The cleaning of a great city.
I am, to this extent, no more an anti-Tammany man than I should be an anti-Republican man, if Republicans had brought about the same defects, had their party been in power. In describing the former condition of the streets and of the Department, I am making no criticism of Tammany Hall--only of politics as the ruling factor in city government. The improved present condition could not have been brought about without an absolute disregard of all political considerations in the management of the business. My work has succeeded because it has been done for its own sake alone. The same success awaits any competent man who will man-age any other of the city departments on the same principle.
If the whole city is ever so managed the people will be glad.
THE OLD ORDER--SLIMY STREETS AND CLOGGED SEWERS.
Whatever the cause, no one will question that the former condition of the streets was bad--very bad. No one can question the truth of the following description:
Before 1895 the streets were almost universally in a filthy state. In wet weather they were covered with slime, and in dry weather the air was filled with dust. Artificial sprinkling in summer converted the dust into mud, and the drying winds changed the mud to powder. Rubbish of all kinds, garbage, and ashes lay neglected in the streets, and in the hot weather the city stank with the emanations of putrefying organic matter. It was not always possible to see the pavement, because of the dirt that covered it. One expert, a former contractor of street cleaning, told me that West Broadway could not be cleaned because it was so coated with grease from wagon axles; it was really coated with slimy mud. The sewer inlets were clogged with refuse; dirty paper was prevalent everywhere, and black rottenness was seen and smelt on every hand.
The practice of standing unharnessed trucks and wagons in the public streets was well-nigh universal, in all except the main thoroughfares and the better residence districts. The Board of Health made an enumeration of vehicles so standing on Sunday, counting twenty-five thou- sand on a portion of one side of the city; they reached the conclusion that there were in all more than sixty thousand. These trucks not only restricted traffic and made complete street cleaning practically impossible, but they were harbors of vice and crime. Thieves and highwaymen made them their dens, toughs caroused in them, both sexes resorted to them, and they were used for the vilest purposes, until they became, both figuratively and literally, a stench in the nostrils of the people. In the crowded districts they were a veritable nocturnal hell. Against all this the poor people were powerless to get relief. The highest city officials, after feeble attempts at removal, declared that New York was so peculiarly constructed (having no alleys through which the rear of the lots could be reached) that its commerce could not be carried on unless this privilege were given to its truck- men. In short, the removal of the trucks was "an impossibility."
There was also some peculiarity about New York which made it inevitable that it should have dirty streets. Other towns might be clean, but not this one. Such civic pride as existed had to admit these two unfortunate drawbacks.
FIFTY THOUSAND DEATHS A YEAR.
The average annual death rate from 1882 to 1894, inclusive, was 25.78 per thousand persons living, equal to more than fifty thousand deaths in the year, on the basis of the present population. Eye and throat diseases, due to dust, and especially to putrid dust, were rife. No effort was made to remove snow for the comfort of the people, only for the convenience of traffic. But little more than 20 miles of streets were cleared after a snowstorm. As a result, the people, especially the poorer people who could not change their wet clothing and could not buy rubber shoes, suffered to an alarming degree from colds and their results.
The department itself was such as its work would indicate. Like all large bodies of men engaged in any stated duty its force had much good material, but it was mainly material gone to waste for lack of proper control. It was hardly an organization; there was no spirit in it; few of its members felt secure in their positions; no sweeper who was not an unusually powerful political worker knew at what moment the politician who had got him his place would have him turned out to make room for another. A ledger account of patronage was kept with each Assembly district, and district leaders are even said to have had practically full control of the debit and credit columns, so that they could deposit a dismissal and check out an appointment at will. Useful service can be had from no force thus controlled.
STREET-CLEANERS ROBBED BY POLITICIANS AND SCORNED BY THE PUBLIC.
Nearly every man in the department was assessed for the political fund. I have seen an order signed by one of my predecessors, practically directing every sweeper and driver to pay to the chief clerk a certain percentage of each week's pay. This was to be used for "political" purposes--how, or by whom, or for whom was not stated. The working men of the force generally were in a miserable condition. They were the objects of ridicule and scorn, and they knew it. They did such work as they were compelled to do, and, as a rule, they did no more. Nominally, they wore a uniform, but they were not distinguished by it. The district superintendents and foremen, as a rule, either could not exercise effective control over their men, or they did not take the trouble to do so. Nothing was done with a will; the organization, as a whole, was a slouch.
