By the nineteenth century, New York City was persistently and famously filthy. While other urban centers had begun to clean up their streets, approaching vessels could still smell New York far out to sea. Yet, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) was founded in 1881 as the Department of Street Cleaning and became one of the first sanitation agencies in the world that democratically cleaned and picked up snow from every street, regardless of socioeconomic class or neighborhood. One of the Department’s first Commissioners, Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., pioneered such current practices as recycling, street sweeping, and a dedicated uniformed cleaning and collection force called the White Wings.
Today, the New York City Department of Sanitation is the largest sanitation department in the world, and the only department with both an artist-in-residence and an anthropologist-in-residence. Not only does the DSNY continue to pick up waste and snow, it is also integral as first responders in urban disasters, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
This is an abbreviated history via archival photographs of NYC’s municipal waste collection history.
Ragpickers and Gleaners: Labour before Sanitation
Streets before and after Sanitation
Early Department of Sanitation: The White Wings
Barren Island, Brooklyn and Corona, Queens: Early NYC dumps
Garbage Strike: 1911
Department of Sanitation, early to mid twentieth century
Garbage Strike: 1968
Fresh Kills Landfill
Artist-in-Residence at the Department of Sanitation: Mierle Laderman Ukeles
If any captions need to be corrected, or if you have other photographs or repositories to add, please contact Max Liboiron at max [dot] liboiron [at] nyu [dot] edu.