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From the Clean Train Movement to the War on Rats: New York City’s History of Inequitable Sanitation

Image via Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

“The rats don’t run this city, we do,” New York City Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch proclaimed in an October 18 announcement. Alongside Mayor Eric Adams, Tisch revealed that starting April 1, 2023, New Yorkers will be fined if they put their trash outside before 8:00 PM in an attempt to curb the city’s rat population. The announcement, heavily “memed” on TikTok, is the latest move in the public “War on Rats” that Eric Adams has been waging since 2019. However, this move has not come without its share of controversy. Not only have social media users voiced concerns that Adams is placing too much emphasis on eliminating rats over other pressing issues in the city, but this new policy plays into a larger historical trend of criminalizing marginalized individuals in the name of “sanitation.” 

One of Adams’ most contentious initiatives has been his clearing of homeless encampments in the city, which he claims will ensure “that everyone who lives in or visits our city can enjoy the clean public spaces we all deserve.” In the process, however, Adams and his administration arrested housing justice activists, gave some residents only 24 hours notice before the destruction of their homes, and provided unsafe shelters as some of the only housing alternatives. This move disproportionately affected people of color, with Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic communities experiencing disproportionately high rates of homelessness. This is not the only instance in NYC history where mayors have acted in this way. In 1999, former mayor Rudy Guilliani spearheaded an initiative where people living on the streets would be arrested if they refused to move into a homeless shelter. These two examples exemplify broader systemic issues in NYC sanitation policy, including classism and racism. Examining historical patterns in NYC’s sanitation policies and procedures reveals a history of marginalization and discrimination. 

These problems are not specific to New York: Cities across the country have a history of emphasizing aesthetics and cleanliness, often at the expense of minority communities. After the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, architects and urban planners across the country pioneered the City Beautiful Movement. The movement was centered around the idea that urban design and social behavior are deeply intertwined. Parks, boulevards, and plazas were built to help create “ideal” cities which, in theory, would promote “ideal” behavior from citizens.

Poor communities were displaced to make way for elaborate structures, and activist Jane Jacobs criticized the movement for its emphasis on aesthetics rather than social factors as a means to solve inequity. Regardless of the original objective of the City Beautiful Movement, it laid the foundation for a pattern that has repeated itself throughout the history of urban planning and policy. Minority communities are continuously sacrificed for the sake of promoting “clean aesthetics” in cities – with “cleanliness” often implying the promotion of whiteness and suppression of the practices of marginalized groups. 

A striking example of this phenomenon occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s when city authorities and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) deployed sanitation tactics to eliminate graffiti in the subway system. The MTA implemented the “Clean Train Movement,” enacting harsher legal consequences for graffiti, increasing the police presence, and pulling trains off of routes the moment graffiti was detected. David Gunn, the then head of the MTA and pioneer of the Clean Train Movement, viewed this initiative as something that could both improve the functionality of an outdated subway system and its overall aesthetic. Further, the tactics used in the movement fed into the broader “broken windows theory” of policing, or the notion that cracking down on smaller crimes such as graffiti or smoking weed can prevent the spread of larger crimes and decrease crime rates at large. However, these policies—like those in the “Clean Train Movement”—came at the expense of minority communities. 

While the history of New York’s sanitation practices is riddled with instances of discrimination and oppression, there are key moments of resistance and community organizing against the city’s policies. In the late 1960s, the Department of Sanitation notoriously neglected residents of East Harlem with an irregular trash pick-up schedule, while wealthier and whiter areas of the city were consistently cleaned and maintained. After asking the city to clean up the trash piling up in the neighborhood to no avail, the Young Lords—a collective of Puerto Rican activists—organized a “garbage offensive” in July of 1969, taking cleaning equipment from the Department of Sanitation and blocking off 110th Street and 3rd Avenue with trash and old furniture. As a result of the blockade, city authorities were pressured into improving trash-collecting procedures in the area, implementing policies to aid with street cleaning and dumping schedules.  

The city’s sanitation practices in the 19th and 20th centuries paved the way for modern-day sanitation practices where, unfortunately, broader systemic issues are still prevalent. In July 2022, a class action lawsuit against the DSNY alleged that female and racial minority employees are continuously relegated to lower-paying positions while having nearly identical responsibilities as their higher-paid white male counterparts. Not only do city officials perpetuate systemic inequality in the communities they serve with their sanitation policies, but with their internal structures and operations as well. 

In an attempt to combat the marginalization that exists within sanitation policy, mutual aid groups around the city are working to provide resources to vulnerable populations. Social media accounts such as Sweep Alert NYC post announcements on when certain homeless encampments will be cleared by the NYPD and the DSNY. Other groups such as North Brooklyn Mutual Aid organized trash and compost pickups in the summer of 2021. Just as the Young Lords party resisted discriminatory DSNY and city government policies in the 1960s, contemporary mutual aid groups continue this legacy by serving populations neglected by authorities. 

Contemporary NYC sanitation initiatives, which destroy the livelihoods of some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, follow the same patterns seen in the City Beautiful Movement and other shameful moments in NYC history. The well-being of marginalized communities has always been regarded as a lower priority than the city’s overall sanitation and “clean aesthetic.” To right this historic wrong, the city government and the Department of Sanitation need to openly acknowledge the harm their sanitation policies have done, work with community members to understand their needs, and spotlight activists and organizers who are fighting back against oppressive sanitation policies. Trash and sanitation policies should not be viewed as non-political, and working to understand the ways that they influence different communities is critical in addressing broader systemic inequalities in NYC and beyond.