The stock and plant were what they might have been expected to be under these conditions. In some of the stables there was not even an extra set of cart harnesses, and some that were in use were mended by the drivers, on the streets, with bits of wire and string. Disorder and demoralization were the rule.
This is a severe condemnation of a department that spent $2,366,419.49 in a year--(in 1894, as against $2,776,749.31 in 1896), and did ineffective work with it; but it is just. The condition of the streets, of the force, and of the stock was the fault of no man and of no set of men. It was the fault of the system. The department was throttled by partisan control--so throttled, it could neither do good work, command its own respect and that of the public, nor maintain its material in good order. It was run as an adjunct of a political organization. In that capacity it was a marked success. It paid fat tribute; it fed thousands of voters, and it gave power and influence to hundreds of political leaders. It had this appointed function, and it performed it well.
HOW THE DEPARTMENT WAS REORGANIZED.
I accepted the commissionership of street cleaning with the positive assurance of Mayor Strong that I should not be interfered with in the matter of appointments and dismissals, and that I should have my own way generally. His power to dismiss me is unlimited, and he could get rid of me any day if I did not suit him; but so long as I should remain, I was to be the real head of my department. The Mayor has lived up to his promise from that day to this. I have some times been a sore trial to him, especially in my relations with certain pensioners and labor leaders, and he has wished he might wash his hands of me more than once, but he saw reasons for bearing with my conduct until the storm blew over. He has never tried to influence me in the matter of "patronage," nor has he ever insisted on con trolling the policy of my work. If he had done otherwise, the result would not have been the same.
At the outset the employees of the Department expected to be turned out, as a matter of course. Their positions were spoils which belonged to the victors, and they were filled with apprehension as to their future bread and butter. They knew the public would no longer put up with unclean streets and that the clean sweeping demanded might properly begin with them.
Knowing that organizations of men are good or bad according to the way in which they are handled, that "a good colonel makes a good regiment," I paid attention first to those at the top--to the colonels. I found the general superintendent to be an excellent man for his duties, while most of the others were from very in-different to decidedly bad. These were got rid of. In filling their places I sought men mainly with military training, or with technical education and practice, not one of whom had any political alliance which he was not willing to sever. They were nearly all young men. Of the men of technical education and training who now hold important positions in the Department, three are district superintendents, one is the master mechanic, and a fifth, 25 years of age, is the superintendent of final disposition, with absolute control of all work done after the dumping of the carts on to the scows, including all sea- work.
THE STREET-CLEANERS BECOME A SPLENDID BODY OF MEN.
When the important offices had been filled attention was turned to the rank and file of the working force. The men were assured that their future rested solely with themselves; that if they did their work faithfully and well-kept away from drink, treated citizens civilly, and tried to make themselves a credit to the Department, there was no power in the city that could get them out of their places so long as I stayed in mine. On the other hand, if they were drunkards, in competents, blackguards, or loafers, no power could keep them in. When they found that I really meant what I said--and it took them some time to get such a strange new idea into their heads--they took on a new heart of hope and turned their eyes to the front. From that day their improvement has been constant and most satisfactory. Their white uniforms, once so derided, have been a great help to them, and they know it; and the recognition of the people has done still more for them. Indeed, the parade of 1896 marked an era in their history. It introduced them to the prime favor of a public by which, one short year before, they had been condemned; and the public saw that these men were proud of their positions, were self-respecting, and were the object of pride on the part of their friends and relatives who clustered along their line of march.
What has really been done has been to put a man instead of a voter at the other end of the broom-handle. The "White Wings" are by no means white angels, but they are a splendid body of men, a body on which the people of New York can depend for any needed service without regard to hours or personal comfort. A trusted sweeper, for example, will stand on a windy dock-log all night long, and night after night, protecting the city against the wiles and tricks of the snow- carters. He gets no extra pay for this, but his extra service and his hardship are compensated by the consciousness that he is doing good work, that his good work is appreciated by his officers, and that the force to which he belongs is winning public favor partly because of what he himself is doing. In other words, the whole Department is actuated by a real esprit de corps, without which no organization of men can do its best, either in war or in peace.
