Two hundred years ago, a visitor to New York City remarked that the teeming sprawl was a "nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia."
While few would suggest that the city reeks today quite like it did in the early 1800s, there are few things that haven't changed much; if you've lived in the city for more than about two days, you've no doubt met some of our urban wildlife congregating around overflowing garbage cans and leaky, rusted-out dumpsters. And of course, there's still that smell - that unmistakable, eye-watering stench that drifts up from the piles of black plastic bags that often line the sidewalks and can permeate half a block by late afternoon. There's nothing quite like a bag of raw garbage left to marinate in the baking summer sun, and since New York produces 13,200 tons of garbage per day - which works out to just under four pounds per person - there are an awful lot of black plastic bags lying around, and an awful lot of fat-and-sassy rats.
As trashy as New York City can sometimes feel these days, it's nothing compared to what the place was like 150 years ago. Ever since the first Dutch settlers arrived in what would eventually become New York, garbage disposal has been an uphill battle. Back then, it was simply tossed out onto the street, allowed to rot in ditches along the thoroughfares, and left in huge heaps that became playgrounds for vermin and poverty-stricken children. Even the stately mansions along Central Park threw out their household waste like everybody else - and contributed to the pall that hung over most of the city. In more densely-populated areas of town - like the filthy, overcrowded slums of the Five Points on Manhattan's Lower East Side - garbage runoff and sewage contaminated public drinking water, giving rise to disease and sky-high mortality rates for young and old alike. Offshore, the East River was a stinking mess, choked with all the refuse of downtown New York, which citizens tossed off the end of a pier built expressly for garbage dumping.
By 1898, however, the city's Metropolitan Board of Health got wise and issued a proclamation forbidding "the throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets," and New Yorkers were ordered to stop dumping their garbage off the East River pier.
According to John Pampalone, Assistant Director of Public Information for the Department of Sanitation for the City of New York (DSNY), trash disposal was a weighty issue at the turn of the century. "In 1881, there were reform organizations wanting an independent street cleaning department - the debate was whether street cleaning and garbage collection should be under private or public control," says Pampalone. "By 1895, Colonel George E. Waring was appointed commissioner of the Department of Streets Cleaning. He created a military-like approach to street cleaning that transformed the waist-high, filth- and garbage-laden streets into some of the cleanest streets in the world. His Department [also] collected refuse and recycling with horse drawn carts." Waring's Department of Streets Cleaning was the precursor to today's Department of Sanitation, says Pampalone, and his new waste management initiatives were carried out by a small army of sanitation workers known as the "White Wings" after their meticulous white uniforms.