Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/Street-Cleaning in Large Cities



ALTHOUGH it is an unquestionable fact that cleanliness of the streets is necessary to the health and comfort of the people, few, if any, of the large American cities have as yet satisfactorily accomplished this important sanitary object. European cities have generally been more successful in this particular, and their success is due mainly to their earlier attention to sanitary subjects, to their more arbitrary methods of enforcing police and sanitary regulations, and to the comparative absence of political and personal influences in their municipal governments. A difference is noticeable in the cleanliness of the streets of American cities, which may be attributed to the great disparity in the character and condition of their population, and the variety of plans upon which the streets are laid out, and the building blocks or squares are constructed. In those cities and parts of cities where the people of the laboring class and the poor are crowded in tenement-houses, and where a considerable part of the population is foreign-born and from countries where personal and public cleanliness have not been enforced by proper police regulations, it is no trifling task to secure cleanliness of the streets; but this desirable result is obtainable with comparative ease in those cities whose founders provided lanes or alleys in the rear of all dwellings, through which house refuse can be removed without any use of the public streets except for its transportation in carts to places of deposit.

New York, from its insular position, from its large foreign-born population, from the crowded condition of a considerable part of its people in tenement-bouses, and from its peculiar street and block construction, whereby it is necessary to remove ashes, garbage, and house refuse through a front entrance to carts in the public street, affords an example of the worst possible conditions for street cleanliness. But the more fortunate towns are not entirely exempt from the difficulties and embarrassments which have for a long period surrounded this subject in New York; and, although they may be interested in a less degree in the solution of this great sanitary and social problem, it will be observed that the history of street-cleaning in New York during the past twenty-five years is not uninstructive, and that the improved methods necessary in the metropolis are more or less applicable to all large American cities.

During the past twenty-five years the people of New York have earnestly demanded cleanliness of the streets; the press has echoed public opinion by a vigorous censure of the officials responsible for their filthy condition, and the sanitary authorities have urged from time to time an improvement in this part of the municipal service, as necessary to the public health and comfort. When the Metropolitan Board of Health was organized in March, 1866, it inherited from the city inspector the duty of enforcing an existing contract for cleaning the streets and removing the ashes and garbage of the city. The board made an earnest effort to perform its duty; charges of inefficient and unsatisfactory service and breach of contract were frequently made against the contractors; voluminous testimony was taken and counsel were heard, but without the desired results. In answer to the testimony of sanitary inspectors as to the condition of the streets, the contractors were always able to produce abundant evidence from their employés that the streets had been thoroughly cleaned in accordance with the provisions of their contract; and they also claimed that any just cause of complaint was due to the non-enforcement by the police of the laws and sanitary ordinances designed, directly or indirectly, to aid and facilitate their important work.

The hearings of the street-cleaning contractors by the Metropolitan Board of Health demonstrated that cleanliness of the streets is comparative and relative, and a subject upon which men entertain different opinions. A dwelling which a good housewife declares is filthy and intolerable, another housekeeper, less tidy, industrious, and exacting, will pronounce cleanly and satisfactory; so the contractors insisted that the streets of New York were clean, or "thoroughly cleaned," while the board and its officers were firm in the belief that they were dirty, detrimental to health, and discreditable to the city. It was also demonstrated at these hearings that it is hardly possible to draw a contract that will secure clean streets without giving entire and unquestionable power to the city authorities to revoke and cancel the same at pleasure, and that with such a condition no responsible contractor would undertake the work and invest the large amount of money necessary for its performance. The importunity of the Board of Health, and its dissatisfaction with the condition of the streets, finally led to a sale of the street-cleaning contract to the Hon. James R. Whiting, a prominent leader in all movements for municipal reform at that period. Great hopes and expectations were entertained by all good citizens that New York would soon rejoice in clean streets, but they were doomed to disappointment, for no permanent improvement was visible. The opinion of all interested, officially or otherwise, was quite unanimous at last that street-cleaning by contract was a hopeless failure; and there was a general approval of the act of the Legislature of 1872, imposing temporarily upon the Police Department the duty of cleaning the streets and removing the ashes and garbage of the city.

The reasons for permanently conferring this power and duty upon the Police Department in the new city charter of 1873 were, first, that the commission was non-partisan, the two political parties being equally represented; and, second, that the department would strictly enforce the laws of the city and sanitary ordinances in respect to' the streets and the care and disposal of ashes and garbage, and thereby remove an alleged cause of the failure of street-cleaning by contract. Although the Police Board was in one sense non-partisan, it soon appeared that both parties were clamoring for appointments and political patronage under the Bureau of Street-cleaning with a power and persistence almost irresistible and not always resisted. Nor was there any considerable improvement in the enforcement of the laws and sanitary ordinances in respect to the streets and the care and removal of ashes and garbage. The police force of New York, in physique, intelligence, and bravery, in the detection and prevention of crime, and in the protection of life and property, is certainly equal to any in the world; but for a proper and thorough enforcement of ordinances and regulations, trifling in detail but important in the aggregate, which concern and are necessary to the comfort of the people, it has never been distinguished. The streets of New York under the police régime were certainly as clean, and the removal of the ashes and garbage as well done, as at any previous or subsequent period, and at less expense; but the department did not satisfy the 'public or the press. A change was earnestly and imperatively demanded, and in 1881 the Legislature created a Department of Street-cleaning with a single head and with ample power for its important purposes. Appropriations for this department have increased from year to year, until the enormous sum of $1,787,774.51 was estimated by the commissioner as necessary for the year 1891, and $1,584,250 was the amount appropriated; changes in the chief officers and employés have been made; various methods and devices have been adopted and tried; but the fact remains and is universally recognized that the streets are unclean. Some attribute their condition to insufficient appropriations; others to the inefficiency and incapacity of those intrusted with the work; others to political influences and to the use of its offices and appointments as political patronage; and others to the system and methods employed in conducting the details of the business. But, whatever the cause, the cry is universal, Is there no remedy or relief?