The stock and plant have undergone an almost equal change. The horses are the finest in the city for their work. They are well trimmed, well groomed, and well -treated. The carts are clean and in good order, and we have a complete duplicate outfit of horses in reserve. The stables are always in "show" condition; and order and neatness characterize all branches of our outfit so far as the kind of work done will allow.
The methods of work are now under going a change, but much of the old still remains. In its completeness it was as follows:
The streets were swept by men, to each of whom a certain area was assigned. The sweepings were gathered into little piles at the gutter. The carts, in their regular tours, took up these piles, which were thrown into them with a shovel, the wind carrying away its share of the fine dust. The refuse from houses (ashes, garbage paper, and all manner of rubbish) was put into cans, barrels, boxes, firkins, and even bandboxes, which were stood at the edge of the curb. They were habitually over-filled, the sidewalk and the gutter being badly littered and papers being blown into the street. These receptacles were emptied into the carts with much scattering of dust in dry weather. This constituted the "street-cleaning" as the people saw it. It was supplemented, late at night, by a considerable amount of machine sweeping, which raised impenetrable clouds of dust.
DISPOSING OF THE REFUSE.
The final disposition of all matters collected is little seen, but it constitutes one order of the most important and interesting parts of our work. There are 17 dumping boards on piers along the city's front on both rivers, where the carts discharge their loads onto scows, to be towed to sea. It is necessary that the refuse be properly spread and piled on these scows to keep them on an even keel. This is known as "scow-trimming," and it has become somewhat famous in these later days,
Some 16 years ago scow-trimming cost the city about $11,000 per year. The work was done by Italians, a race with a genius for rag-and-bone picking and for subsisting on rejected trifles of food. These Italians were observed by others to have a job which offered great advantages. Competition arose and continued, until in 1894, when the amount of material delivered at the dumps had greatly increased, the city received for the scow-trimming privilege about $50,000 worth of labor free and more than $90,000 in cash.
The scows are first towed to Gravesend Bay, where they are moored to the Department stake-boat. When the tide serves, they are towed in groups of twos or threes out beyond the lightship, 10 miles outside of Sandy Hook. Here they are discharged on the outgoing tide, so that their floating matter may be carried far out to sea, which is theoretically a perfect disposal. Unfortunately, the theory does not work well in practice, and the beaches of Long Island and New Jersey are made most foul with the flotsam and jetsam of rubbish and garbage that wind and tide rescue from the widely-strewn sea. Just complaint has long been loud, but happily this condition is at last being ameliorated, and is soon to cease.
The scows are of two sorts: (1) Barney dumping boats, which open and have their loads washed out by the sea- way as they are towed along; and (2) deck scows, from which the loads are shoveled by gangs of Italians. These men accept lower wages for this rough and hazardous service because of the subsistence that they find in the cargo.
The question of final disposition had already become a very serious one during the administration of Mayor Gilroy, who appointed a commission to investigate the whole subject. The full report of this commission is interesting and useful. Much of what is now being done is its outgrowth, especially the pocket-dump and the self-propelling dumping-scow, both of which are due to the suggestion of Lieu tenant Commander Delehanty, Supervisor of the Harbor, who was a member of the commission.
ESSENTIAL POINTS IN THE NEW SYSTEM.
The new system, when fully inaugurated, will be as follows (much of it is now in operation): Each sweeper is supplied with a "bag-carrier," a little two- wheeled truck which supports an open bag, to receive street sweepings. On this truck he transports his tools: a broom with a scraper at the back, a watering can, a short shovel, and, for asphalt, a broad, long- handled scraper. The sweepings are put into the bag as fast as they are collected. When full, the bag is tied and stood on the curb.
Householders are allowed to put nothing on the sidewalk. All receptacles must stand within the "stoop-line." This change from the old practice dates from 1895. Other changes, already begun, will soon be enforced universally. For simplicity they will be here described as though already established.
Garbage is kept separate from all else, and is set out in a proper vessel within a half hour of the scheduled arrival of the cart on its early morning round. This is delivered at the dumps to the scows of the Sanitary Utilization Company, and is taken to its works at Barren Island, where it is cooked by steam for some hours, and is then pressed for the extraction of its grease and liquids; the remaining solids are dried and ground. The liquid is reduced by evaporation to about the consistency of molasses. It retains most of its manurial value, and is mixed with the solids, the whole being sold as a fertilizer. The grease is roughly clarified, and is sold to soap-makers and others. The city pays to the company $90,000 per annum under a five-year contract. The operations are free from sanitary objection, and are believed to be profitable.
