One Man's Trash...Is Still Trash A Look at Sanitation in New York

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.

The Gritty City

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.

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2 Comments

  • In my history class we are studying the urban growth problems of cities of the 19th century. One of the questions in class today was who removed the trash those days. It is already recognized that they just threw it in the streets along with human and animal excrement. However, over the course of just a few years this refuse would eventually pile up as high as modern day skyscrapers. Some people or an association of people had to be out there doing something about this problem. The early city people would not have been able to move around in these urban centers for they would obviously be buried in trash. Can you please tell me who was picking up the mess. Thank you, James David Corrigan
  • we all know the impact trash can have on the environment. We need to adress the hush hush of dirty dumpsters every commercial dumpster had a drain at the botton. because when lids are left open the rash companies want te rain water to drain before dumpsted why weight is one reason another is when trash trucks drivedown the street and pachk the load trash juice is spilled out onto publis streets. every commercial dumster loose"s sevealgallon of water each month this adds up when were talkn about billions of dumpsters tere very where we are in contact with them daily...Why arent trash companies clening them on the regular basis least 4x a year tis would clean up our cities water rsources and make it safer for employees and customers to handle these receptacle by doing so it would create new jobs cleaner environment cleaner cities its a win win service that need to be provided.