Dirt: The Real Stuff Of A City's History

January 29, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declares he is fed up with grime and his lieutenants divide Baltimore into sectors, the better to launch a quasi-military assault on rubbish.

So what else is new?

American cities have been struggling to keep from drowning in their own detritus for at least 150 years, when a surge of immigration and industrialization brought rapid growth. As Baltimore health historian Elizabeth Fee demonstrates, there is nothing new ripening under the sun.

Privatization of garbage collection? Since the last century American cities have alternately tried hiring private haulers and employing municipal sanitation workers, risking corruption with one approach and patronage abuses with the other.

Concern that illness is caused by indiscriminate dumping? That was the dominant view among public health advocates 100 years ago. But then it fell from favor, and only recently has it made a comeback.

Public relations assaults like Mayor Schmoke's? That call to alarm has been sounded through the decades. Trash, it seems, will always be with us. And Dr. Fee, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, doesn't believe in sweeping it under the rug.

Instead, in an exhibition she organized for the New York Public Library, the historian shows how sanitation has helped shape America's urban culture. One panel at the entrance to the exhibit announces:

"In many ways, a city's history is written in its garbage. Every Dumpster is the legacy of an intricate social contract; through every sewer runs a story of hot political debate."

"Garbage!: The History and Politics of Trash in New York City," opened in mid-November and runs through Feb. 25. It brings some of the sights, sounds and even a few smells of the city's littered landscape into the 42nd Street landmark's stately Gottesman Exhibition Hall, with its marble floors and carved wood ceiling.

About 7,500 visitors a week have studied its mock-up of a tenement outhouse, bathroom sink complete with dripping faucets, street sweeper's cart and 3-ton ceremonial arch made in part of street brooms, walkie-talkies and 5,000 pairs of municipal workers' gloves.

Some summon the courage to sample urban odors at stations scattered through the exhibit, sniffing the fragrance of sulfur and smoke and baking bread. Meanwhile, the recorded din of sirens and street life hums in the background like New Age music.

"I think this is great," Michael Johnson, 24, of Geneva, N.Y., said after his tour. The unemployed construction worker moved to New York City looking for a job in the growing toxics cleanup industry. "It's definitely not a glamorous field, but it's one of those fields that is the backbone of American society."

Dr. Fee is one of a handful of historians in the United States who focus on public health issues. A 48-year-old native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, she earned a degree in biochemistry from Cambridge and a doctorate from Princeton in the history of science and technology.

She has taught at the health school for 14 years, and has written about AIDS, women's health and public policy. She was one of three co-authors of the acclaimed 1991 social history, "The Baltimore Book," which told the previously neglected story of the city's labor movement, and illuminated the lives of women, blacks and immigrants.

Library officials approached Dr. Fee three years ago, asking her to put together an exhibit on urban sanitation. It was her first offer of a museum show.

"It represented a new kind of challenge for me -- talking to the general public and thinking about presenting history visually," she said.

She won grants for the project from several scholarly foundations and one less traditional source: V. Ponte & Sons of Jersey City, N.J., a major New York-area trash hauler and recycling firm. "They were sort of thrilled at the idea that garbage could be the subject of a major historical exhibition," she said. Using the library's extensive collection, she and Steven H. Corey, then a doctoral student at New York University, studied street sweeping, sewer construction, slaughterhouses and privies. What they found, she said, was that municipal sanitation has always been more than a matter of simple housekeeping.

America's urban leaders battle trash, she said, to promote public health, push social reform and build urban pride. They also use it to advance their political careers, dispense patronage and acquire power.

Consider the dapper and ambitious Col. George E. Waring Jr., New York's commissioner of street cleaning from 1895 to 1897. Dr. Fee said he briefly turned one of the dirtiest cities in the world into one of the cleanest.

The Civil War veteran "took what had been essentially casual labor and made it into a militaristic army of street sweepers and cleaners, all dressed in white duck uniforms, which were always kept spotless," Dr. Fee said. "He made street sweeping into a kind of patriotic, heroic enterprise."

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