It was a packed house Sunday night in East Chelsea. There were seats for about forty, and easily twenty more interested and interesting New Yorkers crammed into every available corner (and window sill, and behind the projection screen, and perched on the info table, and standing in the hallway). The walls were covered with photographs and descriptions, the half-dozen glass cabinets were chock full of artifacts and documents: pictures from the last hundred-plus years of the our city streets; two faux bottles of wine, one of which read "Pinot Garbage" in a loopy font; crisp, clean uniforms from the turn of the century; a scale replica of an old NYC barge, Hudson River-bound. This wasn’t some photography show about Old New York, nor was it an art opening of any kind. No, good people, this was a talk on garbage.
It’s a proud and perplexing site to stroll into a lecture about the history of the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) fifteen minutes early, and only be able to snag one of the last half-dozen seats in the room. The talk was on the history and future of the DSNY as well as the cataloguing and display of the treasure trove of artifacts collected and exhibited in the room. Led by two excitable and excited masters on the subject of trash: Robin Nagle, Ph.D., DSNY Anthropologist-in-Residence, and Haidy Geismar, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at NYU, the lecture ran an hour long, with a half-hour overflow of questions from the mostly older crowd. You know how cocky New Yorkers get – give them a soapbox about their Community Boards and NYC Municipal Services, and they’ll give you the world.
Dr. Nagle detailed the compact history of the DSNY, complete with black and white slides, throughout the last hundred years. Before the 1890s “New York was deeply filthy,” Dr. Nagle explained. The city had absolutely no municipal sanitation department and hardly any proper sewage disposal services; ship captains and their crew could pick up the pungent waft of trash from 6 nautical miles out. In fact, “The Big Onion” was a common derogatory (but affectionate) nickname for our city well before “The Big Apple” came around. Slaughterhouses, tanneries, coal firing plants and smelting yards would live side by side with residential tenements. Refuse piled up three feet on the dirt streets. Dead horses would lie in rotting in the streets for days if not weeks before a locally paid layabout would cart it off to the dump or the river. It wasn’t a pretty site.
Enter Col. George Waring in 1891. Elected by Mayor Strong under the reform party, Col. Waring (he fought in the Civil War) organized the city’s first Sanitation Department, and did so under the auspices of a military design: the men wore pristine white uniforms (giving them the nickname “the White Wings”) and helmets that matched the helmets of the police; they marched in formation in city Labor parades. Waring reduced nepotism in the civil servant boards that ran the White Wings, and welcomed feedback from the citizens of New York. Like Robert Moses on a much smaller scale, Col. Waring and his White Wings were a self-sustaining subset of the municipal government – beholden to no other political organizations and answering to nobody but the people, they cleaned up the city like nobody before. (It also helped that the impossibly brilliant uniforms made these men stick out in a dirty city – therefore, less opportunity for lazing around).
Professor Geismar and her class of Museum Studies students took a more hands-on and culturally exploratory approach to the talk, detailing the various things that make up the life of a San Man, from the “Mongo” they acquire (reclaimed trash from the streets that for whatever purpose, is kept and treasured) to the lockers and artifacts where they store their change of clothes. Because Trash Men are people too!
From Col. Waring’s White Wings to the carts, trucks and barges used today, Professor Nagle detailed the transformation of a rarely seen city service: “We are mostly invisible. The cops, the firefighters aren’t, but as soon as I put on a DSNY uniform, I disappear from the streets,” she explained. With 3,000 civilian employees and 7,000 uniformed men hauling trash out from your house to the dumps and barges (there was a nice breakdown on the history of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill and the park it will eventually become), the DSNY is a tremendous city agency, one that most of us take for granted. Remember next time you truck out your kitchen bin: there’s an army of men and women doing the dirty (and smelly) work for you.
(originally published 1/14/08 in www.thelmagazine.com)
11 months ago