New York's Finest (the police) and New York's Bravest (the fire department) both have their own museums. But New York's Strongest (the Department of Sanitation) has been sorely neglected!
It's a shame. Not only do New York's sanitation workers have the coolest logo (shown above), they are personally responsible for making this city liveable. Before the department was created in 1881 (and called the Department of Street Cleaning), New York's streets were foul and disgusting. The mud (mixed with horse manure) could reach shin deep. Snow that fell in the winter would be shoveled into piles that didn't melt until spring. Dead animals (horses, cows, dogs, cats) were pushed to the curb and allowed to slowly decompose. Giant pigs roamed the streets, scarfing down garbage that had been tossed into the gutters. In summer, the city's odor was said to be unbearable.
Not only was the filth smelly and disgusting--it was deadly. For centuries, garbage and sewage poisoned much of the city's water supply, and plagues swept through every few years, killing thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers. They ended after Colonel George Waring was appointed head of the Department of Street Cleaning. As the famous photographer Jacob Riis put it, "[Waring's] broom saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors."
Without the DSNY, there would still be plagues in New York. The men and women who keep the city clean make our lives safer by putting themselves in jeopardy. Even today, sanitation is one of the hardest, most dangerous jobs around. DSNY workers are three times more likely to be killed at work than police officers or fire fighters.
For those interested in the role the Department of Sanitation has played in New York's history, there's a new exhibit called “Loaded Out: Making a Museum,” which will run from December 13, 2007 through January 13, 2008 at 136 West 20th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan. (Open from 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM, Thursdays through Sundays.) Guess where I'll be tomorrow!
Here's a great article
about the DSNY from the New York Times.