The BBC has a three part documentary on Netflix about Paris, London and New York transforming from waste lands of human muck into modern cities. http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/filthy-cities/
New York Harbor, The Hudson and the East Rivers became such successful trade routes and a gateway to America’s resources that tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe came to be part of its wealth and success. America was the link between the old and the new. If you were one of the lucky three who survived the trip, you were destined to be crushed into the slums and poverty of a Lower East Side Tenement like Five Points.
What may have originated as a sizable apartment built for the 1000, mostly Irish, arriving every day, would soon be overwhelmed with multiple families, doubling as businesses and housing animals (like pigs) in order to afford the staggering rents demanded by corrupt and greedy landlords.
Tenements are buildings, five to seven stories high, filling up to 90% of a 25 foot by 100 foot lot that became the high land use grid New York is known for. In 1865, 500,000 people lived this way in buildings with no heat, no refrigeration, no running water, gas lights and no sewers. With 18 rooms per floor, only two would have windows. Very little air and no sunlight entered those interior rooms. They quickly became smelly hotbeds of disease and death. Cooking and heating fires easily went out of control. If you were lucky, a privy or outhouse was located behind the building and shared by all occupants. If not, you shared one down the block.
So many people died that the population reversed, if not for the extraordinary numbers still coming. And there was no sanitation, no food safety, no rules, hands waiting for every dollar you could earn and an awful infestation of insects, rats and bacteria. That anyone survived this waste is quite remarkable. One article of clothing could house 50-70,000 lice all capable of giving you typhus. Their bodies contain the bacteria. It is its excrement that you scratch into your skin after being bitten, that manifests a disease where 1/2 the people infected would only live 2 weeks. Death was literally piling up in the streets until someone with a cart could be summoned into service to dump it into the rivers. The famous image below depicts the commonality of the city’s working horses dying by the thousands and being left where they ended their lives.
The butchering of animals was done just about anywhere. Unregulated, the putrid remains were discarded just about anywhere, until it was discovered that borax could cover up the rotting smell. Arsenic or clothes dye would return the meat to a healthy red color that got squeezed into pig intestines and sold as sausage. Borax is a very effective cleaner and pesticide. It is not known to cause harm to humans unless it comes in contact with the eyes or is ingested. These economic additions to the butchers’ livelihoods were making a lot of people very sick.
Even with the marvels of humanity being created, like Croton Reservoir, which would transport fresh water over 40 miles to New York City, there was no place for the millions of gallons of used water to go except into the streets to stagnate or fill up low lying areas, like cellars under the buildings, where people lived.
Building the New York County Courthouse was an architectural marvel that should have created some hope for divying out justice. Instead it was a symbol of corruption costing New Yorkers twice what it cost the United States to buy Alaska. Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine pocketed over half of all monies destined for city projects.
Along comes Jacob Riis! A crime investigator, lecturer, photographer, Jacob grew up in some of the worst slums and vividly photographed How The Other Half Lives. It became a best seller and an out cry forced New York to clean up its streets and its politics. Out went Boss.
Called to clean! Colonel George E Waring, was appointed NY Commissioner of Sanitation, after Roosevelt declined. The Colonel applied his military discipline, drainage engineering and organizational skills to getting New York City clean. His methods formed modern day recycling, sewer design, and sanitation practices. His White Angels set an example of professionalism. They were courteous, informative, helpful, non drinking, horse loving civil servants dressed in clean white uniforms clearing the shin deep waste off the streets.
After a fated summer when Coney Island became coated in raw sewage, New York realized it was floating in its own filth. Richard H Gould became the hero of waste water treatment at Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. Built to process the city’s sewage, high volumes of fast moving waste water enters the plant, gets raked of all the big stuff, has activated sludge added plus air to reduce the processing time and turns into bacteria laden waste that sinks to the bottom of the tank. Clean water is easily separated out.
Then there were the goofballs, like Mr Thomas Midgley, who managed to market two of our world’s most polluting substances. Leaded gasoline and freon, the first ozone destroying chlorofluorocarbon. Fortunately, those finally got banned.
America’s increasing wealth and ingenuity created sanitation, electricity, alternating current, the automobile, vacuum cleaners, the light bulb, railroads, The Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, refrigeration, food safety regulations, and all sorts of thinking that keep us safer and healthier.
So readers! There is hope! 150 years ago your life expectancy in New York City was 35 years.
How You Can Help:
- Help keep our streets and public areas clean.
- Support and encourage programs that improve our air, water, and food.
- Quickly deal with lice, bedbugs and rodents.
- Live healthy and lightly on our planet.
- Give your Sanitation Workers a smile of encouragement! They are our modern day heroes!