Trash Talk – New York’s Fascinating History With Garbage

Invisible Trash
Robin Nagle had all kinds of cool, old-timey photos about trash.

Do you ever stop to think about the enormous undertaking and organization required to keep New York City clean? Robin Nagle does, and she wants everyone in New York City (and beyond) to realize just how different our day to day lives would be without the impressive work of the sanitation department.

On Thursday night, Robin Nagle spoke to a group of about 50 people at Acme Studios in a talk entitled “Invisible Trash: Exploring New York City’s Garbage.” She covered 400 years of garbage collection history and the ins-and-outs of snow removal, street cleaning, and disaster response in the Department of Sanitation of New York. Her book, Picking Up, was also on sale which chronicles her findings while studying the history and culture of sanitation workers, as well as her time working trash removal with the department.

Nagle did an amazing job convincing the crowd that the history of the sanitation department is a fascinating one. Just how fascinating? Consider these facts:

  • In 1657 the city set up the first zoning law for garbage disposal in the country in downtown Manhattan.

  • Under infamous Tammany Hall rule, New York City was so disgusting we were “the laughingstock of the world” with garbage and horse shit making streets impassable. In fact, rich citizens would go on “garbage tours” to see how bad the situation was in the slums, using scented handkerchiefs so as not to assail their delicate nose senses.

  • When reform mayor William Strong was elected in 1895, he offered the job of Commissioner of Street Cleaning to all around badass Theodore Roosevelt. He turned down the offer, and became the police commissioner instead.

  • George Waring got the job and quickly got to work, giving sanitation workers white uniforms, leading to the nickname the “White Wings.” He also instituted the second recycling system in the country, and made it possible for people to cross the street without having to traverse piles of garbage.

  • Snow removal has always fallen under the jurisdiction of the sanitation department, and oddly enough, snow removal doesn’t look that different than it did in the 19th century. Like now, snow plow carriages rode in tandem to make sure no snowflake was left unplowed. As Nagle put it “This is how Moses parted the Red Sea. You are invincible, you’re working in this beautiful, choreographed ballet.” Tandem plowing is really effective.

  • Sanitation workers are some of the first responders on the scene after a disaster. After September 11th and Hurricane Sandy, sanitation workers went “full court press” as Nagle put it, to make sure the job was done efficiently. I saw this myself while working in the Rockaways in the weeks after the storm – dumpsters would seem to appear magically just at the moment you needed them. Workers gave up vacation, worked overtime, and bent the rules as necessary to make sure the job was done.

  • Sanitation work is one of the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the country.

  • Women started working in the sanitation department in 1986. There are now 200 women in the department out of 7,000 workers.

  • Employee schedules and waste removal measurements are still written by hand in a book.

Nagle’s passion for the department was evident during her lecture and the question and answer session. With all the work that goes into keeping our city clean and running, she is hoping to get a museum built to commemorate the legacy of the department.

As Nagle put it, “I want everyone in the world to look at the people cleaning up after us and realize how important their work is to the daily life of wherever it is you live.” Next time you’re jaywalking, try to think about the men and women who made it possible to do so without having to wade through mountains of refuse.

About Susan Torres

Susan has lived in Brooklyn for four years, only one of which wasn't spent in Greenpoint, which she prefers not to talk about. When she's not wasting her money on fancy grilled cheeses, she works at an environmental advocacy nonprofit, and stays as close to the East River as possible.

2 Comments

  1. PAUL says:

    The Sanitation Dept is invisible to most people; unless the garbage or snow is piling up, then comes the complaints. A very underappreciated job.

    Reply
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