On June 10, 1974, a large group of passengers were evacuated from city buses in midtown. They were crawling with roaches, according to an account in The New York Times. The city promised to step up its abatement program, and blamed the roach infestations on the buses, as New Yorkers do, on the intense heat and humidity.
A few months later, writing about Hollywood’s fascination with down-and-out New York, Vincent Canby wrote: “New York City has become a metaphor for what looks like the last days of American civilization.”
But it was almost a decade later that legendary Long Island entomologist Austin Frishman, wearing a bolo tie and a belt buckle of two crossed guns and a scorpion, arrived in New York City to promote a new product. They called it Combat.
The Metropolitan Desk of The New York Times treated him like Harold Hill, another huckster arriving in town: “With flags unfurled, a tactical public-relations squadron spearheaded by ‘a top, eminent entomologist’ surrounded by publicity agents swept into New York yesterday, carrying the good word to residents of the city, and network television viewers everywhere, that their worries were finally over, cockroach-wise. Creators of the ‘ultimate victory’ in the roach war do this from time to time.”
Well, we’re a suspicious lot.
Dr. Frishman would then go on to help develop MaxForce, a cockroach gel bait, for Clorox, still a standby favorite of supers everywhere.
By 1988, Combat—a product of American Cyanamid, makers of Pine-Sol and Old Spice!—was selling $40 million worth of product a year, a quarter of that in New York City alone. By that year, the city had observed, The Times said, a 58 percent reduction in roach-infestation complaints.
Today there are N.Y.U. students living in the East Village who could not identify a roach if they saw one, or distinguish it from what New Yorkers call a “water bug.” (They are two distinct species: the larger, scarier “water bug,” the American cockroach, generally lives and breeds outside of houses and just comes in on a scavenging mission for food; the smaller German cockroach, only five-eighths of an inch long, was the terror of New York in the 1970’s.)
“The cockroaches aren’t the problem they were 10, 15 years ago,” said Doug Mampe, entomologist and pest control specialist, of DM Associates.
There are now, actually, fewer roaches than there used to be, it seems. First of all because much of the city has given up on those foul-smelling sprays that roaches smell just as clearly as we do.
Second of all because we all live in such nice houses. No cracking foundations, “voids” in the walls, dyspeptic plumbing. Right?
They are, more or less, gone from Times Square—like the live peep shows, the hustlers, the junkies, and The New York Times.
Were the cockroaches all snapped up in the bitty jaws of the ever-growing swarm of handbag dogs? That seems unlikely.
But as New York suffers the opposite of white flight—as Manhattan becomes the rich, creamy center of an Oreo—the amount of substandard housing in the skinny borough has decreased, and so has white people’s tolerance for vermin.
Gentrification! It’s more powerful—or at least more thorough—than the nuclear bomb, which urban folklore has always told us only the cockroaches will survive.
Which is another way of saying that there might not actually be fewer roaches. There just might be fewer white people with roaches, because white people overall live in better buildings.
And so we have a city in which, according to the city, 57 percent of poverty-level Spanish-speaking people use pesticide sprays and bombs, compared to 27 percent of poverty-level white households.
Last year, a couple subletting in the Ansonia on the Upper West Side even went so far as to sue the building over a few roaches. It was uninhabitable, they said. Well, sure—for a lawyer and an equity fund consultant.
“IF YOU OWN a co-op you paid $5 million for, you are going to put a lot more effort into making it roach-free than if you are renting a $2,000 studio,” said Jack Wiler of Acme Exterminating (he is also a poet!). “The people paying $500 are willing to tolerate pests. A person paying $7,000 a month isn’t.”
And so buildings like Trump Tower don’t put up with roaches—they have a full-time engineer who deals with bug displacement.