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LOST THING   MARCH 2008 – NO. 22

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Garbage Land

by Elizabeth Royte

On the secret trail of New York's trash

Before New Yorkers burned or buried their waste, they pitched garbage out their windows and onto the city streets, where it was consumed by scavenging pigs and dogs. It was the same in any large American city. Still, there was always more refuse than animals, swill children, and rag-pickers could handle. By the 1800s, the filth in lower Manhattan had accumulated to a depth of two to three feet in the wintertime, when household waste and horse manure combined with snow. My brownstone in Park Slope, like others built in the late 1800s, has a stoop leading to the second floor, which let residents clamber above the mess (though it still seeped into the ground floor during storms and when snow melted). For much of the 19th century, trash removal was a private, not municipal, service, which made garbage an issue of social class. I don't know who lived in my building a hundred and twenty-odd years ago, but it's likely they paid someone to take their ashes and food scraps away, to be dumped with other wastes into the Atlantic Ocean.

Periodically, but usually spurred by outbreaks of disease, city officials made concerted efforts to clean the streets. It wasn't a simple matter. Even when Manhattan's population was less than a million, in the mid-19th century, city horses dumped 500,000 pounds of manure a day on its streets, in addition to 45,000 gallons of urine. These were hardworking beasts, and their average lifespan was just two-and-a-half years. In 1880, according to historians, 15,000 dead horses had to be cleared from city streets. A single carter couldn't lift a horse, so the carcasses often lay around until scavengers and the elements reduced their mass. At this point, they were unceremoniously tipped into the river, along with household refuse, or sold to "reduction plants" on Barren Island, out in Jamaica Bay, where they were steamed and compressed to produce grease, fertilizer, glue, and other unguinous by-products.

In 1895, a reform mayor ousted Tammany Hall, Manhattan's popular Democratic political machine, and appointed a crusading new commissioner of street cleaning, Colonel George E. Waring Jr. Working under the auspices of the Health Department, Waring put an end to sporadic cleanup efforts, instituted regular trash pickups, and required New Yorkers to separate their garbage into three curbside bins for fuel ash, dry rubbish, and "putrescible" waste (this quaint label for the wet stuff is still used by the Department of Sanitation today, though it now refers to anything that's headed for the dump).

The putrescibles were barged to the reduction plants and the ash delivered to landfills. (Brooklyn's was carted to Fishhooks McCarthy's smoldering Corona ash dump, in Queens, which became the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Valley of Ashes, "a fantastic farm, where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens." The ash dump closed in 1933; six years later, the World's Fair rose on the site.) As it had been for many years, dry garbage, after being picked clean of valuable materials like rags and paper, was used to fill waterways and wetlands, creating tens of thousands of acres of valuable waterfront real estate, including most of lower Manhattan, the Red Hook shoreline of Brooklyn, and almost the entire northern and southern fringes of both Kings and Queens Counties, upon which our airports were built.

New Yorkers in 1895 were just as balky about separating garbage as New Yorkers are today, and Colonel Waring's diversion rate (that is, the amount of stuff he kept out of landfills) was not high. In 1989, Tammany Hall recaptured the mayor's office, ended the recycling program, and resumed ocean dumping. The garbage killed oyster beds and it interfered with shipping. When waterfront property owners complained about animal carcasses and rags on their beaches, the city once again dialed back ocean dumping (though it wasn't banned by the federal government until 1934), and a single stream of unsorted garbage flowed to 89 open dumps scattered around the boroughs.

By the '40s, public tolerance for the accumulating filth and vermin reached a tipping point. The city responded by closing its festering mounds and opening incinerators. At one point, 22 so-called burn units (in addition to the scores of small-scale "toasters" stoked by superintendents in high-rise apartment buildings) operated throughout the city, spewing noxious black smoke into the skies. The haze was so thick at times that Manhattan couldn't be seen from New Jersey.

As the small dumps were phased out and incinerators fell into disfavor, the city pioneered other methods of entombing waste. In the newfangled "sanitary" landfills, garbage was covered with a blanket of dirt at the end of each working day. The dirt muffled odors and kept vermin at bay (that is, if it was applied soon enough. In Santa Marta, Columbia, buzzards gorging on unburied trash have become too fat to fly, prompting rescue efforts by environmentalists). New York's first modern dump was Robert Moses's Fresh Kills, which opened for business in 1948. State Island residents weren't happy about the abrasive master builder's plan, but Moses had promised then that the landfill would close in three years and that they'd get a new highway in return for their indulgence. Moses died in 1981, 20 years before the last Fresh Kills-bound garbage barge was tugged out of New York Harbor.

The more I learned about the history of garbage in New York, the more I saw that it was a history of interim solutions, of reactions to crises political, economic, and social. Even when the federal government stepped in, change was achingly slow. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, for example, but it took until 1994 for New York City to shut the damper on its last municipal incinerators. For more than 200 years, New York's garbage has changed hands through cronyism and favors, and landed on the backs of the disenfranchised. Only recently have NIMBY-ism and advocates for environmental justice begun to push back. Sometimes garbage is shunted elsewhere, but always at great cost.

It's the same anyplace, really. Whether you live in rural West Virginia or inner-city Chicago, you don't want other people's garbage anywhere near your backyards. Yet Americans everywhere are producing steadily more waste. Politicians devise short-tern solutions, and waste managers, who own the means of disposal, seem to hold all the cards.

By the time I began traveling with my trash, Fresh Kills had been closed for two years. I knew that the city's garbage was now trucked far and wide, but I didn't know exactly where my stuff went or what happened to it once it arrived. Early one morning, I watched from my third-floor vantage point as a packer truck compacted my peanut butter jars and chicken bones with those of my many, many neighbors. What had been mine was now, unceremoniously, the city's. It was time to come downstairs, to find out what happened next.

Excerpt from Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte, copyright © 2005, all rights reserved. Used by permission of Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.

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Articles in this Issue

Reversing the Culture of Destruction, by Anthony M. Tung
Family of Man, by Marc Mewshaw
Aural Photographs, by Alissa Tallman
Historic Williamsburg, by T.M. Pugh
Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte
Entomology, by Michelle Wilson
Home Economics, by John Darling
Linguistics, by Richard Lederer, Ph.D.
February 2008


Elizabeth Royte is also the author of The Tapir's Morning Bath:  Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and numerous other magazines. She is a former Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow and she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

Buy Elizabeth Royte's books through Amazon at the LOST Store.

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