Health and Living Podcasts

Talking Trash: A History of New York City Sanitation

PODCAST: A history of all things trash in New York City.

Picture New York City under mountains of filth, heaving from clogged gutters and overflowing from trash cans. Imagine the unbearable smell rotting food and animal corpses left on the curb. And what about snow, piled up and untouched, leaving roads entirely impassable?

This was New York City in the mid 19th century, a place growing faster than city officials could control. It seems impossible to keep clean.

In this episode, we chart the course to a safer, healthier city thanks to the men and women of the New York City Department of Sanitation, which was formed in the 1880s to combat this challenging humanitarian crisis.

And along the way, we’ll stop at some of the more, um, pungent landmarks of New York City history — the trash heaps of Rikers Island, the mountainous Corona Ash Dump, and the massive Fresh Kills Landfill.

PLUS: We’ll be joined by two special guests to help us understand the issues surrounding New York City sanitation in the 21st century:

Robin Nagle is a Clinical Professor at NYU and the Anthropologist in Residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, and the author of Picking Up – On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City.

Maggie Lee is the records management officer in the Sanitation Department, and also serves as the deputy director for Museum Planning for the Foundation for New York’s Strongest.


To get this week’s episode, simply download or stream it for FREE from iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or other podcasting services. You can also get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it straight from here:

New York Public Library
1896 street cleaner and member of Waring’s ‘white wings’, photograph by Alice Austen
Colonel George E. Waring Jr., who changed the course of New York City life with the development of a rigorous new sanitation process in the city.
The ‘White Wings’ on parade, 1903, filmed for the Edison Company.
Photo shows men in white uniforms and hats with brooms in the street to sweep trash during the New York City garbage strike, Nov. 8-11, 1911. (Source: Flickr Commons project.)
[Garbage burning at East Broadway and Gouverneur Street, New York City] Created / Published 1907 June 28. Courtesy Library of Congress
In the distance you see the incinerator located on Governor’s Island, operating at full capacity. Circa 1900. Photographer Robert Bracklow, image courtesy Museum of the City of New York.
A sanitation worker carting carting away a full barrel of ash. The open cart would be filled, taken to barges, then sent to far-away dumps. In the 1910s, Brooklyn ash went to Corona.
Rikers Island, 1915, a post-apocalyptic sea of trash. (Image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
A fancy auto street cleaner, 1920. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
The Corona Ash Dump as seen from overhead. Rikers, also a destination for the city’s waste, can be seen in the bay. Courtesy CUNY
View of garbage disposal plant at the foot of 60th Street and the East River, 1946. Photo by the Wurts Brothers, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Freshkills Landfill, 1973. Gary Miller photographer
Our guest Robin Nagle giving a fascinating TED Talk on the subject!


Hunter East Harlem Gallery: What is Here is Open: Selections from the Treasures in the Trash Collection” — an art show centered around pieces thrown out with the trash, which is currently running at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery at 119th and 3rd Avenue through September 14, 2019. (See some images of the exhibition below.)

Freshkills Park: See for yourself the unbelievable transformation from notorious dump to breathtaking new park

Photos by Tom Meyers


Listen to these shows in our back catalog for more information on subjects mentioned in this show —

The Blizzard of 1888 proved that New York’s fledgling Department of Sanitation had its work cut out for them.

Rikers Island had a truly unusual history that goes far beyond its current function as a controversial jail complex.

The World’s Fair of 1939 was planted atop the site of a notoriously ghastly ash dump:


Know Your Mayors: A Profile of Mayor Williams Strong

The Corona Ash Dump: Brooklyn’s burden on Queens, a vivid literary inspiration and a bleak, rat-filled landscape

The Origin of Snow Removal for All New Yorkers, Rich or Poor

Lovely Photos of the New York Garbage Strike of 1911


Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle

History of Public Health in New York City 1625-1866 by John Duffy

Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York — The Last Two Hundred Years by Benjamin Miller

Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York by Ted Steinberg

Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice by Julie Sze


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