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Basic Books
Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York -- The Last Two Hundred Years

Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York -- The Last Two Hundred Years

by Benjamin Miller


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A city awash in garbage; rats skittering through heaps of rotting debris; disease spreading through choked waterways; citizens threading through piles of filth - urban nightmare or profiteer's dream come true? Benjamin Miller's panoramic view of New York's garbage takes us from the earliest antebellum collectors, to 19th- century barons trading in fertilizers and explosives, to the current feuding bureaucrats and environmentalists. Fat of the Land covers social and scientific theories of class and disease, in the process offering a richly textured history of urban development. The book reveals for the first time the plotting of power broker Robert Moses that gave birth to the controversial Fresh Kills landfill and examines the curious logic behind its untimely end. Fat of the Land brings to light an often hidden subject, assessing who gains and who loses in the endless battle over garbage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781568581729
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 01/28/2000
Pages: 425
Product dimensions: 6.26(w) x 8.96(h) x 1.28(d)
Lexile: 1580L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Greatest Happiness

James Reyburn, a fifty-five-year-old Wall Street lawyer and cotton broker who was widely admired for his good works and infectious good humor, had a premonition that he would die of cholera. As the epidemic spread through New York City in the late spring and early summer of 1849, he suffered from the mental unease that his contemporaries considered one of the predisposing causes of the disease. He felt a heightened awareness of his bodily functions and was alert for the signs of gastrointestinal upset that were the cholera's first symptoms. Friday, July 13, was the hottest day in ten years; at 2 PM the temperature was ninety-five degrees. To all appearances in the peak of health, Reyburn went about his business as usual. But he felt weak from a slight case of diarrhea. He went with a friend to Delmonico's to have a glass of port wine and fruit juice. After drinking it, he was relieved to find that he felt much better. He went home. Several hours later he was struck with severe cramps. Doctors were called immediately; they applied every remedy medical science could prescribe. On Saturday, after he had passed through the stage of violent vomiting and diarrhea that wring from the victim a thin white, "rice water," discharge, his pulse had weakened to imperceptibility, and his skin had turned the cold, wrinkled blue that marks the final collapse, his physicians covered his body with hot salt in a desperate attempt to stimulate his peripheral circulation and restore some sign of vitality. He died that night.

    His death, along with the deaths of fifty-fourother cholera victims, was reported in Monday's papers. The weekend's toll, which in addition to Reyburn included several other eminent members of "the respectable classes, including even ladies," rent the walls of calculated insouciance that New York's powerful had erected as a bulwark against the disease. Until then, the ranks of cholera victims had been safely filled by unfortunate members of the lower classes whose degraded physical and moral circumstances, it seemed, were bound to provide fodder for plague. The nervous whistling sort of composure the city had maintained in the face of mortality reports from its more wretched quarters had become (as James Gordon Bennett put it in the editorial that described Reyburn's death) Almost A Panic.

If there remained understatement in the Herald's characterization, there were good reasons: the flight from the city by those who could afford to seek shelter elsewhere was already costing its merchants millions. If one of the preventive measures being discussed were enacted—quarantining incoming ships with their fresh supplies of trade goods and immigrant laborers—the effects on the city's mercantile economy would be even more devastating. But financial fears were not enough to damp the terror cholera caused.

    It was awful for the way it killed: striking its victims with sudden force (a survivor of the 1832 epidemic reported that he felt nothing at all until he was suddenly pitched forward in the street "as if knocked down with an axe"), to produce a sudden death ("she was struck while putting on her makeup to go out, and was dead two hours later" a reporter wrote of an unlucky prostitute), of excruciating horror ("One often thought of the Laocoön," a New York physician recalled, "but looked in vain for the serpent").

