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All Food & Nature in Cities

Taming Manhattan

My primary takeaway this week: New York City’s formalized systems have notably trailed the desires and expections of residents since the city began. Today, we continue fighting a myriad of environmental and infrastructure problems—trash containment, litter baskets, composting, toxic air pollution and grime in subway stations, rats, housing access—but historically, these facets of the city have never been better. Starting from the human and animal waste lining the streets, free-roaming dogs and hogs, lack of clean water, resulting cholera outbreaks, lack of a trash disposal system, spoiled meat-making then meat-packing, to access to parks and street trees, New Yorkers’ fight for a clean, safe, mechanized/systemitized urban environment has never been easy or straightforward. Today, when we see the Department of Sanitation blasting “Empire State of Mind” while showing off mechanically-liftable dumpsters for trash, while we can & should laugh (Ohio had this technology fifty years ago…), we should also keep in mind it represents enormous progress. When we ponder the legacy of Dead Horse Bay and how to handle the environmental justice story there, we’re no longer fighting offal-boiling piggeries poisoning our air inside city limits.

The book, similar to last week’s, focused on charting historical issues over profiling people (though with less aversion to mentioning them), and made no attempt inside these chapters to connect the issues of any more modern-day fights. I found its retellings of some political dealings sometimes overly detailed, and though it reflected on the relationship between the environmental issues and contrasting their histories, its focus on pre-Civil War NYC meant we lost any bridge into the modern incarnations of issues. How the Department of Sanitation became a rigorous, successful institution in New York with similarities to military/police structures, for instance, would be relevant for how the waste management issue was resolved. Or how food safety regulation grew up at the city, state, and federal level to prevent swill milk from continuining into future centuries. It rarely connected New York issues to those in any other cities either. While it was successful in explaining the histories it set out to, that scope and timeframe finally felt narrow.

We have consistently underinvested in public works projects in this country, and continue to underestimate the returns their stability will provide. The more people’s basic needs are met, with public health & housing solved, the more time people can spend on money-making activities that build long term wealth & community. Reading about the fight for urban parks, a small number of people’s personal interests ended up dramatically changing the landscape we know today. The city seemed far more editable in that time than today; the money interests have, the fear-based conservatism of residents, and tiny scope of imagination public figures have for the city have intensified, making even the smallest infrastructure projects feel like moonshots today.