Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Photo: Thomas Prior
If there’s one thing we know how to do in New York, it’s stack everything. The people, the floors, the social strata, the obligations, the money, the talent, the bullshit. And, at the end of the line, our garbage. For five decades starting in the late 1940s, almost everything we threw out of our homes went into one big pile on Staten Island. Incredibly, the Fresh Kills landfill was not named for its heap of rubbish but for the pure water that once flowed there (“kill” being an old Dutch word for “stream”). By the time the landfill closed in 2001, the marshes at low tide had been buried under a mountain some 20 stories high, topped with a few feet of soil. We put a park on top now.
This is how, to a certain extent, cities rise. Archaeologists know that to find out how our ancestors lived, the place you dig is often the dump, i.e. the back dump. The majority of New Yorkers live on islands, which means we find ourselves with the discards of previous generations under our feet. Especially since ocean dumping was banned in the 1930s, New York City has periodically piled our municipal solid waste on not particularly desirable ground, then sealed it off and put something more nice top. Flushing Meadows – Corona Park covers the Queens ash dumps, the ones TJ Eckleburg’s eyes watched Nick Carraway past. Off the coast of Brooklyn, Barren Island and the Dead Horse Bay served as a dump from the 1850s, one that was sealed under dirt trucks in the mid-20th century and now dumps bottles and china shards by the ton, creating an eerie scavenger’s paradise. Sometimes it’s not real municipal waste that we pile up, but just things that we don’t know how to dispose of otherwise. The island of U Thant, a small rocky knob in the middle of the East River, is the spoil from the 7 train tunnel. to maintain a beacon so that ships do not crash into it, that does not bother anyone.
When the collection of our local trash heaps stopped, the city reacted abruptly, with dismay. At least four times in the 20th century (1907, 1911, 1968, 1981), the Sanitation Department went on strike. These work stoppages were more or less effective, but the last two worked, if only for the reason that the situation on the sidewalk deteriorated very quickly. The 1981 strike lasted 17 days, but at least it took place in December. The 1907 strike took place in June, and given the nature of garbage heaps at the time – think horse manure and rotting animal carcasses, among many other fumes – you can imagine at what it looked like. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it: the Time reported that “windows which had been opened to admit the cool night breeze were hastily closed”.
On a less institutional level, we as individuals, willingly or not, are also in the realm of garbage heaps. Each building, twice a week, produces its own pile. (A strange fact: when cities increase their collection schedule from two to three times a week, the actual volume of trash increases. That’s a little more than the extra trash bags would account for. No one knows why.) The The change over the decades from canisters to plastic bags has probably made garbage collectors’ backs and arms a little easier, and it’s certainly made life easier for superintendents, who don’t have to haul dozens of emptied bins to the house. inside and find a place for them. Rats like it too.
The boom of the last 25 years, during which more than a million people have flocked to the city, has brought with it more waste. The same applies to the considerable increase in consumption, especially of disposable packaging. Your average building probably produces a lot more corrugated cardboard on recycling day than it did before Amazon arrived. The COVID crisis, with its shortages of labor and tax money, has led to temporary reductions in garbage collection, which could not help. The streeteries that were built during the shutdown, while overall a great addition to the streetscape, tend to accumulate rubbish when disused. Perhaps that’s why the last mayoral election ended in a tight race between a former Sanitation Department Commissioner and a guy who’s obsessed with getting rid of rats.
And while there aren’t any good stats yet, these three COVID summers, in which many of us socialized out of town more than ever before, seem to anecdotally match more than trash on the street. Walk past a corner trash can in a busy pedestrian area at the end of a weekend, and chances are it’s overflowing with take-out containers, cans and bottles, and plastic cups of iced coffee, smoothies, etc. Because the bin is full, some will have been placed next to it, some piled on top, and still others piled on top. Each addition tests the limits of the angle of repose. It’s a Jenga game with trash, except when it inevitably drops, it splashes everyone with curds, and it’s not much fun.
All this, of course, is especially relevant when it is 90 degrees. In keeping with that spirit, Curbed is declaring this Hot Garbage Month, and throughout August we’ll be posting stories about New York’s scraps, bags, trash cans, and trucks. By the end, we’ll have created our own unique stack, made up of reporting and storytelling – the difference being, we hope, it’s the one you prefer to keep.