Ashes are kept within the houses in cans, from which they are easily transferred to bags by a Department man. These bags are tied and set on the curb, to be taken away by the cart that collects the bags of sweepings. Ashes and sweepings are hauled to the pocket-dumps, where the bags are emptied into hoppers which feed a bucket- elevator transporting their contents to elevated storage pockets; thence, on the opening of the gates, inclined floors discharge the matter into pockets of the Delehanty boat, by which it is transported to Riker's Island, beyond Hell Gate. There will be a fleet of five of these boats:
The "Cinderella," the "Aschenbroedel," the "Cendrillon," the "Cenerentola," and the "Asschepoester." This fleet (with the shorter trip) will supplant 13 Barney dumpers, 35 deck scows, and the equivalent of five tugboats in constant use. The cost of these, going to the lightship, was, in 1896, $308,600. The cost of transporting the same wastes by the new fleet, to be dumped in deep water inside of a small inclosure of sheet piling at Riker's Island, will be $96,300. The material so dumped will be taken up by a huge pumping plant, and conveyed through pipes or canvas tubes to any de sired point of delivery on the lower portion of the island or the shoals about it. The cost per cubic yard of delivering the wastes at sea is 14 cents. Delivery at Riker's Island will cost only five and four-tenths cents. The sea disposal is worse than waste, for it detracts vastly from the value of bathing beaches and other shore property. The disposal will make land of much value for the city's use.
INCREASED PROFITS OF THE PICKING-YARD.
We have now accounted for all wastes save paper and rubbish. These have hitherto been the most conspicuous of all our material, and have been the great source of street littering. In connection with the bones and fat, which now go to the con tractors at Barren Island, they furnished the valuable product of the scow-trimming industry in the days when everything went into the omnivorous "ash-barrel." It is now required that all such wastes be kept indoors until called for on signal. The carts engaged in their collection carry enormous loads of the most varied character. They deliver their freight at the "picking-yards." One of these is now in use, and others are in preparation. Among the items collected for sale are five grades of paper, five grades of rags, and three grades of carpet; also bagging, twine, two grades of shoes, hats, five grades of bottles, tin cans, copper, brass, zinc, iron, rubber, haircloth, and curled hair. It is too early to predict anything as to the amount that may be recovered from the sale of these various materials. It is certain that the city has received about $140,000 in a year for the privilege of gleaning from the scows, in a very unclean condition, certain things that were dumped upon them by the Department carts. It is equally certain that the collection of these things and others, in a clean condition, directly from the houses and shops, will yield a much larger return. The only speculation that I have ventured to indulge in is qualified by a very uncertain "if." We have a population of about two million. If we can recover the value of one-half cent per day for each head of this population, the total annual income would be $3,650,000, or more than the entire cost of street cleaning and snow removal. It is safe to say that a goodly part of that cost will be recovered.
NEARLY A THOUSAND MILES OF STREETS SWEPT DAILY.
It may be of interest to show how many miles of streets are cleaned as compared with the work of 1888, when the Department was under one of its best commissioners, Mr. James S. Coleman. He reported that 50 miles were swept daily, 187 miles three times a week, 65 miles twice a week, and 24 miles "when found necessary." This makes a total of 326 miles, and an average daily sweeping of about 175 miles.
At present, 35 and a half miles are swept four or more times a day, 50 and a half miles three times a day, 283 miles twice a day, and 63 and a half miles once a day, making a total of 433 miles, and an average daily sweeping of 924 miles, or nine miles more than the distance from New York to Chicago.
Measuring the entire expenditure of the Department by the yearly cost of each mile of daily sweeping, it was $7,176.45 in 1888 and $3,553.95 in 1896.
The performance of this vastly greater amount of work is largely due to a more effective supervision on the part of the foremen, who are kept under much more exact control, and who are supplied with bicycles to enable them to get more frequently over their sections. Each foreman is obliged to report daily, in writing, the exact point at which he was at each half hour of the day, and the accuracy of these reports is tested by the superintendents of districts and by others employed for the purpose. Dismissal has followed the rendering of a false report in this regard. It is found that the use of the bicycle increases the potential efficiency of the foremen fully threefold.