    Equally unsettling was the mystery of how it was transmitted. Many diseases clearly passed from person to person. Measles and chickenpox could be avoided by staying away from those who were infected. Syphilis could be avoided by abstaining from promiscuous intercourse. (And could be exacerbated, found the empirically minded public-health pioneer Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet, on the basis of in-depth personal research, by wading up to one's thighs in the Paris sewers.) Smallpox could be given to Indians with gifts of infected blankets, as Lord Jeffrey Amherst demonstrated; alternatively, it could be avoided—a trick picked up in Egypt a century before by an English ambassador's wife—by scratching oneself with a needle dipped in the pus of someone else's pox. (Jenner's discovery, fifty years later, that cowpox picked up on a milkmaid's fingers gave a milder and more foolproof immunity—"vacca": cow: vaccine—simply refined the technique.) But the mechanism of cholera, like that of yellow fever before it, was so mysterious that it split the medical profession into violently opposed camps called "contagionist"—those who believed that the disease was passed from person to person and could be controlled through quarantines—and "anticontagionists"—who believed that the disease was due to some "miasmatic" element in the environment. (In the City of Brotherly Love, the conflict was institutionalized in two mutually exclusive organizations, with those in the former camp founding the College of Physicians and those in the latter the Academy of Medicine.) For those who were not physicians, the hopelessness of seeking a cure from someone who was one helped to place the medical profession in a disrepute that in retrospect is difficult to imagine.

    But the most unsettling aspect of the disease was that it seemed to grow out of the very problems that were overwhelming civilization in so many other ways. Cholera first left its native India to make a global circuit in 1832, riding the swift frigates that mercantilism, empire, and immigration drove, finding fine hosts in the concentrated squalor that the mushrooming urban centers had produced. In the Old World, the Industrial Revolution had torn peasants from the land, pushing them into cities where they survived, if at all, at the very margins of society. Paris's population nearly doubled between the turn of the nineteenth century and its midpoint, while London's was about two million (one and a half times) greater than it had been at the century mark. In the New World, waves of immigration were producing even steeper growth, as those uprooted who did not move into their own cities instead sought their fortunes on American shores. Between 1820 and 1850, Baltimore's population tripled and Boston's quadrupled; Philadelphia's census grew fivefold between 1800 and 1850, while New York's population grew ten times bigger, from sixty thousand at the turn of the century to over half a million at its midpoint—and passed a million by 1860. While the cities had never been clean, their sanitary defects had at least remained modest in scale. But now the uncollected heaps of domestic refuse and street dirt, the stagnant undrained puddles, the drinking water fouled by sewage and industrial discharges, were no longer just unaesthetic and disgusting, but terrifying sources of mortal vulnerability.

    As disquieting as the physical squalor—the thick stench that could kill ("all smell is disease," according to the widely read Edwin Chadwick)—were the new people themselves. The refugees from the impoverished south and the degraded Irish were unlike any previous Londoners, the peasants from Languedoc and Auvergne were as foreign to their fellow Parisians as if they had come instead from North Africa—almost as foreign as the German and Irish peasants were to Old New Yorkers. It was not just the strange accents, the lack of literacy, the crushing poverty, but the intemperance, prostitution, and criminality that seemed to flourish in their midst. The dangerous physical uncleanness was matched if not outstripped by a frightening immorality: whether a contagionist or a miasmist, every educated person believed that the cholera was most likely to strike a constitution that had been weakened through depravity. The mortality data that were beginning to be collected—"statistics" were a new method of quantifying demographic and economic information pertaining to the power of the state—supported the assumption that epidemic diseases primarily struck the iniquitous poor. And yet this tinder risked the lives of presumed innocents like Reyburn, and even ladies.

John Hoskins Griscom, a forty-year-old physician and crusading public-health pioneer, had recently served a two-year stint as city inspector, a post created in the wake of the 1803 yellow fever epidemic. Almost as terrifying as cholera, yellow fever was another of those warm-weather diseases that sprang up in the spring and died down in the fall, that jumped from one spot to another without apparent effects in intervening districts, that seemed to prefer victims of lowly station and unwholesome habits. And as in the case of cholera, educated opinion was torn between the conflicting contagionist and miasmatic camps.

