Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1995 Issue

100 Years of Manhattan's Garbage

By Elise Hancock

The problem of filth In the nicest parts of New York City, 100 years ago, the March thaw would reveal streets knee-high in mud, manure, trash, and long-dead animals. "What could you smell on the streets of New York in 1890?" inquired a sign, inviting me to sniff at a, well, call it a smelling station. With some trepidation, I put my nose down to take a whiff.

This educational experience was taking place in the New York Public Library, at an exhibit on "Garbage: The History and Politics of Trash in New York City." I was there because New York is this country's paradigmatic city, and the exhibit was curated by Hopkins historian Elizabeth Fee, professor of health policy and management in the School of Public Health.

From somewhere came the sound of horses clip-clopping, and to my nose the unexpected smell of violets--a favorite scent of the time, a placard explained. It seems that ladies and gentlemen sprinkled cologne on their handkerchiefs, kept handy to blot out stench.

For much of the 19th century, explained the exhibit's catalog, sewerage, running water, and trash removal were private services, not municipal ones. Garbage was therefore an issue of social class, and conditions in the poor parts of New York were so squalid we today can hardly imagine it. On the streets rotted piles of garbage and rubbish. Human and animal wastes mixed with ashes and street dirt. Public baths, drinking fountains, and restrooms were built only after 1897, when a mayor's committee found that of 255,000 tenement dwellers, only 305 had a bathroom in the house where they lived. Flies looped everywhere.

Walking through the exhibit, viewers exclaimed over early pictures: Fifth Street knee-deep in manure; a ragpicker sorting trash; overflowing outhouses; men in tenements melting lead; a hallway with one decrepit sink; 15 children attempting to play ball in a backyard filled with garbage. From invisible speakers came the sound of the tenements--clip-clop, clip-clop; vendors' cries; children's voices, an excited calling as if from a distant playground.

My grandparents could have lived in those tenements--well, anyway, my great-grandparents. It wasn't so long ago.

That early part of the exhibit was comfortable: close enough to fascinate, remote enough to speak of progress. Viewers enjoyed it. "EE-yooh," said one teenager, in that love-to-hate-it tone of one viewing her little brother's room, a kind of thrilled repulsion.

"We planned it that way," comments Louis Storey, exhibit designer of the New York Public Library (and of this exhibit). "They always say there are viewers who run, viewers who walk, and the ones who stop and read. My hope is to make the ones who run into people who walk, and people who walk into people who stop."

One photograph that stopped me shows an African American family in the tenements, ca. 1902, posing happily in their dining room. The furniture gleams, and somehow one infers that this apartment had a bathroom. Black Americans were less than 1 percent of the tenement population, explained the caption; compared with many immigrants, they were sought-after tenants.

Like any nation, says Fee, America prefers to forget the uglier parts of its history. We tend to forget how grudging was the welcome extended to immigrants, how real the social and economic advantage of groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution. Immigrants were the proverbial "great unwashed," thought by many middle-class people (whose families had once been immigrants) to be immoral, drunken, violent, and filthy by choice--people who wouldn't know how to flush a toilet if they had one. Each group carried its own ugly stereotype: rowdy Irish, stupid Poles, dirty Russians. "Immigrants were building the industrial base of this nation," Fee says with indignation, "not to mention the railroads. They were very hardworking and productive. But they were perceived as a disease-ridden bunch of troublemakers."

Between 1881 and 1890, 5.25 million people migrated to the United States, at an annual rate of 9 people per 1,000 already here. They pressed into New York's tenements by the tens of thousands, whole families living in a single room. Five families might share one overflowing outhouse, and people might have to walk a block or more to get water at a pump. Some lived in the dumps, foraging out a living by selling whatever they could find, be it rags, bones, bottles, old shoes, or scrap metal. As for their own trash, the poor dumped it on the streets. What else could they do?

A traditional answer was to feed the garbage to the family pig, as in the Old Country, then eat the pig and sell the bones. A pig gains a pound for every three pounds of feed, and the litters are large--up to 14 piglets. Pigs were (and are) good business, cheap protein.

Sanitary reformers objected, however, for reasons apparent in one of Fee's favorite exhibition photographs. Taken for Manhattan's Tenement House Department, ca. 1902, it shows a young pig in a basement. The pig looks up from its meal of kitchen scraps, alert and curious. A broom must be nearby, for the floor has been swept. "It doesn't look too bad," says Fee. "What you don't see is that the other half of the basement is a bakery."