Reference was made, in the early part of this paper, to the standing of unharnessed vehicles in the streets. To remove these was pronounced an impossibility. Within less than six months from the inauguration of Mayor Strong, these vehicles had all been removed, never to return, and even the truckmen themselves now acknowledge that the change has been a benefit to them. No man who had "votes" in his eye could ever have reached this result.
MORE SNOW REMOVED IN FIVE WEEKS THAN PREVIOUSLY IN FIVE YEARS.
In no part of the Department's work has a greater improvement been shown than in the removal of snow. The mileage of removal after each storm is now about 145 miles, or more than six times as much as formerly. In five consecutive weeks of 1895 more snow was removed, and for less money, than in all of the five years beginning with 1889. On one day in this year the Department alone, aside from the work of the railroad companies and of the contractor for lower Broadway, removed 55,773 loads of snow. After the blizzard of 1888 the total removal, extending over the whole period, was 40,542 loads; and this was reported as "marking the high-water point of snow removal." The increased mileage of the present work is very largely in the more crowded tenement-house region and in the busiest downtown streets. Substantially the whole city below Houston Street was cleared, and one-half of all between Houston and 59th Streets.
I have been told by the president of the United States Rubber Company that this snow removal, together with the abolition of mud from the streets at all seasons, has cost that company $100,000 per year by reason of the decreased demand for rubber boots and shoes. What this means to the poorer people of the city, as compared with their previous suffering, need not be said.
THE MEN SETTLE THEIR OWN LABOR TROUBLES.
Space will not permit me to give an extended account of the present method of meeting the grievances and suggestions of the men. Formerly their only recourse was to "walking delegates" and to secret combinations among themselves. They now have a regularly authorized "Committee of Forty-one," elected by themselves, and fully recognized by the Commissioner as an element of the general method of discipline. This is made up entirely of sweepers and drivers. To it are first sent all complaints, appeals, and suggestions. Its discussions are secret, and its freedom of speech is absolute. Five members of this committee and five officers of the Department constitute a "Board of Conference," to which are forwarded all questions which the committee has not been able to settle. In this board the laboring men are on an absolute equality with the officers. In fact, the permanent chairman of the board is always either a sweeper or a driver. If the Board of Conference cannot decide any case, it is argued before the Commissioner, whose judgment is final.
During the first year of the working of this system 345 cases were submitted by the men to the Committee of Forty-one. This settled or rejected 221 of these, sending 124 cases to the Board of Conference, where all but a single one of them were determined by unanimous action and to the satisfaction of the men. The case that came to me was decided in favor of the complainant, and the fine which had been imposed was remitted, with this statement:
Technically, and in accordance with all rules of discipline, the fine was a just one, and should be imposed in all similar cases. At the same time, I cannot avoid the feeling that this violation was made for no improper reason, and perhaps with a laudable desire to help the service ; and, in any case, probably the ends of justice and discipline are as fully satisfied by the mental anxiety to which the driver has been subjected, and the full discussion the subject has received in the' Committee of Forty-one' and the 'Board of Conference,' as they would be by the enforcement of the penalty. I, therefore, direct that the fine be remitted."
JUVENILE STREET INSPECTORS.
In the effort for general improvement no stone has been left unturned. Everything possible has been done to enlist the interest of all the people in our work, so that all might at least give the substantial negative aid of avoiding the littering of the streets. The end is not yet, by a great deal. Still, it cannot be gainsaid that where one person gave the least thought to the condition of the streets only three years ago, a hundred are now interested in keeping them clean.
Among the agencies by which this change has been brought about, the most important has been that of the Juvenile Leagues, the young volunteer aids of the Department. In the recent parade we turned out nearly five hundred boys and girls in white caps, representing many organizations, some of them of two years' standing. These organizations are actively engaged in "trying to keep the streets clean." This movement has been so useful and is now so promising that we are about to extend it throughout the whole public-school system, with the cordial concurrence of the Board of Education. The boys and girls constituting these leagues are active inspectors of local conditions, but they are especially useful as disseminators of ideas. They are our means of communication with their fathers and mothers, whom we often find it impossible to reach directly. Through them we get into contact with the public sentiment of large elements of the community which we could reach in no other way. Then, too, we are giving an entirely new and very useful training to those who are soon to become the men and women of the city. They are being taught that government does not mean merely a policeman to be run away from, but an influence which touches the life of the people at every point. We are making, it is hoped, citizens who will be interested in the city and who will do what they can to help improve its ways as well as its highways.