    Like most, Griscom was heartily on the miasma side. In compiling a history of the city's yellow fever epidemics, Griscom pointed out that the fever had struck hardest near places that had been used for dumping "all manner of filth, street dirt, dead animals, &c," killing those who had "inhal[ed] the poison evolved from such a seething mass of corruption." More generally, Griscom found that diseases of all sorts were more common in cities than in less densely peopled places, "proving Conclusively that the congregation of animal and vegetable matters, with their constant effluvia ... is detrimental to the health of the inhabitants." His solution—which he offered to the mayor in his official capacity as city inspector—was the creation of a "Health Police" capable of enforcing measures to achieve "Sanitary Reform" and thus preventing the disease that he and his colleagues were incapable of curing. The mayor, a reform-seeking Democrat, referred the recommendation to the Common Council, whose greedy Whigs promptly concluded that the inspector's services were no longer needed.

    Griscom's martyrdom was widely noted. In London, Poor-Law Commissioner Edwin Chadwick, perhaps the most well-known bureaucrat of the day, read a paper to the Statistical Society in which he approvingly noted Griscom's attempt to save lives and money by getting the city to adopt a street-cleaning machine invented by Joseph Whitworth, and lamented that he himself had instead been "swept away from his office." The admiration was mutual. It was no coincidence that the published version of Inspector Griscom's report was entitled "The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York, With Suggestions for Its Improvement": Chadwick's "Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of Great Britain," published the previous year, had been the most widely read government publication in English history. In case his allegiance was not sufficiently clear, Griscom made it explicit:

No one can rise from the perusal of the works of Edwin Chadwick of London or of Parent-Duchatelet of Paris ... without feeling a portion of the ardor which inspires them, and wishing he had been thrown into the same pursuit, that some of the leaves of the same laurel might encircle his own brow. It is the cause of Humanity, of the poor, the destitute, the degraded, of the virtuous made vicious by the force of circumstances, which they are now investigating, and exposing to the knowledge of others.

... But Chadwick and Duchatelet, especially the former, are diving still deeper into the subject of moral and physical reform. They are probing to the bottom the foul ulcers upon the body of society, and endeavoring to discover the causes of so much wretchedness and vice, which fill the prisons and work-houses.

    Chadwick and Griscom had bigger fish to fry than just public health. The whole political economy needed rationalizing, a reordering that by saving lives would save money. According to Griscom,

Fathers are taken from their children, husbands from their wives, 'ere they have lived out half their days,'—the widows and orphans are thrown upon public or private charity for support, and the money which is expended to save them from starvation, to educate them in the public schools, or perchance, to maintain them in the work-house or the prison, if judiciously spent in improving the sanitary arrangements of the city, and instilling into the population a knowledge of the means by which their health might be protected and their lives prolonged and made happy, would have been not only saved, but returned to the treasury in the increased health of the population, a much better state of public morals, and, by consequence, a more easily governed and respectable community.

    Listening to Griscom, many educated New Yorkers would have recognized the strains of Jeremy Bentham, father of the political philosophy of utilitarianism, coiner of the maxim that the goal of all legislation was "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." It was Bentham, who preached social control through rational institutional structures, who had put Chadwick on his course. He chose Chadwick—when he was still a struggling young barrister who preferred penny-a-line journalism to the law—to be his live-in secretary, and dictated to him the closing sections of his Constitutional Code. To Chadwick (along with his colleague and competitor, Unitarian-minister-turned-physician Southwood Smith) fell the task of easing the diminutive old man through his final days. (Fortunately for Chadwick, only Southwood Smith was qualified to perform the last offices Bentham requested—which was that he be eulogized in an operating theater, so that his friends could have the final benefit of seeing his cadaver simultaneously dissected. Smith reportedly performed both tasks with fluent aplomb. Afterward, again following Bentham's instructions, his skeleton was dressed in his own clothes, his head remolded from wax, and his favorite walking stick stuck in his hand.) It was Chadwick whom the self-infatuated bachelor offered a lifetime legacy to be caretaker of his intellectual estate. But despite his devotion and his need for a steady income; Chadwick was too ambitious to spend the rest of his days as just an acolyte to the old man's memory. Instead, while maintaining lifelong fidelity to his mentor's views, he found more direct means than Bentham had discovered to put utilitarian principles to actual use.