In similar tenement basements, the exhibit showed how people slept on bare mattresses. Fetid water stood. Feathers awaited packing into pillows. Fresh pasta dried in doorways. Filth, people, and commercial goods mixed in a most unsanitary way, while both adults and children died by the thousands from infectious disease: tuberculosis, smallpox, typhus, dysentery, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. These ailments then spread to more prosperous folk, and epidemics of cholera and yellow fever periodically threatened. You could map it: disease fanned out from "insalubrious conditions." Public health was seen as a question of cleanliness, and sanitary reform as urgent.

How to do it was less clear. Many settled for exhorting the immigrants that cleanliness was next to godliness, so they really should do better. Concerned groups of women formed sanitary associations, like the Woman's Municipal League, that pressured politicians and conducted educational campaigns. (Later, the League installed water fountains all over the city.) The sanitation workers, for their part, did battle with the piggeries, though at some cost to their dignity; as cartoons show, it was comic to see pigs--strong, wily, noisy, and round--bowl over uniformed inspectors. Everyone was amused except the inspectors and the poor, many of whom lost their livelihood of raising pigs. In 1888, the Commissioner of Public Works was directed to create a sewer system to serve the entire city--a crucial reform, though the resulting service dumped raw sewage directly into the harbor. (In 1918, a New York Academy of Medicine committee was to describe Manhattan as "a body of land entirely surrounded by sewage.")

The politics of garbage, however, centered around the issue of public vs. private. When Tammany Hall (a Democratic faction) was running the city, public street cleaning meant sinecure jobs for Tammany faithful, who were overseen by the police commissioners. After a fashion, that is: The police thought they had more important things to do than enforcing laws about dead cats. Fee says that municipal garbage collectors were viewed by middle-class reformers as "a bunch of no-goods feeding off the public trough," and the streets were filthy.

When garbage was tackled by private enterprise, however, as business leaders often suggested, residents complained that even after paying for service, they still had to pay bribes. Yet still the streets were filthy. "The requirement to make a profit," says Fee, "means that some things will not be well-handled." For example, private carters would pick up dead horses off the street and take them to rendering plants "when it was profitable. When it was not, the horses rotted." In 1880, 15,000 horses had to be removed from the streets of New York.

By tacit consent, through most of the late 19th century, what actually happened in poor neighborhoods was that refuse of all sorts piled up. Scavengers would retrieve items of commercial value, until eventually the city would cart away what festering stuff remained, plus the ashes--lots of ashes, since heat came from burning wood or coal.

Of this refuse, some was chucked into swamps, creeks, or ravines for landfill. Much was dumped at sea, where it obstructed shipping, killed oyster beds, and washed up onto beaches. A Puck cartoon from 1880 shows an indignant swimmer festooned with a boot, a watermelon rind, and a bottle that is stuck on his thumb. The streets continued filthy.

Hail the conquering hero

In January 1895, a miracle occurred: a reform mayor ousted Tammany Hall and appointed as commissioner of street cleaning a military man, Colonel George E. Waring. Within two years, New Yorkers were proud to say that their city was the cleanest in the world. Disease rates were dropping sharply.

Given a free hand, Waring shook up the entire system. He developed "a very rational and systematic method for dealing with garbage," says Fee, which centered around two goals. One was to get garbage GONE, not just out of sight. The other was to make money with it--for the city, not for private contractors.

To these ends, the colonel banned large-scale ocean dumping and instituted systematic recycling, performed by municipal workers. Ashes were collected by one set of workers and taken to landfills, while animal wastes were rendered for fertilizer. Another team collected only rubbish--dry materials that included rags, paper, and other recyclable goods. Whatever couldn't be recycled was burned in the new municipal incinerators, which generated enough electricity to run the plants. In time, Waring expected the city to sell residential electricity; one such incinerator, under the Williamsburg Bridge, was actually built.

"Waring wanted to light Manhattan with its garbage," says Fee. "You can imagine how delighted the power company was." Not to mention many other business interests, "and councilmen who had their hands in the pockets of the businessmen." Waring's many opponents were pictured by one cartoonist as dogs yapping at his heels.

Fortunately, the Colonel also showed a flair for public relations, both for himself and his department. A veteran of the Civil War, he was never seen without his "little brown button," the proud emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic, and his mustache-- oh, that mustache. To the delight of cartoonists, he wore the Kaiser Wilhelm: thin and straight, two pencils of hair strained toward his ears, then turned at right angles to stand at attention. That mustache was the very epitome of manly will triumphant over natural disorder. For the department as a whole, Waring raised morale by instituting new uniforms, made of snowy white duck, and by treating sanitation as a true profession. He established a School for Street Cleaning, parallel to the Police Academy. Though he retained most of the Tammany hacks (no fool he), he defanged cronyism by extending the civil service system. The men worked much harder, and sanitation became a respected line of work. His white- clad troops became walking symbols of cleanliness, soon known as the White Wings.

