Dump It, Bury It, Ignore It: A City’s Rich Load of Refuse

Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York–The Last Two Hundred Years , by Benjamin Miller. Four Walls Eight Windows, 315 pages, $18.

Garbage is a problem for all people who stay put, especially those who live in close quarters on islands. For nearly 300 years, New Yorkers lived on one island, Manhattan; excepting Bronx mainlanders, all New Yorkers remain island dwellers. And the problem persists.

The tides made things easy in the early days: An increasingly nauseating array of human, animal, domestic and proto-industrial waste was legally dumped in the East and Hudson rivers, though wharves and weather made for inefficient flushing, and fantastic amounts of fetid waste stayed in port. At the same time, undisposed garbage piled up on the city’s streets, which were famously filthy far into the 1800’s. In typical New York fashion, most people sidestepped the issue. Ocean dumping, incineration, animal-byproduct processing and recycling come and go, but real-estate-creating landfill has shouldered the bulk of our load for decades. New York City right now boasts what Benjamin Miller calls “the biggest, densest, richest supply of refuse in the world.”

Mr. Miller knows a lot about garbage. On the job, as the former director of policy planning for the New York City Department of Sanitation, he saw and smelled it all; what he didn’t know, he has dug up. He knows the whole history of garbage creation and disposal in New York City and the physical and theoretical European antecedents. He understands the relationship between garbage and the broad spectrum of urban life, including transportation, recreation, energy, environment, politics and economics. He doesn’t know quite as well how to write (overlong sentences, an elliptical style, extended digressions), but the story he manages to tell in Fat of the Land makes comprehensible the importance of garbage in our lives. If you’ve dumped scraps in the kitchen trash, crumpled paper into the office waste basket or tossed a drink container in the corner garbage can, you should read this book. Garbage is not just a byproduct of life in the city, but an essential part of it.

The tail end of the book covers Mr. Miller’s gig in the trash trenches, with sniping at the “fiscal arrogance” of Rudy Giuliani and the “studied ignorance” of his sanitation commissioner, Emily Lloyd. The bulk of Fat of the Land concerns garbage in the roughly two centuries before it was Mr. Miller’s problem.

He conducts a 19th-century world tour of garbage: the London of social reformer Jeremy Bentham, unpopular sanitarian Edwin Chadwick and wise cholera doctor John Snow; the Paris of sewer researcher Parent-Duchâtelet and boulevard and park builder Eugène Haussmann; the guano of South America, which launched W.R. Grace–the “Pirate of Peru”–in the fertilizer business; and Swedish dynamiteer Alfred Nobel, the market-maker for glycerine, the sweet oil from cooked animal wastes. All of these informed the ideas and actions of New York’s sanitarians: earnest but ill-informed engineer Egbert Viele, street-cleaning czar George Waring and upstart landscaper Frederick Olmsted, whose extensive park and parkway plans were later appropriated in grand style by the ruthless re-creator Robert Moses, omnipotent chief of state and city park bureaucracies and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

Most writers praise or condemn Moses’ famous public works: over 50 of the region’s best-known highways, bridges, tunnels and parks. Noting that Moses “commanded the flow of every ton of refuse disposed of in New York City for over three decades,” Mr. Miller focuses on Moses’ single largest legacy, “the biggest man-made object on the planet”: the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, daily depository of 13,000 tons of raw garbage. In a complex saga of trash and transportation, secrecy and broken promises that began during the Depression, Moses transformed the glorious Fresh Kills salt meadows into the landmark landfill in order to build the necessary access road for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

By the time Moses was finally deposed from the last of his many offices in 1968, Fresh Kills was only one of 11 landfills spewing extraordinary amounts of greenhouse gases, hydrocarbons and chlorinated organics from all the boroughs but Manhattan.

Moses’ dubious success–exquisite but traffic-clogged arteries, cul-de-sac Long Island, stinking Staten Island–was a triumph over the earlier rail-based designs of the anti-Moses, the forgotten transportation genius William Wilgus, who flourished and failed in the three decades just before Moses made the car king. Wilgus–civil engineer, New York Central executive, creator of Grand Central Terminal, father of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey–conjured a web of outlying rail lines linked to rail tunnels that would haul freight into New York and garbage out. New York’s transition from Wilgus to Moses came when the elder man’s dream of a rail tunnel under the Narrows was killed by the younger man’s insistence on an auto bridge over it.

Staten Island has been the repository of most of the city’s garbage for the past half-century, but the lesser islands have not gone untouched. Long before its prison sentence, little Rikers Island was grown into a dump whose garbage became landfill for LaGuardia Airport. A white-sand oasis of cedar and sedge called Barren Island in the mouth of Jamaica Bay was transformed from the mid-1800’s into the world’s largest waste-processing site, turning garbage into grease, fertilizer and nitroglycerine; the forlorn place was landfilled onto Brooklyn in the 1920’s to create Floyd Bennett Field, and has come full circle in recent years as a nature preserve.

There are few heroes in the history of New York garbage. Mr. Miller delightfully sullies early officials like “Doctor” Alfred White, the Whig city inspector who secretly awarded the first monopoly contract for city waste-disposal to his own company; trash entrepreneurs like “Fishhooks” McCarthy, whose Tammany-backed Brooklyn Ash Removal Company created the smoldering dump in Corona Meadows where the “ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens,” as passing train commuter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby , that Long Island novel with the working title Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires ; modern conglomerates like Wayne (Blockbuster) Huizenga’s Waste Management Inc., the world’s largest landfill owner, whose subsidiary, Wheelabrator-Frye, tried and failed to build the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator; and a passel of past and current politicians, planners, P.R. spinners and environmental gurus with corrupt, suspect or half-cracked garbage ideas.

In a blurb for Mr. Miller’s book, former Mayor Ed Koch claims that Rudy Giuliani’s 1996 decision to close Fresh Kills on the last day of 2001–also the last day of his tenure as Mayor–”before any alternative method of dealing with the city’s garbage is in place, has placed this city in great jeopardy.” As Mr. Miller writes, despite ever-shifting garbage bureaucracies, technologies and attitudes, “when it comes to how we actually interact with this ineluctable stuff, little has really changed.”

Gerard Koeppel is the author of Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton University Press).