    The insidiously complex intermingling of public and private interest inherent in their common precepts is perhaps best depicted by the grand scheme of Bentham's maturity, which became the obsession of his old age. The "Panopticon" was an architectural idea he conceived while visiting his brother, a diplomat posted to Russia, after inspecting his brother's workshop on Prince Potemkin's estate. Its object was the exact opposite of the painted-backdrop-village Bentham was shown, which the prince had built to fool Catherine the Great. Instead of screening her subjects from the ruler's sight (leaving them free to the squalor of their own devices), the purpose of the Panopticon—a poorhouse shaped like a wagon wheel, in whose mirrored hub the hidden keeper could stare simultaneously and unblinking to the cells around the rim—was to know everything its occupants did, instilling in the process (through the awareness that every act was known before it could be completed) a moral control so perfect that it would guarantee the greatest contentment to the greatest number. A spider surrounded by its happy flies.

    Surreal as was this vision of the power of the centralized state, Bentham was committed to its execution. In the opening lines of his first public announcement of the idea (a publication subsidized, because of its pressing need for more poorhouses, by the government Of Ireland), he promised

Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burthens lightened, Economy seated, as it were upon a rock, the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws not cut but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture!

    In a second treatise on the subject (published in 1798), he elaborated on the earlier concept by proposing the establishment of a private, profit-making National Charity Company with "undivided authority" over the "whole body of the burdensome poor" wherever they might occur throughout England (carefully leaving open the possibility of expansion, as needed, to any of the Empire's remaining colonies). Through its agency, two-hundred-fifty Panopticons would be erected to house five-hundred-thousand poor, and their children, for life. In these perfectly efficient workhouses, no effort would be stinted to ensure that the inmates would produce as much profit as working sixteen and a half hours a day could yield.

    Not least striking of the Panopticon company's particulars was Bentham's intent to run these poorhouses himself. By avoiding stockings, shirts, hats, and bedding, by feeding the inmates mainly on potatoes they themselves would grow, he expected to make a 100-percent profit on the women, 200 percent on the men, and much more on the able-bodied "apprentice" children under the age of twenty-one, who (to ensure that there would always be more of them) would be encouraged to marry as soon as they were physically capable of reproduction. The highest glory of the scheme, however, was its combination with an invention of his brother's (designed in the same Russian workshop that birthed the Panopticon itself), an automated milling machine, which, unfortunately, could not conveniently be made to run on steam: the brothers Bentham would run a vast industrial enterprise on the strength of human-powered treadmills. He drafted a bill for this privilege that was speedily approved by both houses of Parliament, but after Bentham had obtained the deeds for the land necessary for building the Panopticons, George III's treasury refused to ratify his contract. Bentham fought unsuccessfully for twenty years to have the decision reversed; finally, in his eighties, he revenged himself by writing a book on the subject of the madness of George III; in Bentham's version (History of the War between Jeremy Bentham and George III), the failure to execute the Panopticon contract was the result of the king's anger over Bentham's efforts to achieve peace with Russia.


Table of Contents

Prologue: Garbarge1
Part I.Engineering Reform
Chapter 1The Greatest Happiness17
Chapter 2Grease45
Part II.Expanding Opportunities
Chapter 3Friends93
Chapter 4Enemies127
Part III.Public Work
Chapter 5Roads and Rails139
Chapter 6Bridges and Tunnels156
Chapter 7Parks and Parkways167
Chapter 8Ports and Airports185
Part IV.Landscape Sculpture
Chapter 9Citizens and Scientists215
Chapter 10Taking Heat229
Chapter 11Two Paths250
Chapter 12Waste Management262
Chapter 13Hauling Biomass279
Epilogue: Pew Yew Choo-Choo289
Illustration Credits389

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