In 1896, when Waring led the first Parade of the Sanitation Department, it was said that people came to scoff, but stayed to cheer, so inspiring was the sight as several thousand White Wings marched smartly down Fifth Avenue.

Waring resigned in December 1897, after only three years in office, when Tammany came back to power. Ocean dumping then resumed, says Fee. "Private firms took over recycling, and the standards of street cleaning and garbage disposal gradually declined." In a cartoon of 1906, William Allen Rogers pictures Death, the cowled figure brandishing a broom and threatening, "I'll clean your streets if no one else will!"

Still, New York recycled the bulk of its wastes until 1919, and sanitary reformers persisted. Perhaps most important, after Waring, everyone knew it could be done. A cleaner, healthier New York was possible. Piecemeal, decade by decade, conditions got better.

Where did all the garbage go?

As the exhibit moved along, the present grew closer. "Oh, I remember those!" cried one woman, pointing to a gas-fired home incinerator ("Warm Morning" brand, Model L-15B, ca. 1964). Before the 1970 Clean Air Act, homeowners and cities burned much of their garbage. That was one reason why, as the exhibit reminded, you couldn't see Manhattan from New Jersey. The view was haze. Only in 1994 did New York City close down its last municipal incinerator.

Ocean dumping, too, is largely a thing of the past. After protracted quarreling with the state of New Jersey, New York City was forced by the Supreme Court, in 1934, to stop dumping in the open ocean. These days, when the garbage scows head out, they're all going to Fresh Kills, Staten Island. Fresh Kills opened in 1948. It is the world's largest sanitary landfill, tended by machines the size of a house, and still growing. When it closes, early in the next century, it will top the Statue of Liberty by 135 feet.

Earlier landfills are dotted all over New York, including Flushing Meadow, site of the 1939 World's Fair. Fee and Storey peppered the exhibit with maps, and I saw many people stop to puzzle over the ones showing landfill. They wondered, perhaps, about their own homes: "Am I living on garbage? What was in it?"

Old landfills included street sweepings. Garbage. Ballast from ships. Dirt. Rubble. Industrial wastes (in the early days). But mostly ashes: In 1906, municipal solid waste was 64 percent ash, 18 percent street waste, 12 percent garbage, and 6 percent rubbish.

New York's old garbage isn't gone. Whatever wasn't burned or beached is in places like Riker's Island, or Brooklyn, or under the U.N. and East Side Drive. South of City Hall, perhaps one-third of New York is "made" land, and much the same is true of almost any city in the world.

Gone today, here tomorrow

Where can we put the garbage now?

"This is the problem with trash," says Fee. "Someone can carry it away, but it doesn't actually disappear. Like the garbage itself, these issues come back, and come back, and come back."

For instance, today, with all society's resources stretched by the high immigration of the last decade, she points out that Americans are "just beginning to experience the kinds of conflicts they did then, in which immigrants and the poor are once again blamed for all sorts of things--drunkenness, violence, filth, and diseases."

Or consider the way we struggle to dispose of plastics, auto emissions, radioactive waste, and toxic chemicals. That's not really new, says Fee: Viewed historically, transportation and industry always have defined waste. In 1890 New York, people despaired of "solving" the problems of horse manure, coal dust, and ash.

The balance of private and public interests is also a very live subject, as it was in Waring's time. Is it unfair to business if cities offset some costs by profits from recycling? Or is it unfair to cities that business provides any urban services that make money, like commercial garbage collection? How much weight should attach to social good?

Consider that New York City once again recycles paper, an industry that has become highly profitable--but not to the city. "Oh, the city sells the paper," says Fee. "But the extra cost of picking the stuff up separately is more than they can charge for it." That's why paper recycling fizzled back in 1919; to the city, it was pure cost. Today, however, paper is 40 percent of all municipal waste, and landfill space is scarce. Slowly, social incentives may be shifting.

As of 1990, other rubbish, such as cans, constitutes 27 percent of city waste; plastics, 8 percent; garbage, 7 percent; yard wastes, 18 percent. In 100 years, this stuff will still be around. But where? And does there have to be so much of it? "When I first started [work on this exhibit]," says Lou Storey, "I saw the show as ending with The Solution. Liz thought that was hilarious."

Just as issues come round again, so do the obvious answers: incineration (with scrubbers), landfill, less waste, more recycling. Progress will be slow, says Fee, for the evolving balance "is a political process. Ocean dumping is now illegal, and so is uncontrolled incineration. Both battles lasted a hundred years."

"Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in New York City," a recent exhibit by The New York Public Library, was curated by Hopkins professor Elizabeth Fee and designed by Louis Storey.

Elise Hancock is the magazine's senior editor.

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