A plastic water bottle sticks out of a New York City trash can. Eric Thayer/Reuters

A new exhibit explores the past, present, and future of waste management in New York City.

New York City has always been trash, if you ask a sour-grapes city like Boston or Chicago. If you ask New Yorkers, they may well tell you the same thing. But it’s not necessarily an insult.

The fact is, the city has a rich history when it comes to things thrown away. From the 17th to 19th centuries, there were laws, which New Yorkers frequently ignored, about when to dump “night soil” (the contents of chamber pots) into nearby rivers. The corrupt Tammany Hall politicians in the late 19th century pocketed street cleaning funds, which severely hampered any efforts to clean up the city. But when Colonel George Edwin Waring Jr. was elected the commissioner of New York’s Department of Street Cleaning in the 1890s, he was so efficient at his job that after he left office no politician was ever able to claim that the city’s trash problem was unsolvable. His street sweepers—whom he outfitted in all-white uniforms—were nicknamed “White Wings.” Charlie Chaplin even played one in the 1931 film “City Lights.”

You don’t have to be a trash head to dive into this peculiar timeline of events, brought to life in a new exhibit at The City Reliquary, a privately run museum in Williamsburg. The photos and text are full of gems about the New York’s tortured trash history. “NYC Trash! Past, Present, & Future” will be on display until the end of April, and takes a look at the history of trash in the city as well as how our understanding of waste is changing.

The idea for the exhibit first struck curator Bill Scanga when he watched a talk by Robin Nagle, an associate professor at NYU and anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Right away, Scanga says he knew there was a show to be had, and started collaborating with Nagle and other trash heads (the nomenclature trash enthusiasts use to refer to themselves). The result is an exhibit that covers the walls and takes up two display cases in the museum’s back room. Come spring, the museum plans to turn its outdoor space into a sculpture garden full of trash-inspired art.

There is space dedicated to some of the city’s most famous landfills. Fresh Kills, which closed in 2001, was the dumping ground for all five boroughs for more than half a century. It is nearly three times the size of Central Park. As the exhibit notes, “It dwarfed the pyramids of Egypt… like the self-image of the city that built it, Fresh Kills was mighty.” Now, the former trash heap is being transformed into a public park.

Photo courtesy of The City Reliquary

Nagle wrote most of the text for the exhibit’s historical elements, but Scanga wanted to include pieces that felt more contemporary. The museum put out a call for proposals, and filled a wall with examples of how New York City’s residents are looking to a present and future that deals with the muck of the past. That includes Fix.ly, a winner of NYC’s recent Hack:Trash:NYC hackathon, which utilizes chatbots to help users get goods repaired in an effort to cut down on waste. Featured prominently is a section on Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has been the Department of Sanitation’s artist-in-residence since the position was created for her in 1977. In 2020, she will have the first permanent art installation at Fresh Kills Park. Ukeles said that over the course of her time in the field, the greatest shift she has seen is that now, in a sense, “everyone has become a sanitation worker,” because of the way we are responsible for handling and sorting our own trash.

At the museum’s opening on Sunday, City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, the chairman of the council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said he was excited for the future of trash. “People say it’s hard to make trash sexy, but the City Reliquary has done just that,” Reynoso said to the delight of the assembled trash heads. But he added that his district handles 40 percent of the city’s trash, and that, “no matter how much I love trash, I can’t take all of it.” Reynoso asked the attendees to remember that trash is also a matter of equity, and one that poor black and brown communities are unduly burdened by when landfills are built close to their homes. In addition to the smell and noise, landfills’ greenhouse gases have been shown to create—or worsen—health problems like asthma.

Reynoso wants the way we talk about waste management—and who gets included in that conversation—to change. “People assume the only people that can recycle are white communities,” he told me. “But if we bring education and information to communities of color, they will be more than willing.”

Robin Nagle echoed Reynoso as she told the crowd that trash, “is sexy and urgent, and connects to everything from equity to climate change.” From the days of illegal night soil dumping to the fight for fairer waste disposal, the City Reliquary wants you to know that the legacy and future of trash in New York City is not to be slept on.  

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