It is confidently asserted that none of the different plans proposed for cleaning the streets, nor an appropriation for that purpose double the present amount, nor a Commissioner of Street-cleaning of ideal business ability, fidelity, and integrity, can give New York clean streets, so long as householders and housekeepers sweep or throw their dust, dirt, ashes, garbage, or refuse, or any part of such material, into the streets, or allow anything to escape from their garbage receptacles upon the sidewalk or upon the street, nor so long as carts conveying dirt and refuse are allowed to drop any part of their contents on the streets. A walk in the principal streets and avenues from seven to nine o'clock in the morning will convince the observer that, whatever the shortcomings of the Street-cleaning Department, storekeepers and housekeepers are primarily and incidentally responsible for dirty streets by allowing their employés to sweep into the streets the dust of their houses or stores, and the dirt and refuse found upon the sidewalk. If the walk is extended to the tenement-house districts at any hour of the day, it will be noticed that it is quite the custom to throw ashes and garbage into the streets, and to allow these materials to escape into the street or upon the sidewalk from insufficient, improper, or overflowing receptacles. It will also be noticed that, soon after a street has been cleaned, it is again defiled by the refuse and garbage from the neighboring buildings, and that the carts which transport street dirt, ashes, and garbage, sand for new buildings, earth from cellar excavations, and the dust and dirt from buildings torn down, scatter some part of their contents into the street as they proceed to their destination. A student of the problem of street-cleaning has only to make the above observations to learn the primary cause of dirty streets in New York, and that, without a thorough reform in this particular, relief is well-nigh hopeless. This simple solution of the problem is only the application to the streets of the familiar rules which govern every well-regulated household. Can a house be clean if the members of the family throw waste paper and other refuse on the floors, and ignore the wastebasket and the cuspidore; and how many times a day must the floors of the house be swept, if such a practice is tolerated?

It being absolutely necessary to the proper cleanliness of the streets that no dust, dirt, refuse, ashes, or garbage should be swept or thrown into the streets or upon the sidewalks, or allowed to escape thereon from ash and garbage receptacles or from carts, a thorough reform must be secured in this particular, and by the following means:

1. The education of the entire population of the city on this subject. All desire clean streets, and an appeal to the common sense and public spirit of the people will be successful. A plain and simple circular from an official source should be placed in the hands of each householder and storekeeper, and of each family in tenement-houses, to the effect that every particle of dust, dirt, ashes, garbage, and refuse should be placed in the garbage receptacles, and that the sidewalk should not be swept into the street, but the dust and paper thereon should be carefully gathered and placed in the garbage receptacles of the stores or houses. Such a circular would be disregarded by some, and all such should be personally warned by an officer of police against the continuance of the practice. Owners of carts conveying dirt, ashes, garbage, manure, or any refuse, should be notified that their carts must be absolutely tight and properly covered, and that the escape into the street of any part of the contents, however trifling, is a violation of the sanitary ordinances, which will be officially noticed by the police. In a very few months the people would thoroughly understand the importance of this subject, and few would overlook or violate regulations so reasonable and proper.

2. When proper notice and warning fail to prevent throwing, sweeping, or allowing the escape into the streets or upon the sidewalk of any dirt, ashes, garbage, or other refuse, the vigorous enforcement of proper sanitary ordinances becomes necessary. It should be made a part of the duty of every police officer on patrol to arrest any one violating such ordinances, and to ascertain who is guilty of any violation in the absence of an officer; and, for any neglect of such duty, officers should be held to as rigid accountability by their superiors as for failure to arrest or detect offenders against the laws concerning life and property. In many European cities the police are so active and vigilant in enforcing sanitary laws and ordinances of this character that the streets are models of cleanliness, and their condition materially promotes the health, comfort, and happiness of the people. To make the action of the police effective, the hearty co-operation of the courts is necessary, and police justices must promptly punish offenders against the cleanliness of the streets, and severely, too, in case they are repeated. With proper action and co-operation of police officers and police justices, the great and most important obstacle to clean streets in New York can be removed.

