Sometimes the greatness of a city can be measured by what we don’t see rather than what we do. The infrastructure of the biggest cities often entail fascinating worlds of their own, hidden completely out of sight for everyday citizens. It might not be something most of us think about often, but NYC generates garbage and waste on a nearly unimaginable scale, requiring a force of nearly 10,000 to take care of everything busy New Yorkers leave behind. Known as NYC’s Strongest, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is responsible for the estimated 12,000 tons of refuse and recyclables that New York discards every day. Here are 5 fascinating facts about one of the city’s grittiest and most essential agencies.
They Took Over a City Besieged by Trash
Before modern sanitation systems, the city’s streets and waterways were New Yorkers’ sole repository for garbage and waste. This means, yes, that the sidewalks (especially in poorer areas like Manhattan’s Lower East Side) were piled high with unthinkably unsanitary messes. The existing Street Cleaning Bureau was dreadfully inadequate, and a new streamlined Department of Street Cleaning was established in 1881. The current name was applied in 1929.
Their Giant Salt Crystal Houses the City’s Supply
At the western end of Canal Street, adjacent to the West Side Highway, sits one of the city’s most visually remarkable buildings. With no windows, you might guess this 70 foot high jagged, ultra-modern building was an art gallery or cutting-edge condominium rather than a municipal storage facility, but the Spring Street Salt Shed is the rare utilitarian building with high-art aesthetics. This unmistakable structure, completed in 2015, was designed specially to house the 5,000+ tons of salt the city keeps on hand for dispersal when snow strikes.
They’re Not Alone in Fighting Garbage Growth
While the Sanitation Department’s (mostly) white trucks are ever present in the city, it may surprise the uninitiated to know that they don’t collect nearly all of the waste created here. In fact, the Department’s collections are limited to private homes and buildings. 248 private collection companies supplement the work done by the DSNY by picking up the garbage created by private businesses from office skyscrapers to mom-and-pop bodegas.
They’ve Inspired Top Designers
It might sound like someone’s idea of a joke, but the world of haute couture is no stranger to the Strongest’s fashion sense. In 2016, designer Heron Preston introduced a line inspired by Sanitation workers’ uniforms just in time for New York Fashion Week. Eager trend-hoppers lined up around the block for Preston’s unique rollout at the Spring Street Salt Shed, with entertainment provided by the DSNY Pipe and Drum Band.
They’re Unlikely to Remain Underappreciated for Long
The ranks of the Sanitation Department aren’t strictly comprised of office workers and trash haulers. Since 2006, NYU Anthropology and Environmental Studies professor Robin Nagle has served as the agency’s official anthropologist, an unpaid position dedicated to studying the impact and future of refuse collection. Her work includes performing research on the waste-management ecosystem and acting as custodian of DSNY’s culture, with an Oral History and Museum of Sanitation in the works. Soon enough, thanks to Nagle’s work, the Department of Sanitation will have the citywide recognition it so richly deserves.