside.

(Reggae music)

JOHNSON: Inside, there's furniture, hardware, pots and pans, computers and books. Mary Lou Van Deventer is Dan Knapp's wife and Urban Ore's administrative manager.

VAN DEVENTER: We salvage at the dump, so we recover things that people have already paid to waste, and we bring them back from the brink. But also, because of our location, we're able to divert things that are on their way to the dump, and we're sort of the last stop. We get from 10 to 40 vehicles a day of people bringing their things here, because people really would rather conserve than waste.

(Door shuts)

KNAPP: And you want to get rid of the tape players, too? What is that?

JOHNSON: Outside in the yard, Dan Knapp looks over a few boxes of stuff in the back of a pickup truck, including a tape player and an old lamp.

(Door shuts)

KNAPP: Okay, well, all together we're looking at (pause) $15.

MAN: Okay.

JOHNSON: Seventeen years ago Urban Ore set out to prove that a city can be a place where almost nothing is thrown away, a place where a landfill is a curious relic. And they've made their point. Urban Ore diverts 5000 tons of reusable goods from the city dump every year. Revenues are more than $1 million, and the business employs 23 people. The company has remained remarkably steady over the last 2 decades, but this isn't true for the old industrial neighborhood surrounding it.

KNAPP: When I first moved here, I used to have a 105-pound Malemut Shepard that stayed with me all the time. It was a real rough neighborhood. There were a lot of buildings around here that had For Sale and For Rent signs on them. The whole place was really quite run-down.

(Train whistle and bells)

JOHNSON: Today the trains that rumble through the neighborhood still pass a hodgepodge of small factories, warehouses, and drab, weather-beaten homes. But not far away a renaissance is blossoming.

(Guitar and flute music)

JOHNSON: Coffee shops, art galleries, live-work lofts, and a micro-brewery are signs of the neighborhood's new vigor.

KRAMER: The area's definitely been trending up. It's very hip, and there's a lot of cool stuff going on right now. It's fun.

JOHNSON: Morgan Kramer works at Salsa Trading Company, a dealer in custom handmade furniture.

KRAMER: It's a full-leather couch using only the top-grade, top skins.

JOHNSON: How much is this piece?

KRAMER: This one is $4,000, which is actually a lot less than a lot of people would expect to pay for a top-quality leather piece.

JOHNSON: Only a few blocks away, Urban Ore salesman Aris Vulkas works in what feels like an alternative universe.

(Swing music)

VULKAS: Telephones are generally really cheap, because we see a lot of them: $2 to $10 max.

JOHNSON: How about an answering machine?

VULKAS: Answering machine, I almost like to give them away (laughs) because we see too many answering machines. I sell them for a dollar to $4 (laughs).

JOHNSON: The problem for Urban Ore is that it only rents its building, and the owner has decided not to renew the lease. In this up-and-coming neighborhood they stand to make a lot more money developing the property. Urban Ore's Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer say the people who came here first as pioneers, who established a presence and paved the way for others, are now being told, in effect, "Thanks for your help. Now it's time to go."

VAN DEVENTER: We made the neighborhood a little bit safer and a little bit more respectable place to be, compared to the way it was when we arrived. And now that raises the property values beyond what we can afford.

KNAPP: We're still in the phase where everybody sees lots of dollar signs here, and just wants to do the same thing. More coffee shops, more little places where you can buy the latest gadgets for your kitchen.

JOHNSON: The city of Berkeley has promised to help the store try to stay in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the problem Urban Ore faces is apparently not confined to Berkeley. Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer say there are thousands of recycling or reuse companies around the country facing the same situation. They say it's critical that cities make room for their kind of business.

VAN DEVENTER: It's like building a house without a bathroom. The bathroom may not be your favorite room in the house, but you can't not have it. No matter what your policy goals may say about oh yes, we love recycling, oh yes, we prefer recycling, you can do it in the town next door - that's no way to design a city.

KNAPP?: Urban Ore, it's a media [phrase?].

JOHNSON: Urban Ore has its sights on a new location in Berkeley, but they'd still be renting, so there's no guarantee they wouldn't be kicked out again if that neighborhood improves, too. For Living on Earth, this is Nathan Johnson in Berkeley.

KNAPP: A 10-year-old Apple Mac Plus. We do accept Pluses. Bring it on down and I will take it from you. The Image Writer printer, I'm not too juiced about...



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