City Lit: Morals of Muck

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Benjamin Miller calls his chosen topic an analogy to municipal corruption and inefficiency, past and present. If his well-documented portrayal of past practices is anything like the policies New York lives with today, we are all in trouble.

Fat of the Land is about, well, the history of garbage. But in Miller’s deft hands, the accumulation and the disposal of waste becomes a metaphor for political corruption and other ills of society for the past two centuries.

Miller, a former director of policy planning at the Department of Sanitation in the Giuliani administration, does not merely restrict his book to Gotham’s muck. It actually serves as a guide to 200 years of governmental policy of America and Britain.

Miller assails city corruption, gross misunderstanding of the effects of poor sanitation by the medical community, and narrow-mindedness on both continents in general. But New York City politics receives his special attention. The politics, he says, mostly stink like the subject of his book, and he rests his conclusions on the irrefutable presence of muck.

For instance, he points out, shortly after Boss Tweed met his political end–and Tammany Hall had allegedly been swept clean–the new Tammany boss, Charles Murphy, appointed a close friend, J. Sargeant Cram, as head of the Board of Docks. The Board of Docks, among other responsibilities, handled garbage barges. In four years, the budget of the Board of Docks increased 300 percent without any noticeable increase in its responsibilities or effectiveness. Commissionerships on the board became among the most highly prized patronage positions in the city.

There are also a lot of neat nuggets of information. For example, if you live close to the city’s waterways, you may not be on solid ground. You may be living on garbage that the citizens of New York paid to have hauled away, paid to have treated, and paid to be made into landfill, which was then sold back to New Yorkers as prime real estate by City Hall cronies.

You’d never know, unless you’re an old garbage hand too, what an important role rubbish played in the American economy. At one time garbage generated millions of dollars.

Once upon a time, according to Miller, everything thrown out in New York was eventually collected, separated into several dozen re-usable categories, boiled down and otherwise recycled by hundreds of human hands–usually immigrants–and an equal number of pigs, who performed the useful function of getting rid of much of the ex-living matter. Not only was fertilizer produced, but so was much more interesting stuff–bones for bone china, for one, and glycerin for nitroglycerin, for another; plus oil, grease, tallow and soap, worth tens of millions of dollars a year. The nitro was used not only to blast one’s enemies off the face of the earth, but to rip open the bedrock to make room for New York’s skyscrapers and subways.

What could not be used for any purpose–ash from incineration, for instance–was dumped into New York waters, over and over again, and became the land that New Yorkers walk on every day now, including LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.

Miller is disinterestedly cynical about what he says were two centuries of corruption in the waste business, which he documents but does not, for the most part, outright condemn. But in discussing the 1990s, when he served as head of planning for the Sanitation Department, he really starts slinging it.

This is Miller on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had announced the closing of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills dump: “For a mayor who prided himself on throwing more than 160,000 women and children off welfare in his first four years of office to save some 89 million dollars per year, and who, since entering office had cut the Board of Education’s annual budget by 80 million dollars, this was a puzzling prodigality, since the increased cost to the city’s budget–by the administration’s own understated estimates–was at least one hundred million dollars a year.”

Miller predicts a future festering with sanitation snafus. While the Staten Island site is scheduled to close in 2001–when term limits will force Giuliani out of office–the city has yet to come up with a workable plan to dispose of the millions of pounds of garbage generated by New Yorkers every year. It will undoubtedly top the list of headaches the next mayor will have to contend with.

Calling the closing of the Fresh Kills dump without a fully thought-out and viable alternative “disastrous,” Miller says: “New York at the start of the twenty-first century is no more able, perhaps less able, to plan and implement solutions to such basic municipal functions as waste management than it has ever been.”

Fat is very readable. Readers can skip over names and details they don’t need without losing Miller’s valuable perspective: Citizens need to be acutely aware of how the city’s laws handle garbage.

This is, literally, top-flight muckraking.

Robert E. Sullivan is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.