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SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
A Smart can, a solar- powered trash compacting receptacle has snippets of history for its location in Roanoke. It also directs visitors to other points of interest in the city.
Monday, June 24, 2013
Q: What are those blue boxes I’m seeing along some city streets? They seem to have some historical information on them, but I’m always driving and can’t read past a word or two. What are they for?
A: I’ve wondered about those things too, Terry, especially the one I pass almost every day near Mountain View Recreation Center in the old Fishburn mansion on 13th Street Southwest. I knew from previous stories that they were high-tech solar-powered trash-compacting receptacles, called Smart cans for short. They’re so clever that they can send a message to the city’s solid waste department when they need to be emptied, a feature I’m sure my wife would appreciate in our kitchen garbage as well.
I’d seen them in big cities, but their arrival in Roanoke surprised me. According to Skip Decker, solid waste management division manager for the city, they’re called BigBelly solar compactors and to date 10 of them have been purchased using federal Community Development Block Grants, though not all include the artwork you are asking about. Decker says that the compactors cost $4,500 each, without the artwork.
Their locations around downtown were chosen based on foot traffic or bus stops where high volumes of trash are deposited. Decker says the compactors actually save money by vastly reducing the number of times they need to be emptied. He says they’re working great, but unless more funding appears, there are no plans to expand the program.
Now, about the art that adorns these machines: It’s the work of local historian, philosopher, and man about town, Matt Ames, who would win the prize of “most interesting man in the valley” if there were such a thing. Ames is an instructional technologist, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech, a self-described “experimental historian,” photographer and coordinator of community arts events. He’s created his own think tank called Philosophy INC, which serves as an umbrella organization for the many things that emerge from his very active mind. He even curated a show at the Taubman last year titled “Philosophy INC Probes Roanoke.”
He submitted the proposal for the graphics as part of a call for entries sponsored by the Roanoke Arts Commission, which funded the exterior designs on the compactors. Following his belief that “art should be related somehow to your location,” Ames researched each receptacle site so that each one tells the story of its particular place. The theme for all of them is “Explore Roanoke,” and Ames hopes that people use them as a jumping off point to learn more about where they live.
The historical artwork was all found in the archives at the Virginia Room of the Roanoke City Library, where Ames, 46, has been known to spend more than a little time.
In addition to the history, Ames says, “I also added walking times to other locations in the city. This is important for at least a couple of reasons. One, people need to walk more and sometimes they seem to be unaware that walking distances between places are actually shorter than they realize. Two, when people walk, they engage more with the city, and this is the overall message of my designs.”
I decided to get out of the car to check out a few of the receptacles and learned a few things in the process. Now I know, for instance, that prominent citizen J.B. Fishburn once took a six-month journey through Siberia, India and Europe — no small feat in the early 1900s.
If you’d like to learn more about the stories behind each compactor, then don’t miss an event at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BanG Studios at 425 Fourth St. S.W., Roanoke (across from the American Red Cross Building on Fourth). The show includes a big timeline of Roanoke’s history from about 1820 to 1930 that integrates important events with the material presented on the boxes. Ames will lead a van tour of all of the bins beginning at 7:15 and is ready to answer your historical, artistic and philosophical questions.
Have a question? An answer? Call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to provide your full name, its proper spelling and your hometown.
Look for Tom Landon’s column on Mondays. Read the WOYM blog on roanoke.com anytime.
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