Sure We Can

For the past three weeks I had the pleasure of working with my classmates Yuli and Danielle to create a video for our Video and Sound final project. We tossed ideas back and forth but none of those topics were practical to explore. Our ideas ranged from visiting the Underbelly Project (an illegal art exhibition in an abandoned subway station) to exploring the complex vertical intersection of the city (from the sewer system to rooftops), to creating our own abstract story. None of the ideas worked.

We finally achieved that eureka moment! We found this bustling can and bottle redemption center in a lot on McKibbin Street in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn and decided to document stories of the many individuals that frequent and work at the center. Sure We Can is a place where people who manage to scrape together a meager living by collecting and redeeming discarded cans and bottles can redeem their items for 5 cents a piece. This work has come to be known as “canning” and the individuals are called “canners.”

The organization was formed by canners. Their director is Ana Martinez de Luco, a Catholic nun and former canner, can be found in the thick of the action in the shantytown that is Sure We Can. As Ana shared in the documentary, many of these canners comprise of the young and old, men and women, jobless people, the homeless and immigrants. For many, canning is their only source of income – for which they are proud.

Upon entering the compound I was amazed by what I saw: the art, the sound of bottles and cans being sorted, the canners working together, the massive shipping containers stacked upon each other, the large bags of plastic bottles strewn upon the roofs of the structures, the large stacks of sorted bottles waiting to be collected, the compost pile and the chickens — yes, the chickens. It’s a community center where people gather for the same purpose but to also share each other’s company.

We were able to interview very few people. Most of the individuals were reluctant to be on camera – they were scared. Many were immigrants and did not have a strong grasp of the English language and we could not communicate in theirs. For the few who told their stories, we got a sense of what lead people to become canners and the impact that it has on their individual lives.

The center can close its doors as the property is for sale. The owner presented Sure We Can with the opportunity to purchase the lot but they cannot afford it. They are currently seeking assistance to raise funds toward securing this community center.

148 thoughts on “Sure We Can”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Nikita! What a wonderful story and surprising look at a few of the people who pick cans, and their motivations to do that. I’ve often wondered about some of elderly people I see picking the cans out of our recycling on trash days. I felt that it was a pretty strenuous activity for them and made the assumption that they were doing it because they needed to. I love that your interviews turn that assumption around and that many people are doing it to stay active in addition to making money and clearing the sidewalks. I also love how the story took an unexpected turn to look at public space in neighborhoods that are quickly changing.

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