Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 3, 1995

Public Health's Fee writes history of "Big Apple" in garbage

By Andy Blumberg
     The scene was one of almost unimaginable filth. Manure,
rubbish, slops, dead animals and other wastes accumulated in
huge, fetid piles in the streets.  Every spring thaw would reveal
tons of putrid waste discarded the year before. Indiscriminate
ocean dumping, along with dead and decaying fish, were fast
filling in shipping channels, making navigation increasingly
difficult. Epidemics of disease--yellow fever, cholera, smallpox,
typhus, dysentery and scarlet fever--were a constant threat. 
Infant diarrhea, diphtheria and tuberculosis were endemic. 
     Welcome to New York City in the 19th century, when the "Big
Apple" seemed rotten to the core.  If a city's history is, at
least in part, written in its trash, New York's was a public
health nightmare.  
     "A city's garbage involves many aspects of its social
history, including public health, environmentalism, social reform
and urban pride," said Elizabeth Fee, professor of health policy
and management in the School of Hygiene and Public Health and a
public health historian. "New York City, representing arguably
the epitome of American urban life, provides us with perhaps the
quintessential view of these forces at work, although conditions
were similar in urban areas throughout the country."
     The legacy of garbage in New York over the last 150 years
forms the basis for "Garbage! The History of Politics and Trash
in New York City," an exhibition curated by Dr. Fee for the New
York Public Library. The exhibit, which opened in November and
will run through Feb. 25, is expected to attract more than
200,000 people.
     "The opportunity to engage the interest of a broader public
is what was so appealing about doing this project," Dr. Fee said.
"By contrast, a few hundred scholars may read a journal article."
     Working with the exhibition staff at the NYPL, Dr. Fee set
out to communicate to the public the history of public health in
a social context and to connect public health to political and
environmental issues.
     In the 19th century, for example, the public concern focused
on how street trash spread infectious diseases, she said. Today,
however, the debate is about toxic waste and its link to cancer
and chronic diseases.
     "We tend to be very conscious of the environment these days,
but we do not always make the connection between the environment
and public health," Dr. Fee said. "That's a central theme of this
     More than 250 books, maps, manuscripts, cartoons, paintings,
posters, handbills and photographs are on display, alongside such
tools of the trade as trash cans and street-cleaning equipment.
The exhibition even features relevant sounds and smells, such as
the cry of seagulls following an oceangoing barge, and the warm
aroma of bread baking in a tenement.  Another highlight is
several pieces of "garbage art," including a three-ton arch
composed of sanitation equipment and 5,000 used work gloves,
honoring the sanitation workers who wore them.
     Dr. Fee said the exhibit has been well received by the
public and has so far generated tremendous U.S. press attention,
as well as coverage in Tokyo and England.
     "It's unique. I am very pleased with how it turned out," she
     "Garbage!" is divided into five segments with overlapping
periods and themes. It begins with urban life from 1840 to 1920
and examines the squalor of a younger New York, when trash and
other waste were dumped directly onto the streets and scavengers
picked through mountains of garbage. Bands of dogs, hogs, even
cattle, roamed the streets.  In 1880 alone, 15,000 dead horses
had to be carted away. Filth pervaded everyday life, creating a
social dividing line between the relatively clean "respectable
class" and the dirty bodies of tenement dwellers.
     Public health officials believed that epidemics were
transmitted by "miasmatic clouds," poisonous vapors formed from
rotting garbage, and animal and human waste. Some felt the
"pestilential vapors" from slaughterhouses, tanneries, fertilizer
plants and similar trades were the major cause of disease and
death, while others blamed the poor themselves, due to their
presumed immoral behavior, intemperance or bad habits.
     During this period, public health reformers began to respond
to the alarming conditions. Starting with streets, alleys and
tenement housing, reformers went on to tackle private spaces,
baths and toilets, even the supervision of personal hygiene.
Women's health organizations worked to establish public baths,
toilets, showers and drinking fountains.  They prodded city
government to develop clean water supplies and a more adequate
municipal sewerage system.
     All these noble efforts came none too soon:  An 1897 report
found that of 255,000 tenement house inhabitants, only 306 had
access to a bathroom in the dwelling where they lived.
     Once street cleaning and garbage collection had been shown
to be in the public health's best interest, the question of
responsibility remained. The exhibit details how garbage fueled a
central political debate from the middle of the last century to
today.  Because of the immense amount of money involved, an
unending struggle ensued between municipal and private interests
over who would control and profit from the work, still a point of
contention today.  Private control offered opportunities for
graft and corruption; municipal responsibility encouraged
patronage and featherbedding.  Whoever was in charge, the streets
usually remained filthy.  
     While various groups debated responsibility, they also
struggled with feasibility. Garbage has proved almost impossible
to dispose of with any finality. Over the decades, ocean dumping,
landfills and incineration have each been tried and abandoned
several times, due to environmental concerns, community
opposition, increasing costs or a combination of the three.
Recycling, originally practiced by the ragpickers of the 19th
century, and instituted on a citywide basis in the 1890s, shows
renewed promise in the contemporary era. 
     The exhibit ends with today's more lethal forms of trash,
including oil spills and nuclear wastes.  Also examined are the
re-emergence of environmental consciousness, new forms of
advocacy and the intimate connection between waste production,
environmental safety and public health.
     Although the exhibit deals with an undeniably serious,
far-reaching and chronic problem, "Garbage!" is designed to make
its subject come alive in an entertaining, as well as
educational, way. 
     "Some friends and colleagues have been quite amused by the
idea that such an august institution as the New York Public
Library would put on an exhibition about trash," Dr. Fee said.
"But the history of garbage is an entertaining way to look at
serious issues. Everybody's more or less aware of garbage, and
everybody's more or less fascinated by it." 

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