Why Does New York City Smell So Bad?

September 9, 2019

New York City has always been described as filthy and smelly with trash everywhere. But, how did New York develop these characteristics? It began with the original urban planning back in the 1800's.


FEMALE_1: I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought

FEMALE_1: a peach and stood on a corner eating it.

FEMALE_1: I could taste the peach and feel

FEMALE_1: the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs,

FEMALE_1: and I could smell lilac and

FEMALE_1: garbage and expensive perfume.

FEMALE_1: That's Joan Didion describing the beginning

FEMALE_1: of her love affair with New York. Here's E.B.

FEMALE_1: White taking a walk on

FEMALE_1: a summer night through the Lower East Side.

FEMALE_1: I head east along Rivington.

FEMALE_1: All is cheerful and filthy and crowded.

FEMALE_1: It is folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and

FEMALE_1: squashed fruit and fly

FEMALE_1: bitten filth in the gutter and cooking.

FEMALE_1: Notice the olfactory details.

FEMALE_1: New York City is and always has been a smelly city.

FEMALE_1: Today Google is full of questions,

FEMALE_1: like why does New York City smell so bad?

FEMALE_1: Why does New York City smell like pee?

FEMALE_1: Well, there are 27,000 people

FEMALE_1: per square mile in New York City.

FEMALE_1: These individuals sweat, cook,

FEMALE_1: and of course produce

FEMALE_1: trash and the scent that really hits the

FEMALE_1: hardest on a hot August afternoon in

FEMALE_1: the city is the smell of roasting garbage.

FEMALE_1: New York City's residential trash adds up

FEMALE_1: to about 7,000 tons a day.

FEMALE_1: Walk down any residential street

FEMALE_1: on trash pickup day and you

FEMALE_1: have to thread your way among giant garbage bags,

FEMALE_1: mounts of residential waste,

FEMALE_1: piled along the curb spilling over onto the sidewalk.

FEMALE_1: That helps answer the questions about the smell

FEMALE_1: but this urban wasteland begs another question.

FEMALE_1: Why does New York City pile it's garbage on the sidewalk?

FEMALE_1: New Yorkers put their trash out

FEMALE_1: on the street and sidewalks because there

FEMALE_1: aren't alleyways where it can be

FEMALE_1: stored out of the way in big bins.

FEMALE_1: So why doesn't New York City have alleys?

FEMALE_1: [MUSIC] The answer to that has to

FEMALE_1: do with how the city's grid was drawn.

FEMALE_1: It is also like

FEMALE_1: so many other New York City Stories about real estate.

FEMALE_1: The Big Apple started out as

FEMALE_1: a Dutch trading post on

FEMALE_1: the very southern tip of the island.

FEMALE_1: It was a jumble of haphazard, meandering streets.

FEMALE_1: Landowners were left to

FEMALE_1: their own devices to build streets where it suited them.

FEMALE_1: There was no formal city planning.

FEMALE_1: There also wasn't yet any formal plan for

FEMALE_1: sanitation and let the record show

FEMALE_1: people from other cities have been dogging

FEMALE_1: New York for being trashy since its inception.

FEMALE_1: In 1697, a doctor from Boston wrote off Manhattan,

FEMALE_1: "Their streets are nasty and unregarded."

FEMALE_1: By this point just after the Revolutionary War,

FEMALE_1: the city was experiencing

FEMALE_1: a huge population boom and was trying to organize itself.

FEMALE_1: They'd created a health commission,

FEMALE_1: hired some street sweepers,

FEMALE_1: and started naming and numbering

FEMALE_1: the 90 or so existing streets.

FEMALE_1: As the population increased and

FEMALE_1: the economy started to take off,

FEMALE_1: city leaders began to

FEMALE_1: realize there was a profit to be made.

FEMALE_1: The problem, compared even with Paris and London,

FEMALE_1: randomly built New York with its narrow, crooked streets,

FEMALE_1: and few and shabby public buildings was

FEMALE_1: the ridicule of strangers and all persons of taste.

