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Digging Into New York City’s Trashy History

Trash piled up on Varick Street in 1893 New York City, before sanitation reform.
Q&A with the New York City Sanitation Department’s resident anthropologist

Garbologists study trash. Sociologists study the way people relate to one another. But who studies how people relate to their trash? Robin Nagle, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s anthropologist-in-residence, that’s who. Nagle first worked with the department while researching a book on the city’s sanitation workers (or "san men"). When she heard that the department supported an artist-in-residence, it dawned on her that she could play a similar role as an anthropologist, so she convinced the higher-ups to create the job for her (it probably wasn’t that hard, since she doesn’t earn a salary). Now she’s developing the city’s first sanitation museum, organizing the department’s archives, and spear-heading a sanitation oral history project. That’s all in her spare time. She also holds a day job as an anthropology professor at New York University. Sarah Schmidt caught up with Nagle for a lively discussion about the history of garbage in one of the world's largest cities, where 25,000 tons are disposed of every day.

New York City has a reputation in some quarters -- deserved or not -- as a dirty city. Have we gotten any better at cleaning up after ourselves?

Robin NagleYou have no idea. Going back 100, 150 years, American cities were disgusting -- and New York City was notorious as the filthiest and stinkiest. We were a laughingstock. The rumor goes that sailors could smell the city six miles out to sea. And all of this filth exacerbated a public health crisis -- people were dying of diseases like typhus, cholera, yellow fever, things that spread more easily in neighborhoods where the streets were dirtier. A cholera epidemic in the 1830’s killed 3,515 people, which was roughly12 percent of the population at the time. That same percentage would mean about 100,000 people today. The mortality rate in 1860 New York was equal to that of medieval London.

Wasn’t the public outraged? Why didn’t the powers-that-be respond better?

Because the corruption at that time was so deep. The money set aside for street cleaning was going into the pockets of the Tweed and Tammany politicians. Eventually, it got to be that it was so dirty for so long, no one thought that it could be any different. Imagine, on your own block, that you can’t cross the street, even at the corner, without paying a street kid with a broom to clear a path for you, because the streets were layered in this sludge of manure, rotting vegetables, ash, broken up furniture, debris of all kind. It was called “corporation pudding” after the city government. And it was deep -- in some cases knee-deep.

How did the city conquer the problem?

Reformers were eventually elected, and then the city finally said, we’re going to clean this up. In 1894, they hired Colonel George Waring, a well-known sanitation engineer who had designed the Memphis sewage system. He comes along, and then imagine, suddenly, the city streets are spotlessly clean -- and not just the rich neighborhoods. They started in some of the poorest neighborhoods, such as the notorious Five Points (which today would be between Chinatown and the Financial District). The sanitation workers transformed New York, and the people who did that work were seen as heroes.

Why aren’t they still?

Now it’s done so well every day that we don’t even think about it. But modern sanitation systems are actually really well thought-out, complex structures. When it’s not done -- say, when sanitation workers miss a pick-up even for one day -- it’s unusual enough that people get really upset, as they should. But it’s like that Buddhist saying about housework -- it’s invisible because you only notice when it’s not done. So I’m not saying san men should be called heroes, necessarily, but it wouldn’t hurt to appreciate them a little more.

We throw away so much more now. So is it a trade-off? Do we become more wasteful because we’re better at clearing away the trash and don’t see the damage?

Not exactly. A hundred years ago, people didn’t necessarily save every scrap either. If you look at photos of garbage in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, you see there was still a lot they could have reused. You see a lot of wood, which they could have used as fuel, and you see all kinds of recognizable objects, like chairs, cradles, boxes of all sorts, and different sizes of barrels. And there was a lot of food waste -- enough to supply most of the nutrition for families who lived by scavenging from trash heaps. Local newspapers and periodicals published stories on these scavengers back then.

So our wasteful habits are nothing new.

No, they were pretty thoughtless about these things back then, too. What’s changed is that we’ve become so much more used to the idea of things being disposable. That’s probably because so many things are meant to be disposable—coffee cups, napkins, plastic forks. So letting go of everything has become much easier. If something is broken, you throw it away. We never even think of getting it fixed. But interestingly, even though we do throw away more items and a higher volume, our garbage is lighter now, mostly because we’ve replaced metal, glass, and wooden items with plastic. So if you look at it by weight, our per capita garbage peaked around 1940, when New Yorkers threw out about 2,000 pounds per year, according to a study from Columbia University. Now it’s about half that.

At the same time, it seems like people are more and more diligent about recycling -- to the point of obsession in some cases.

True. All of us want to do something that makes a difference, and we imagine ourselves as helping by making sure our yogurt containers go to the right place. That’s probably because government and environmental groups have really been putting out the message that recycling matters. But you do have to be careful when you think that “everyone” is recycling. That’s not exactly so. There’s a larger public out there that might not be getting the same messages -- say, in Chinatown where English might not be their first language or in East Harlem or in other places where the culture is much different.

So you’re saying that governments and environmentalists have been preaching to the choir?

It’s funny, really, that when the city decided to test its recycling program in the 1980s, it chose Park Slope (a Brooklyn neighborhood considered liberal even by New York City standards). Of course, everyone in Park Slope is all over it, but that made it look like it would be easier than it really is. Maybe it would have made sense to try it in a neighborhood where the culture is different so you could really tinker with the model and get it just right in a way that everyone would participate.

You just finished speaking at an event to celebrate the new park being created on top of a huge landfill -- Fresh Kills in Staten Island. Do you think it will have a stigma?

No. There was a huge turnout, even bigger than expected. It was like a festival. People biked and flew kites. Here we were surrounded by one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen -- and all where we used to have a famously big, stinky landfill. Stigma wasn’t really an issue. The land is still being developed, but people were feeling cautiously optimistic. I think it shows that we’re on the right track.

image of Sarah Schmidt
Sarah Schmidt has written about solar power for the New York Sun, vegetables for Plenty, and old houses for This Old House, as well as a number of other topics for the New York Times, New York magazine, Budget Living, and Cookie. She is an editor at ... READ MORE >
Just to clarify, when the article says: "...cholera epidemic in the 1830’s killed 3,515 people, which was roughly 12 percent of the population at the time. That same percentage would mean about 100,000 people today." The city population is in the 9 million range, right? So not sure about the 100,00 figure, that's all. Thanks.
Great job here. I really enjoyed what you had to say. Keep going because you definitely bring a new voice to this subject. Not many people would say what you’ve said and still make it interesting. Well, at least I’m interested.