It is almost axiomatic that great cities have grown up in magnificent natural environments. Given this, it should be no great surprise that the city built at the mouth of the Hudson River (tidal for 100 km) in a harbour also watered by a number of smaller rivers and protected by Long Island while being warmed by the Gulf Stream was regarded as a natural wonderland when first settled by Europeans.
The growth of the population of New York from 50,000 in 1790 to over 1 million by the start of the Civil War placed considerable stresses on New York Harbour as it was treated as a combination waste disposal site and sewage disposal facility. As the population and pollution grew, oyster numbers and the quality of those remaining declined rapidly such that oysters ceased being harvested for food in New York Harbour by the early 20th century.
And so Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster hands the baton to Benjamin Miller’s Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York – The last 200 years to continue the ecological history of the New York Harbour region in the modern era when the population has grown to over 8 million people. Miller has worked in the New York Department of Sanitation and subsequently as an environmental consultant.
One wonderful feature of this book is the use of photographs to demonstrate points made in the text. Some of these highlight the disparities in income and lifestyle in one of the world’s longest running boom towns – contrasting immigrant rag pickers sifting through garbage and Gilded Age waste entrepreneurs. And there is also the picture of the great horse poo crisis of the 1890’s which, as so often in these cases, was as much the result of human greed and stupidity as it was of using horses as a primary transport mechanism.
Fat of the Land gives us a history of 19th century theories of disease transmission (airborne miasmatic transfer versus insect or rat borne transfer) and how these theories impacted on solutions to New York’s waste problem. The first outbreak of deaths among the upper classes from cholera in 1849 provided an impetus to thinking about waste disposal. We are also given insights into the processes of city government and environmental planning. It is fair to say that over a very long period New York’s environmental politics provide a vivid demonstration of Bismarck’s maxim about how the faint of heart should not look too closely into the process of sausage making or policy formulation. Dirty deals for your mates, undercover payments, riding roughshod over local concerns about pollution, rorting the planning regulations: ‘twas ever thus.
The story more or less starts with the Sanitation Commissioner banning slaughteryard manure and offal from Manhattan in the aftermath of the Cholera deaths in 1849 and then covertly setting up a company to manage the disposal as “there is the greatest chance for a fortune I ever saw.” Soon enough New York’s offal and manure was being transported to Barren Island in Jamaica Bay on the southern shore of Long Island which became a world capital of fertiliser and chemical production.
The 1863 riots in New York gave impetus to elitist urban planners concerned that the flames of rebellion were fanned in overcrowded working class districts with no access to public spaces and inadequate garbage removal. Frederick Law Olmsted is remembered as the man who built Central Park after using landfill in the low lying marshes to enable the park to become “the lungs of the city.”
Even before the Civil War it had become apparent that the scale of such problems as crime, public health, water supply and sanitation were beyond the capacity of individual neighbouring boroughs to deal with and so Greater New York civic institutions were put in place to deal with police and health issues prior to the formal creation of New York City with its five unequal boroughs in the late 1880’s.
By the 1880’s garbage was either being dumped at sea or piled up on Riker’s Island in the East River. Disease was thought to be transmitted via unpleasant odours, hence the desire to remove waste from the city. The odours from Riker’s Island still blew back into Manhattan and Bronx which stirred up considerable opposition from all classes so it obviously had to be move further away. Laws were passed against ocean dumping in 1888 and the protests against Riker’s Island led to garbage processing also being relocated to Jamaica Bay.
New York City politics in the late 19th Century was dominated by the Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine where ward heelers delivered ethnic votes in return for city contracts for local power brokers, who would then provide neighbourhood jobs. Trickle down politics at its finest. Occasionally the odd reformer is elected to try and ‘clean up’ politics and the city. Business as usual soon enough makes a comeback. Back self interest as you know it will try it’s hardest.
By the 20th century rubbish dumps on Long Island were opened up to be used as landfill prior to being developed for other uses. Scott Fitzgerald’s working title for The Great Gatsby was Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, set out on Long Island amidst “a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” These days that location is known as LaGuardia Airport.
The many interlinked issues relating to industry, population, utilities, infrastructure and waste and sewage disposal became increasingly harder to resolve in the 20th century and the opportunity presented itself for Robert Moses to set himself up as an unelected planning czar for New York for over 30 years after he proved himself adept at getting depression era Public Works money and funding large scale projects with off the City books bond raisings. His major planning accomplishment was to favour car driven development over alternative rail and port driven alternatives.
All the while the volume of rubbish to be disposed of was increasing and the greater New York harbour region was becoming increasingly polluted. Matters reached a head in the late 1980’s when, after what Miller styles the anti pollution “children’s crusade” led by populist environmentalist groups, City forward planning on waste disposal measures was reduced to gridlock. This led to the unedifying spectacle of the barge Mobro sailing for 6 months around the east coast of the USA and the Caribbean with a load of New York garbage. The upshot of this was to encourage greater recycling efforts throughout cites around the world, buying some time for existing landfills.
Eventually however public opinion on the Council was mobilised against retaining any landfill garbage dumps or incinerators in New York City leading to the closure of the Fresh Kills dump on Staten Island which may have been the largest man made structure on Earth. Miller spends considerable time outlining the intricate political and bureaucratic manoeuvres which led to these outcomes and decrying the populist mobilisation of environmentally concerned voters with little or no understanding of the issues involved in waste disposal beyond their own NIMBY concerns.
Following the closure of Fresh Kills all of New York’s garbage is either recycled or taken to remote dumps on the mainland. Ironically, this is just what the Mobro was trying to accomplish 15 years earlier when it sailed into a media and PR firestorm.
This is a fascinating read on a serious urban planning issue populated with a cast of larger than life New Yorkers from across the social, political, professional and business spectrums trying to make sense (and maybe a few dollars) of how best to live in a crowded urban space without being buried under their own waste.