Talking trash during the dog days: A brief history of sanitation in New York City
Without modern sanitation, life would be nightmarish—human and animal wastes would fester on the streets along with garbage and food scraps, producing a stench so foul that you’d want to keep your windows closed even in the sweltering heat of summer (for the moment, envision lacking the luxury of air conditioning). The offensive odors and accumulating muck would be the least of your worries, however—preventable diseases such as cholera and yellow fever would be rampant, your life expectancy would be extremely short, and infant mortality rates would be staggeringly high.
This is what life was like for many of the previous inhabitants of what is now New York City, from the arrival of the Dutch in the 1600s until the establishment of an official Department of Street Cleaning in the late 19th century.
Robin Nagle, professor of anthropology at New York University, chronicled this fascinating history of sanitation and public health in an illustrated lecture July 26 at N.Y.U.’s School of Medicine. Nagle’s talk, “How Street Cleaners Saved the City: Garbage, Government, and Public Health in New York,” was dotted with vivid descriptions of how the burgeoning sanitation system was influenced by underhanded dealings, two wars, repeated outbreaks of communicable disease, devastating fires and water crises.