Sanitation Dept. Turns 75!
Guest Column John J. Doherty, Sanitation Commissioner
New York City, the nation’s crown jewel, is celebrating the diamond anniversary of its Department of San-itation! And although some would argue that this gem is a diamond in the rough, without New York’s Strongest, the Big Apple would have never become “Capital of the World.”
It was December 1, 1929, and just as the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) was being born from its predecessor — the 48-year old Department of Street Cleaning — New York City and the rest of the nation were living one of their most turbulent years ever. A few weeks earlier, the New York Stock Exchange had crashed and the city, coming from a period of great prosperity, suddenly found itself facing an unprecedented economic depression.
In the years that followed, as the Great Depression deepened and many New Yorkers searched in vain for jobs, the DSNY offered steady employment to its nearly 15,000 street sweepers, drivers, locomotive engineers and wheelwrights, just to mention a few Department job titles. Other early titles included veterinarian and harness maker, both needed to attend to the needs of the DSNY’s horses for its horse-drawn vehicles. Both horse-drawn and en-gine-powered vehicles coexisted until 1933, when the entire fleet was motorized.
Back then as it is now, the job of a Sanitation Worker was tough, demand-ing and, at times, dangerous. In fact, no decade has gone by without its share of Sanitation casualties.
During its first decade, the DSNY operated over 2,500 pieces of automotive equipment, purchased its first snow blower, cleared snow from city streets in record time – Sanitation Workers were already pros at this — acquired its first mechanical brooms and created the toughest applicant physical test in the city. By 1934, with a ban on dumping garbage at sea, the DSNY had to turn to other methods of disposal, operating 22 incinerators and 89 landfills across the five boroughs. It is interesting to note that at the time, New Yorkers were firmly in favor of incinerators… as long as they weren’t built in their neighborhoods. And to think that the expression NIMBY hadn’t even been coined yet!
But at the DSNY, all was not about work. The Department also boasted a glee club, a full marching band that participated in over 180 performances a year, as well as a baseball team that played benefit games at Yankee Stadi-um. More recently, the DSNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums were born and have garnered many honors, including trophies won at the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue.
While the DSNY was growing, the city and the country saw the construction of the Empire State Building, the end of prohibition, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the presidency of FDR, the opening of the Apollo Theater and the release of Gone with the Wind. An international economic crisis and a world war are like bookends to this difficult era that began with the Great Depression and ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor and our country entering World War II. And just like other Americans, Sanitation employees joined the army and fought with great valor.
In the decades that followed, Ame-ricans lived through the Korean and Vietnam wars; the birth of the cold war, the space program and the
Frisbee; the signing of the Civil Rights Acts; the Beatles’ rise to fame; the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge; the assassination of President Kennedy, his brother Robert and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and the introduction of the personal computer. Concurrently, the DSNY operated landfills, among them the now closed Fresh Kills — the world’s largest landfill — as well as several incinerators and marine transfer stations; added a large number of compactor trucks to its fleet; adopted long-range solid waste management plans; and saw its workforce unionized. At one point the Department’s budget even surpassed the cost of running the U.N!
In 1986, DSNY hired its first women Sanitation Workers and recycling started. By then, the DSNY operated only two landfills, while waste volume had increased 21 percent since 1965.
In 2001, the World Trade Center Towers were destroyed by a terrorist attack. As the city tried to deal with its shock and grief, Sanitation Workers joined recovery operations on Ground Zero. In the months that followed, hundreds of DSNY workers toiled tirelessly in the tough and arduous WTC recovery work at both Ground Zero and on Staten Island.
Today, the Department has a total workforce of more than 9,500 uniformed and civilian employees, and operates 2,000 collection trucks, 450 mechanical brooms, 350 salt spreaders, 280 front-end loaders and another 2,360 support vehicles, many of which are linked to headquarters by global positioning satellite technology. Technological advances aside, what makes the DSNY work is its workforce, the men and women of Sanitation, who day in and day out put their hearts in their jobs and give it their all. In fact, for many of us Sanitation is a way of life and the place where we will spend most of our lives — in my case, over 40 years and counting!
Sanitation’s efforts to keep the city clean through partnerships with the community have borne fruit and today the city is the cleanest it’s been in over three decades! And yet, we’re not satisfied and keep pushing ourselves and our brooms to make New York an even cleaner place.
New York City and the Department of Sanitation…We’ve come a long way. We’ve grown together, our fates intertwined. We’ve had our share of difficulties, but we’ve always conquered them, emerging stronger than before.
So it’s only fitting that on the occasion of our Diamond Anniversary we ask all New Yorkers to join in and help us blow out our 75 candles.