Every day, residents of New York City generate some 11,000 tons of trash, along with another 2,000 tons of recyclables. To haul all that crap away—as well as clean more than 6,000 miles of city streets each week—we rely upon the 9,216 employees of the Department of Sanitation. But unlike their oft-celebrated counterparts at the N.Y.P.D. or N.Y.F.D., the city’s sanitation workers tend to only come out of the shadows to be castigated. “There are only three moments when anyone notices us,” a veteran sanitation worker told the New York Times. “If we make noise too early in the morning, if we block traffic, and if we don’t show up.”
Irate drivers, garbage juice, urinating dogs, and super storms are just some of the challenges faced by our sanitation army, who are more than twice as likely to die on the job as police. That’s one of the surprising facts unearthed in Robin Nagle’s new book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (coming out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this month). A professor at N.Y.U. and the “anthropologist-in-residence” at the New York Sanitation Department, Nagle seeks to examine the story “that unfolds along the curbs, edges, and purposely forgotten quarters of a great metropolis.”
To do so, Nagle spent years hanging out with sanitation employees—from street-level to superintendent—poured through boxes of historical documents, and even donned a sanitation uniform to help “chase garbage” in the Bronx. The result is a unique blend of history and anthropology, exuberantly told (she includes, for example, a fastidious 10-page glossary of sanitation lingo). The Brooklyn Rail spoke with Nagle about what she learned from her stint as a sanitation worker and why New York’s streets stayed dirty for so long.
Gabriel Thompson (Rail): Keeping the streets clean seems like the most basic of government services, yet for much of New York’s history the streets were filthy. Why did it take so long to clean up the city?
Robin Nagle: The streets were at their most disgusting when the municipal government was at its most corrupt. Money dedicated for street cleaning invariably found its way into the pockets of politicians and private citizens in cahoots with the politicians. When public protests heated up, as they did across the 19th century, politicians would respond by saying, “New York is too crowded with too many different kinds of people. It’s unlike any other city—it just cannot be cleaned.”
Of course that was nonsense, as George Waring revealed when he became the Commissioner of Street Cleaning in 1895. After Waring left office and Tammany returned to power, they could never again say that the streets just couldn’t be cleaned.
[Note: Waring, as Nagle writes, was a brash Civil War veteran—and shameless self-promoter—who instituted military-style discipline to clean up the notorious Five Points neighborhood in a mere two weeks—G.T.]
Rail: By the time you got a job as a sanitation worker, you’d already spent plenty of time interviewing workers and combing through records. What new dimensions did the experience add?
Nagle: I had been in the brooms (street cleaners) and trucks before, but never responsible for driving them. There’s a sense of power in the truck that I really liked. And also a sense of respect—in brooms, particularly—for the complexity of the equipment and the way in which a really good operator will learn the sensitivities of the gauges and quality of bristles that should be used on a particular broom on a particular day. It’s like an old-fashioned relationship of the worker to the tool—a very complex tool.
The whole process of garbage collection is like a vast respiration system. It’s an organism, and it’s fragile. Even without a storm, we are only three days away from a complete systems shutdown. Trash is picked up by trucks and brought to dumps. If the dumps, for whatever reason, were filled and couldn’t be taken out, then the garbage can’t be emptied from the trucks. Meanwhile, people are still putting trash out on the street. Logistically, it’s feasible that within three days the city would be paralyzed—there would be nowhere to put the garbage. That’s kind of amazing to me, that a city of 8 million people is so delicate.
Rail: There’s a long history of ignoring or ridiculing sanitation workers. As you write, no one walks around wearing D.S.N.Y. T-shirts, and for a long time sanitation workers used damaged lockers that had been discarded by the N.Y.P.D. On the other hand, you make a convincing case that they’re the most important uniformed workers, and note that their work is more dangerous than either cops or firefighters. So what do sanitation workers think about their jobs?
Nagle: They are always completely aware of the contradiction that you just outlined. If they get positive attention it will be short-lived. Sometimes that pinches, other times it seems to roll off their backs. The hurricane response was an example where sanitation got some pretty good press. I heard from a lot of people, “Yes, we finally got some recognition.” But a lot of people said, “We’re just doing our jobs. The attention is nice, but so what? Let’s get back to work.”
When I started working in Sanitation, I assumed that they cared a lot about what the public thought about them and that the stigma is a heavy cross. That’s true for some individuals, but more common is the attitude of, “I have a job, it’s a good job, if the public doesn’t like me, I don’t care.” The measure of their careers is less pegged to the idea that the public scorns them and more about their relationship with colleagues and co-workers.
But at the same time there are those who have long, successful careers in sanitation—deeply gifted at what they do—and they still make sure that their neighbors don’t know what they do for a living. These are neighbors that they have lived next to for 30 years, and all they know is that they work for the city. It really varies from person to person.
Rail: Your bio lists you as the anthropologist-in-residence at the N.Y.C. Department of Sanitation. My first thought was: That sounds great. My second thought was: What’s that?
Nagle: It quickly became clear to me that the department was far bigger and more complex than I had imagined. The standard toolkit for an anthropologist—participant observation and interviews—wasn’t enough. I took a job as a sanitation worker, but I couldn’t leave my position at N.Y.U., and that proved to be untenable because there are only 24 hours in a day.
When I stepped down from the sanitation job, I still wanted to do something that would contribute to the department. My model for the title is based on the artist-in-residence, Mierle Ukeles, who has held that position since the late 1970s. She’s a dear friend and mentor. [One of Ukeles’s projects was called Touch Sanitation, in which she shook hands with every sanitation employee and thanked them for “keeping New York City alive.”—G.T.]
My meta-level goal as the anthropologist-in-residence is partly a task of translation. I would like the larger public to recognize how vital the work of sanitation is, and understand why. The other translation is to help people inside the department recognize their own worth. Not that they think their job is not important, but some of them wear the stigma a little heavily. That sort of hurts my heart. I want to help each group understand and recognize the profound value of the work. I am so tried of people assuming that a “garbage man” is less intelligent than his brother the cop, or his cousin the firefighter, or the anthropologist-in-residence. It’s a deeply held stereotype and it’s just dead wrong and offensive, and I’d like to help turn it around.