To this end we are bringing children into close relation with our work. Those who show the proper qualifications are given an official badge and a certificate.
It is hoped that the children in the public schools will, in time, also be made familiar with the work of other departments of the city government.
It is not only through the children that the influence of clean streets has been felt by the people of the least intelligent classes. It has justly been said that "cleanliness is catching," and clean streets are leading to clean hallways and staircases and cleaner living rooms. A recent writer says:
It is not merely justification of a theory to say that the improvement noticed in the past two and a half years in the streets of New York has led to an improvement in the interior of its tenement houses. A sense of personal pride has been awakened in the women and children, the results of which have long been noticeable to every one engaged in philanthropic work among the tenement dwellers. When, early in the present administration, a woman in the Five Points district was heard to say to another,' Well, I don't care, my street is cleaner than yours is, anyhow,' it was felt that the battle was won.
IMPROVED HEALTH AND COMFORT--DECLINE IN THE DEATH RATE.
Few realize the many minor ways in which the work of the Department has benefited the people at large. For example: There is far less injury from dust to clothing, to furniture, and to goods in shops; mud is not tracked from the streets on to the sidewalks, and thence into the houses; boots require far less cleaning; the wearing of overshoes has been largely abandoned; wet feet and bedraggled skirts are mainly a thing of the past, and children now make free use as a playground of streets which were formerly impossible to them. "Scratches," a skin-disease of horses due to mud and slush, used to entail very serious cost on truckmen and liverymen. It is now almost unknown. Horses used to "pick up a nail" with alarming frequency, and this caused great loss of service, and, like scratches, made the bill of the veterinary surgeon a serious matter. There are practically no nails now to be found in the streets.
The great, the almost inestimable, beneficial effect of the work of the Department is shown in the great reduction of the death rate, and in the less keenly realized but still more important reduction in the sick rate. As compared with the average death rate of 26.78 of 1882-1894, that of 1895 was 23.10, that of 1896 was 21.52, and that of the first half of 1897 was 19.63. If this latter figure is maintained throughout the year, there will have been 15,000 fewer deaths than there would have been had the average rate of the 13 previous years prevailed. The report of the Board of Health for 1896, basing its calculations on diarrheal diseases in July, August, and September, in the filthiest wards, in the most crowded wards, and in the remainder of the city, shows a very marked reduction in all, and the largest reduction in the first two classes.
It is not maintained, of course, that this great saving of life and health is due to street-cleaning work alone. Much is to be ascribed to improvements of the methods of the Board of Health, and not a little to the condemnation and destruction of rear tenements; but the Board of Health itself credits a great share of the gain to this department.
SOLDIERS OF CLEANLINESS AND HEALTH.
The progress thus far made is satisfactory. An inefficient and ill-equipped working force long held under the heel of the spoilsman has been emancipated, organized, and brought to its best. It now constitutes a brigade 3,000 strong, made up of well-trained and disciplined men, the representative soldiers of cleanliness and health--soldiers of the public--self-respecting and life-saving. These men are fighting daily battles with dirt, and are defending the health of the whole people. The trophies of their victories are all about us, in clean pavements, clean feet, uncontaminated air, a look of health on the faces of the people, and streets full of healthy children at play.
This is the outcome of two and a half years of strenuous effort--at first against official opposition and much public criticism. Two and a half years more, with a continuance of the present official favor and universal public approval, should bring our work to its perfection. It should make New York much the cleanest, and should greatly help to make it the healthiest, city in the world. By that time its death rate should be reduced to 15 per thousand--which would mean for our present population a saving of 60 lives per day out of the 140 daily lost under the average of 25.78 (1882-94).
I venture to predict a recovery, from the sale of refuse material, of at least one-half the cost of the whole work.
George E. Waring, Jr. Commissioner of Street Cleaning, New York (McClure's, April 1897)