The History of New York, Told Through Its Trash

A few years after I moved to New York, in 2016, a friend invited me to a gallery in Chelsea that was showing the original 16-mm. films of the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark. The most memorable piece of the night was a film called “Fresh Kill,” which narrates the death of an old truck. In the opening shot, the vehicle chugs down a marshy road walled in by reeds. Then a more industrial landscape appears: New York’s notorious landfill, Fresh Kills. We see endless trash-strewn fields, edged by giant machines; colonies of seagulls standing guard under an elevated highway; a factory resting along a large bay.

Eventually, the truck slams head first into the blade of an enormous bulldozer. The bulldozer flips the ruined car and presses it into the ground. Gasoline dribbles, then gushes, out of the tank. Like a bear with salmon, the bulldozer skewers, drags, and tears the truck, which is loaded with other trash onto a trailer, carried farther into the landfill, and interred. The final shots are of pools of water rimmed by garbage and plants, and hot piles of waste tossing off black smoke.

Fresh Kills opened in 1948. When Matta-Clark made the film, in 1972, it received roughly half of the solid waste in the city, and had long been the largest landfill in the world, eventually growing to about twenty-two hundred acres of trash. “Fresh Kills is a dramatic example of consumption gone wild,” the environmental historian Martin V. Melosi writes in his recent book “Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City.” Melosi, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Houston, is the author of “Garbage in the Cities” and “The Sanitary City”; you could call him a scholar of waste. His book, which arrives nearly twenty years after Fresh Kills’s closure, can be read as a companion to Matta-Clark’s film. The question, for both, isn’t just where our trash goes but how it shapes and reflects the world it comes from.

“New York City rarely had a day in its history without a waste problem,” Melosi writes. In the late sixteen-fifties, a law banned citizens from tossing “tubs of odor and nastiness” into the streets, but neglected to mention what, exactly, they were supposed to do with their trash. Organized street cleaning wouldn’t appear until about four decades later: in 1702, authorities instructed residents to make piles of dirt in front of their homes each Friday, to be removed by Saturday night. In the nineteenth century, New Yorkers “dumped their trash onto the streets in anticipation of its collection by scavengers,” the historian Catherine McNeur writes in “Taming Manhattan.” “Rotten food such as corn cobs, watermelon rinds, oyster shells and fish heads,” McNeur continues, “joined with dead cats, dogs, rats, and pigs, as well as enormous piles of manure, to create a stench particularly offensive in the heat of the summer.” The population of New York had exploded, as had the items available for consumption.

New York’s main modes of disposal, into the eighteen-nineties, were rendering plants, hog feeding, fill operations, and ocean dumping. Fill operations had the virtue—at least to developers—of creating new real estate in a city bounded by water. “By the nineteenth century,” Melosi writes, “water lots and marsh filling added 137 acres of land to Lower Manhattan.” Streets that once ran along the water—like Water Street, along the East River, or Greenwich Street, along the Hudson—now stand more than five hundred feet from the shore because of fill. But building out the shores also proved problematic, as the new coastline began to jut into shipping lanes. Ocean dumping, while easy and cheap, faced related problems. Not only did it obstruct waterways, defile beaches, and destroy New York’s once-abundant oyster beds, it reduced the depth of the deep-water harbor and threatened New York’s value as a port.

In the twentieth century, incineration became the great hope for the future of waste disposal. In 1919, Mayor John Hylan proposed that a fleet of incinerators be placed throughout the boroughs. When a judge ruled, in 1931, that New York City would need to end its ocean dumping—New Jersey had successfully sued the city over the trash blanketing its beaches—incineration became even more attractive. Consumerism was on the rise, and a flood of mass-produced goods made disposal a priority; Melosi notes that, in the ten years after the First World War, the amount of solid waste the city produced rose by seventy per cent. But incinerators were expensive to repair and maintain, and the pollution they produced was particularly unpopular. The tides shifted slightly back in favor of landfills.

Enter Fresh Kills, which consists of a tidal inlet and salt marshes on the western coast of Staten Island. For many mid-century city planners, especially those in New York, any marshland was wasted space. When a landfill was proposed, a supportive Robert Moses argued that it would not only create real estate but eliminate an “unsanitary mosquito breeding swamp” and “provide additions to La Tourette and New Springville . . . Parks.” The dump at Fresh Kills, in Moses’s view, was a humane intervention.

But Moses didn’t see Fresh Kills as a long-term solution. “Fresh Kills’ place in the disposal plans of the city,” Melosi writes, wasn’t originally “defined primarily as a dumpsite but largely in terms of its role as a reclamation project and complement to incineration.” The city was still hanging its hopes on the promise of new, cleaner incineration technology, and Fresh Kills was marketed to Staten Island as a stopgap measure. No one guessed that it would remain open for more than half a century.