When this is accomplished, the following will be necessary to entirely secure the desired object:

1. The laws and sanitary ordinances should be amplified and extended, if necessary, to cover minutely all subjects incidental and necessary to clean streets. Such laws and ordinances should be so broad, plain, and explicit that every citizen would know his duty in the premises, that every police officer would be certain when it was proper to make an arrest for violations, and that no police justice could fail to punish upon proper evidence.

2. The ash and garbage receptacles, in which the refuse of buildings and the sweepings from the sidewalk should be carefully placed, should be well made of galvanized iron, of style and size prescribed by ordinance, and they should be portable, absolutely tight, with covers, and the covers should not be removed except when necessary. These receptacles should be placed for removal in the areas within the stoop lines, or in some other convenient place, but never on the sidewalks; and rag-pickers and scavengers should not be allowed to disturb their contents. The ashes and garbage should be removed daily at a fixed and regular hour from every building, in absolutely tight carts, of size and style prescribed by ordinance, with covers so arranged that no part of the contents can escape. Carts for the transportation of street or cellar dirt, manure or other refuse, should also be of uniform size and style, tight and covered, and specially constructed and adapted to their respective purposes.

Public cremation of garbage, or its utilization by some of the known methods, should be introduced in New York without delay. Proper buildings for this purpose should be constructed upon the water front, conveniently located in different parts of the city. In many cities in this country the different processes are used for this purpose with satisfactory results. It is several years since the New York Board of Health demonstrated that refuse animal matter could be safely and inoffensively utilized within the city limits, and the metropolis should not be last to avail itself of improved methods for disposing of its garbage. When arrangements are made for the public cremation or utilization of garbage, the ashes and garbage should be placed in separate receptacles, and should be removed separately, the ashes being disposed of for filling sunken lots, redeeming marshy ground, and making new land in the city and vicinity. For a long period in the future, street dirt, and ashes free from garbage, will be demanded for these purposes; the expense of removal would be trifling, and possibly at times could be done without cost to the city; and the improvements made by this means would abate the serious nuisances caused by stagnant water, and by wet and marshy lands, and add to the taxable property of the city. The harbor of New York would also be relieved from the dangers incident to the dumping of ashes and garbage in the neighboring waters, and the adjacent shores would be spared from the offensive nuisance caused by such a primitive and obnoxious practice. The removal and disposal of ashes and garbage should be done by contract, as the details of the work can be minutely specified. As a general rule, municipal work should be done by contract, as the direct employment of men by public officials, and the ownership of carts, horses, and stables by the corporation, are likely to lead, directly or indirectly, to abuses, personal or political, and private enterprise can satisfactorily accomplish nearly all public work at reduced expense to the city.

3. The city should be divided into districts of such size that one man would be able to sweep the streets of his district and keep them clean at all times. Nothing being swept or thrown into the street, one man would be able to keep in good order a considerable territory. To every twenty-five or thirty districts there should be an inspector or foreman, to note the service of the men, their efficiency, capacity, and faithfulness, and the character and result of their work. To these inspectors or foremen the sweepers in charge of districts should be directly responsible for the cleanly condition of the streets in their respective territories, and the inspectors should be responsible to a general superintendent under the Commissioner of Street-cleaning. The inspectors, as well as the sweepers, should be known to the citizens of their districts by a badge or uniform; and they should aid the police, by information and otherwise, in the enforcement of the laws and ordinances relating to the streets and their cleanliness. The inspectors should be men of the discretion and executive capacity necessary to their office; and the sweepers should be able-bodied, industrious, and temperate men, their qualifications to be tested by a fair trial, and their places secure during good service and behavior. Both inspectors and sweepers should be paid by the month, thereby elevating their respective positions above that of the day laborer, and making this employment desirable on account of its continuity and permanence.

4. The cleaning of streets and the removal of ashes and garbage should be conducted on strictly business principles, and can never be successful or satisfactory unless exempted from personal and political influences. The commissioner at the head of the department and all officers and employés, including street-sweepers in charge of districts, should be selected solely because of their fitness for their respective duties, and should not be removed except for good and sufficient cause. The methods of the successful merchant, banker, and manufacturer, especially in respect to all employés, are necessary to the economical and satisfactory conduct of any public business; and whoever attempts to clean the streets of New York by any other theory or practice is certain to add another to the many notable failures of the past twenty-five years.

It is believed that with the adoption of the measures and methods above indicated, and strict adherence to the same, with fair executive business ability at the head of the Department of Street-cleaning, the streets of New York can be made as clean as those of London, Paris, or Berlin. From the city statistics it appears that the expense of cleaning the streets and removing the ashes and garbage of the city has increased more rapidly than the population, and that the expense was considerably less comparatively while the business was conducted by the Police Department than at any time since. As there has been no appreciable improvement in the condition of the streets in respect to cleanliness, it may fairly be concluded that the increased appropriations have not produced correspondingly improved results. It is also a reasonable conclusion that, with the exercise and use of business and common-sense methods, the entire cost of keeping the streets of New York clean, and carefully and satisfactorily disposing of its ashes and garbage, should not for a long period exceed the average appropriation of the last five years.