Chasing Sanitation

Falling in Love with New York's Strongest

:: Chicks Who Dig Sanitation ::


In this continual Chase, the why continues to chase me, and only occasionally supplying me with rational explanations. I look at my cell phone filled mostly with Sanitation Workers and think I could use more diverse friends.

‘Course Mark here … well, why ask why, huh?

Most days, really, I think that’s the only reason I’m doing this project is …  look – it’s embarrassing.  It’s stupid and it’s simple and it’s embarrassing.

I want someone else to take out the trash.
I hate it.
Like Roy DiMaggio, I hate it.

I don’t know where this comes from.  But when I leave my apartment and see the Green Collars moving all over my neighborhood on a Monday morning, I realize my hood is just an extension of my home.  I should be so grateful I don’t have to pay some overpriced monthly fee for someone to cart away my two bags of trash per week.

Yes, I’m single. WOAH, some newsflash.  The bitching about taking out the trash screams it.  If I was married, would I still be Chasing Sanitation?  If my Italian patriarchs weren’t all Navy, Police and Firemen, would I be Chasing Sanitation?  If my dad wasn’t an accountant who constantly told me to do anything else but be an accountant, would I find these hard-working people so fascinating? Would I be so envious?

There is a part of me that thinks I’m certifiable.  I’m the reverse construction worker – eyeballin’ every collection truck that crosses my path, smiling stupidly at the guys moving all over my neighborhood on my morning dog walks, hootin’ at Hathaway when he snowplows down my street. Who does this???

Truth is:  Liz and I are not the only chicks to Chase Sanitation.  We come from a long line of chicks that have seen past the discarded to the person and City that keeps that garbage moving along. Before us, they all had their own reasons.  And we realize that this book project, this site, has already converted a precious few others.

Namely,

photo by Lisa's cell

Testa Rossa.

She found Sanitation on her own.

I didn’t say a thing to her.

Before that mutt, before Liz and Lisa, there was Robin. Dr. Robin Nagle. She’s Dr. Garbage. She ruminates about Sanitation Workers like I do. She’s even put on the uniform, hauled and dumped the trash, run the street sweeper. She lived to write about it. She’s still writing about it. She’s helming up the Museum of Sanitation. She is actually the DSNY’s Anthropologist-in-Residence. She kicks anthropological ass.

Before her, Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Now she’s a sort of pioneer – as well as being DSNY’s Artist-in-Residence. She connects my hatred of housework with my distraction with 7000 people doing New York’s housework. She’s met a lot more SanMen than we have. It could be that she and Robin have it actually worse than I do.

Jury’s still out on that.

But waaaaaaaaaay before any of us, before HBO’s “The Sopranos” gave everybody a smirky joke to make about Sanitation like they knew anything about anything, there was Josephine. Josephine Shaw Lowell.

An Excerpt from Kevin Rice & Local 831’s

From an excerpt from Dignity & Respect, by Kevin Rice, published by Local 831 (2009)

Women to the Rescue – Led by the Extraordinary Josephine Shaw Lowell

It took the “women’s movement” to focus public attention on the city’s Street Cleaners. Made up of mostly upper-class women, their embrace of political and moral reform led them quickly to the cause of labor. At first, they addressed child labor and the welfare of working women. However, their strong interest in sanitary reform soon acquainted them with street cleaning operations and the labor problems that beset it. For many, it appeared to view “municipal housekeeping” as an extension of their domestic roles. They considered the city their house and the streets “their hallway.”

These women helped Colonel Waring* find a more conciliatory approach to his “labor problems.” The Women’s Municipal League, a powerful agent of progressive change at the time, conducted regular inspections of the streets appointed as the official street inspectors and the Department’s stables. The League even proposed that women get appointed as the official street inspectors.  What had started as a “domestic” interest soon turned political. And, in the process, their desire to improve the conditions of the streets soon evolved into a desire to improve the conditions – and the pay – of the men who cleaned those streets. Before long the Women’s Municipal  League had become the champions of the White Wings.

No woman put her mark on the early Street Cleaners’ labor movement more than the founder of the Women’s Municipal League, Josephine Shaw Lowell. As a leader of the women’s movement, Lowell soon became a fierce advocate for better working conditions – especially for shorter hours – for the city’s workers, including Street Cleaners. She recognized the right of workers to organize and called on other women to help “found trade organizations where they do not exist and assist existing labor organizations to the end of increasing wages and shortening hours.”


Lowell corresponded with Colonel Waring when he was first beset by labor troubles. It was she who, in a series of letters to Waring, recommended the setting up of a “Board of Conciliation” to deal with the Street Cleaners’ grievances and demands. Her influence was at least partly responsible for Waring’s setting up a grievance apparatus, the “Committee of Forty-One,” to settle those matters. As Lowell wrote:

“I believe in the right to strike; but remember that a strike is like war; it brings great misery with it … What I want to do, is, with others, to prevent strikes …

When labor organizations and organizations of employers act together in joint boards of conciliation, they are, of course, far more effective for this purpose than when the two bodies act alone and often in opposition to each other.

If by means of such organizations the relations between employers and employed could be adapted on an enduring and satisfactory basis, all causes of strife and contention removed … wages increased … strikes and turnouts prevented … the health and comfort of the workmen looked after, and other matters discussed and regulated, who would say that such results would not be worth any sacrifice that they might cost?”

… “the women’s movement” focused public attention on the city’s Street cleaners. The Women’s Municipal League’s progressive goals had led them first to the cause of child labor and the welfare of working women, but their campaign for sanitary reform had also made them fast friends with and defenders of the White Wing. She group saw poor worker morale at the heart of the department’s inefficiency.  They also railed against the payoffs rampant in the city’s hiring system, and demanded better training for Street Cleaners. These mainly upper-class women saw “municipal housekeeping” as an extension of their role at home.

*Colonel George E. Waring was the Civil War veteran who was appointed in 1895 to  Commissioner of Street Cleaning in 1895 by then Mayor Strong. (Teddy Roosevelt was Strong’s first choice and opted to be Commissioner of Police instead.)  The Colonel insisted on being called Colonel, not Commissioner.  He was credited with the successful design of a modern sewage system in Memphis, TN. This is one of a few historical intersections between Sanitation in New York and Sanitation in Memphis.

*White Wings is the nickname given to the early ancestors of New York’s Strongest, when Waring changed the Street Cleaners’ uniforms to all white.  For an extra splash, he arranged the first Street Cleaners Parade in 1896 down Fifth Avenue to show them off as a then quasi-military force.

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Responses (2) to “:: Chicks Who Dig Sanitation ::”

  1. Lorinne says:

    Wow, this website is so gorgeous! Your hard work is certainly on bountiful display. I’m going to continue poking around the many pages now! Congratulations!

  2. Weintana says:

    I can’t say I’ve ever chased sanitation before or even thought beyond sorting my garbage into recyclables, compost, plastic etc. This is a beautiful, lyric blend of sociology, anthropology, art, and revolution! Good for you both and good luck with the fundraising!

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