If there’s one thing we know how to do in New York, it’s pile everything up. People, floors, social strata, obligations, money, talent, bullshit. And, at the end of the line, our garbage. For five decades starting in the late 1940s, most everything we discarded from our homes went into one big heap on Staten Island. Incredibly, the Fresh Kills landfill was not named for its garbage heap but for the pure water that once ran there (“kill” being an old Dutch word for “stream”). By the time the landfill closed in 2001, the low-slung tidal marshes had been buried under a mountain about 20 stories high, capped with a few feet of soil. We’re putting a park on top now.
That’s how, to a certain extent, cities rise. Archaeologists know that to find out how our ancestors lived, the place you excavate is often the midden — a.k.a. the dumping pit out back. The majority of New Yorkers live on islands, and that means we end up with previous generations’ discards underfoot. Especially since ocean dumping of trash was banned in the 1930s, New York City has periodically piled our municipal solid waste on a piece of not especially desirable land, then sealed it up and put something prettier on top. Flushing Meadows–Corona Park covers the ash dumps of Queens, the ones over which T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes gazed as Nick Carraway passed. Off the Brooklyn coast, Barren Island and the adjacent Dead Horse Bay served as a dump from the 1850s on, one that was sealed under truckloads of soil in the mid-20th century and now sheds bottles and shards of porcelain by the ton, creating a weird scavenger’s paradise. Sometimes, it’s not actual municipal trash that we pile up but simply stuff that we don’t know how else to discard. U Thant Island, a little rocky knob in the middle of the East River, is made up of the spoil from the 7 train’s tunnel. The builders of the subway just left it there, and apart from requiring the minor Coast Guard task of maintaining a beacon so ships don’t crash into it, it doesn’t bother anyone.
When the collection of our local trash piles has stopped, the city reacts abruptly, with dismay. At least four times in the 20th century (1907, 1911, 1968, 1981), the Department of Sanitation has gone on strike. Those work stoppages were varyingly effective, but the last couple worked, if for no other reason than that the sidewalk situation got very bad very quickly. The 1981 strike lasted 17 days, but at least it happened in December. The 1907 strike was in June, and given the nature of trash piles back then — think of the horse manure and rotting animal carcasses, among many other effluvia — you can imagine what it was like. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it: The Times reported that “windows that had been opened to admit the cool night breeze were hastily closed.”
At the less institutional level, we as individuals, willingly or not, are also in the trash-pile business. Every apartment building, twice a week, produces its own heap. (A weird fact: When cities increase their pickup schedule from twice to thrice weekly, the actual volume of garbage goes up. It’s quite a bit more than the extra trash bags would account for. Nobody knows why.) The shift over the decades from metal cans to plastic bags has probably made it a little easier on trash collectors’ backs and arms, and certainly it’s simplified the lives of superintendents, who do not have to haul dozens of emptied bins back inside and find a place for them. The rats like it too.
The boom of the past 25 years, in which more than a million people poured into the city, has brought with it more garbage. So has a huge increase in consumption, especially throwaway packaging. Certainly your average apartment building puts out a lot more corrugated cardboard on recycling day than it did before Amazon came along. The COVID crisis, with its attendant shortages of labor and tax money, led to temporary cuts in trash pickup, which can’t have helped. The streeteries that were built during the shutdown, while on balance an excellent addition to the streetscape, do tend to accumulate garbage when they’re disused. Maybe all this is why the last mayoral election came down to a close race between a former Department of Sanitation commissioner and a guy who’s obsessed with getting rid of rats.
And although there aren’t great statistics yet, these three COVID summers, in which many of us socialized outdoors in the city more than ever before, seem anecdotally to correspond with more streetside litter. Go by a corner trash bin in a busy pedestrian neighborhood at the end of a weekend, and chances are that it’s overflowing with takeout containers, cans and bottles, and plastic cups from iced coffee, smoothies, what have you. Because the bin is full, some will have been placed alongside, others piled on top, and still others piled on top of those. Each addition tests the limits of the angle of repose. It’s a Jenga game with garbage, except that when this one inevitably falls, it spatters soured milk on everybody, and it’s not much fun.
All of this, of course, is especially topical when it’s 90 degrees out. In keeping with that spirit, Curbed is declaring this Hot Garbage Month, and throughout August we’ll be posting stories from the chutes, bags, bins, and trucks of New York City. By the end we will have created a unique pile of our own, made up of reporting and storytelling — the difference being, we hope, that it’s one you’d rather keep around.