Last Wednesday, NYU professor, Robin Nagle gave a talk titled The Wonder of Waste on what she learned and is researching as the anthropologist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Her book, Picking Up, grapples with the history of waste management in New York City, from the first designated trash drop-off points on the edge of the island to offsite landfills like Freshkills on Staten Island. The cleanliness of the city was at its worst in the mid 19th century when the streets were called “tubbs of nastiness” and who saved it but the cities first sanitation crew organized by the newly appointed Street Commissioner, George Waring. These sanitation workers were dubbed “apostles of cleanliness” but their job came with a danger and stigma that remains today.
Trash is personal. The contents of landfills are telling of who we are as a society. However, trash is also invisible and anonymous. It goes into the bin, the pile, never to be seen again. It disappears. We don’t want the responsibility of putting a plastic bottle in a landfill. So that responsibility is passed on to the Department of Sanitation, a group of dedicated workers, many legacy employees, who do one of the ten most dangerous jobs in the country and take our trash bags off the curb with little to no thanks or acknowledgement. The Department of Sanitation, as Professor Nagle said, was the last organization to leave site after Hurricane Sandy hit. The city relies on them. We don’t stop to think about throwing away our trash because there is a whole force of people on their way to clean up our streets.
The New York Times's video series, Living City includes Professor Nagle in their episode on trash and she also gave a TED talk on the more personal side of waste management in New York City. As we prepare for Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, remember that our city wouldn’t stay alive without the Department of Sanitation. Mierle Laderman Ukeles was an artist-in-residence for the department and her first piece, “Touch Sanitation” was to shake the hand of every sanitation worker and thank them. “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”