Strangely, it was the rise of the environmental movement, in the nineteen-sixties, that helped insure this longevity. The use of plastic, paper, and aluminum was increasing, and the best way to get rid of it seemed to be burying, instead of burning. While Fresh Kills was an environmental disaster, too—it produced methane gas, leaked millions of gallons of leachate into the groundwater, cluttered waterways with split trash, and exuded a miasma of foul odors—the opposition to incineration cemented the landfill’s vital role in the city’s trash system.

Landfilling is cheap, and when a fiscal crisis struck New York in the nineteen-seventies, the city only increased its reliance on Fresh Kills. Locals never wanted the landfill in their backyards, but for the many decades prior to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opening, in 1964, the population was small enough for politicians to ignore. In the nineteen-eighties, the population had grown, and anger over inaction began to brew on Staten Island. Locals hated the smell, and potentially infectious medical waste had been found on barges heading for the landfill. Residents felt their health was at stake and agitated throughout the eighties to have the site closed. Reforms were proposed, consent orders were issued, yet little changed. Fresh Kills remained open.

In 1993, after years of broken promises, the borough voted (roughly sixty-five per cent in favor) to secede from New York City. One major issue was Fresh Kills. The state blocked the secession, but it was difficult to ignore Staten Island’s burgeoning clout and growing population. In the nineties, a Republican triumvirate rode a wave of resentment into office, with much help from Staten Island. Soon, George Pataki was governor, Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and Guy Molinari was Staten Island’s borough president. Playing to their base, they made an agreement to close Fresh Kills by the end of 2001. The decision wasn’t about environmental concerns, and the Department of Sanitation was only alerted shortly before the announcement. “The closure,” Melosi writes, “was ultimately political.”

Giuliani’s solution was to increase the privatization and export of trash, an expensive tactic that raided the city’s coffers and required major cuts to recycling initiatives and social programs. By 1995, New York State was the largest exporter of waste in the country, sending it predominantly to Pennsylvania, as well as eleven other states. This is still the basic arrangement today, though Melosi shows that it’s only a temporary solution, especially as the city fails to meaningfully reduce its waste. (In each year from 2013 to 2017, New York produced more than thirty-two hundred tons of waste.) He recounts the plight, in the nineteen-eighties, of the Mobro 4000, a barge loaded with trash from Long Island and New York City that was rejected in ports all over the planet. Exporting, Melosi argues, runs into the same problem as most disposal methods: no one wants trash in their back yard. As such, Melosi finds, New York’s trash dumps and way stations tend to be built in poor and marginalized communities that lack the political power to fight their placement.

Fresh Kills closed on March 22, 2001, ahead of schedule. But history intervened, and the landfill was reopened on September 12th of that year to receive the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Human remains were scattered among pulverized concrete and twisted pieces of steel; the marsh was now a landfill, a crime scene, and a cemetery as well. Yet Melosi renders the gruesome scene with a certain tenderness, chronicling the efforts of the sanitation workers who insisted on treating the grounds as hallowed, and the families who fought to claim the remains of their loved ones. It is the kind of sentiment that makes Melosi’s book important. It is neither a facile broadside about the dangers of consumption nor a simple morality tale; it is a bold examination of the way society moves and is moved by its trash.

Near the beginning of “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald observes a “valley of ashes” seen out the window of a train travelling from Long Island into the city. When I first read this passage, I assumed it was a hallucinatory metaphor to describe a downtrodden neighborhood. What I didn’t know was that, in Fitzgerald’s time, ashes made up much of New York’s municipal waste. The author was simply describing the Corona Ash Dumps, in Queens, an expansive, constantly smoldering pile of cinder.

Trash makes for an expedient metaphor. For Fitzgerald, the dump represented a subjugated wasteland where nothing grew. For Melosi, waste reveals the still-unresolved dilemmas of unimpeded consumption. But landfills aren’t just a record of what society discarded, they’re a record of what a society considered trash. What constitutes our waste changes, and with it our understanding of the world.

Today, Fresh Kills is no longer a landfill. A more “abstract and theoretical” park, in Melosi’s words, is planned to take over the site, rebranded as the less-hostile “Freshkills.” If completed—it has been in the works since 2008—it will be larger than Central Park. Most of the area is closed to the public, but one can catch sight of it off of New York State Route 440, where enormous and bald hills, dotted with methane-exhaust pipes, loom over the highway. The brown, grassy hills, bordered by small dogwoods and tawny drooping phragmites, are not especially beautiful. Yet when you consider what is contained inside these hulking hills, you might stop to marvel. They are burial mounds, perverse feats of engineering, and, as Melosi writes, “archives of material and memories.” We typically experience trash only at the point of disposal. Here, near yet far, is its final resting place.

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