When Garbage Filled the Streets

Garbage piled up during the 1968 sanitation strike.

Collectors Weekly has a fascinating interview with Robin Nagle, an anthropologist who has spent much of her life studying trash (literal trash) and embedding herself with the New York City Department of Sanitation for a decade. She explains how New York was just the filthiest city with garbage and dead animals filling the streets for months at a time until a Civil War officer named George Waring took charge of sanitation in the 1890s.

So Waring set that in place, and then he went after the filthiest corners of the whole city, which were the poorest neighborhoods, because wealthier districts had been hiring their own private cleaning companies for years. In the really poor corners of the city, like Five Points, to see anyone from the local government come into the neighborhood was not good news for local residents. They threw bricks at the street cleaners and came out to fight them with sticks. Waring said to his men, “You keep going back. You show them what we’re going to do and you see if you don’t change their hearts.” By the end of two weeks, he had tenements full of ardent fans because he cleaned their neighborhoods.

Nagle also talks about how dangerous it is to be a sanitation worker — they deal with the foulest, most treacherous things we throw out and stand in traffic collecting all of it — and how nobody really thinks about it until someone forgets to pick up our garbage. “When I throw an object out, it still has a life, and it now activates this complex network of protocols and systems and controversies,” she says. “But because we don’t have an awareness of this, it’s much easier to just let it go.”

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