This article examines efforts by the John V. Lindsay administration (1966–1973) to deal with the New York City sanitation crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By this period, the Department of Sanitation could barely function in most low-income neighborhoods of New York City, and this resulted in a series of direct and indirect protest actions. The mass media blamed Mayor Lindsay for the situation and characterized him as an ineffectual city manager. This image has persisted with scholars contending that Lindsay never figured out how to run the city government. This article diverges from these accounts and argues that the Lindsay administration actually rebuilt the Department of Sanitation—a city agency that was operationally breaking down before Lindsay became mayor. In fact, the Lindsay administration popularized the notion that a modern city with global aspirations has to meet the basic spatial needs of its residents and that efficient and responsive sanitation delivery can be achieved through the rationalization of resources and services. The article is available here.
A version of this article was presented at Columbia University's City Seminar in November 2010.
As I argue in the article, while most New Yorkers believed that sanitation provision was inadequate during the postwar period, their perceptions of poor sanitation service depended on race, class, and geography. Everyone took garbage disposal for granted, even though it caused significant environmental problems, it frequently interfered with garbage collection, and its deficiencies threatened to destroy New York's entire solid waste management system. Middle- and upper-income residents also took garbage collection for granted, usually because they received decent collection service. Instead, they complained about unsatisfactory street cleaning. In contrast, low-income residents complained about unacceptable levels of garbage collection, because there was no point in complaining about dirty streets if garbage remained uncollected. All of these groups of people were generally dissatisfied with sanitation enforcement, although middle- and upper-income groups wanted enforcement against littering violations, as opposed to low-income groups, who wanted enforcement against indifferent landlords, bulk dumpers, and vacant-lot owners. The level of sanitation also varied in terms of geography, although to a great extent race and class defined that geography. Manhattan enjoyed better sanitation provision than the other boroughs. Manhattan south of 96th Street did markedly better than Manhattan north of 96th Street. White neighborhoods in the outer boroughs received better sanitation services when compared to African American and Latino neighborhoods. Such patterns of uneven distribution came to be expected. What eventually became unbearable was not just inequality but also the degree of service deterioration.
This article is part of a project about the maldistribution of municipal services in postwar New York. It will include research on sanitation, policing, firefighting, and infrastructural maintenance and will culminate to a book entitled When the Government Disappears: Inadequate Municipal Service Delivery and the Decline of New York City, 1945–1981.