FEMALE_1: The state legislature appointed three men as

FEMALE_1: commissioners and gave them

FEMALE_1: exclusive power to lay out streets, roads,

FEMALE_1: and public squares of such width, extent,

FEMALE_1: and direction as to them shall

FEMALE_1: seem most conducive to public good.

FEMALE_1: The commissioners were Gouveneur Morris,

FEMALE_1: a Founding Father, John Rutherford,

FEMALE_1: a former US senator,

FEMALE_1: and the New York State Surveyor General, Simeon De Witt.

FEMALE_1: The only instructions they were

FEMALE_1: given were that the avenues should be

FEMALE_1: at least 60 feet wide and that

FEMALE_1: other streets should be at least 50 feet wide.

FEMALE_1: They were given four years to survey the 13 mile,

FEMALE_1: 11,000 acre island and they

FEMALE_1: weren't required to give any

FEMALE_1: progress reports in the interim.

FEMALE_1: We do know based on their letters that by

FEMALE_1: November of 1810 with

FEMALE_1: only four months until their report was due,

FEMALE_1: the commissioners still had not settled on a plan and

FEMALE_1: yet in 1811 they presented

FEMALE_1: what would become the Manhattan grid you see today.

FEMALE_1: In a way, it's funny that the grid has been so

FEMALE_1: lauded as the most courageous act of

FEMALE_1: prediction in Western civilization and

FEMALE_1: the best manifestation of

FEMALE_1: American pragmatism in the creation

FEMALE_1: of urban form because

FEMALE_1: the 1811 commissioners plan seems to have been largely

FEMALE_1: borrowed from an earlier grid and that

FEMALE_1: earlier grid wasn't meant to be a master city plan,

FEMALE_1: it was drawn to help New York City make money.

FEMALE_1: In the 1790s after the Revolutionary War,

FEMALE_1: the growing city needed revenue,

FEMALE_1: so its leaders decided to sell off the land it owned,

FEMALE_1: 1300 acres in central Manhattan

FEMALE_1: about nine percent of the total area of the island.

FEMALE_1: In 1794, the city hired

FEMALE_1: surveyor Casimir Goerck to divide

FEMALE_1: the common lands into parcels

FEMALE_1: that could be auctioned off.

FEMALE_1: Goerck was instructed to create

FEMALE_1: five acre plots and to make

FEMALE_1: sure each plot had road access.

FEMALE_1: He divided the common lands into 212 lots,

FEMALE_1: each lot was five acres and had

FEMALE_1: street access on at least two sides.

FEMALE_1: According to Gerard Koeppel the historian who wrote

FEMALE_1: the book on the development of Manhattan's grid,

FEMALE_1: Goerck's map is the genesis of the 1811 grid

FEMALE_1: and the city's own Landmarks Preservation Commission

FEMALE_1: said in a report that

FEMALE_1: Commissioners Plan borrowed heavily

FEMALE_1: from Goerck's earlier surveys and

FEMALE_1: essentially expanded his scheme beyond

FEMALE_1: the common lands to encompass the entire island.

FEMALE_1: Now let's get back to Alice.

FEMALE_1: Goerck didn't include Alice in

FEMALE_1: his plan because he wasn't planning a city,

FEMALE_1: he was dividing up a large tract of

FEMALE_1: land so that it could be sold to private owners.

FEMALE_1: The Commissioners Plan of 1811,

FEMALE_1: the one that became the Manhattan grid we have

FEMALE_1: today didn't include Alice because, well,

FEMALE_1: the commissioners hastily copied that common lands map of

FEMALE_1: 1794 or as the curator of

FEMALE_1: New York City's Tenement Museum once wrote, "Above all,

FEMALE_1: the commissioners sought to level

FEMALE_1: Manhattan's natural landscape and

FEMALE_1: bring every inch of the city into

FEMALE_1: productive use by facilitating the sale and

FEMALE_1: distribution of land through a systemic standardization."

FEMALE_1: Or as the urban planning scholar Peter Marcuse puts it,

FEMALE_1: "The commissioners grid is

FEMALE_1: a plane of real estate development,

FEMALE_1: instead of a textured urban form and is one of

FEMALE_1: the worst city plans of

FEMALE_1: any major city in the developed countries of the world."

FEMALE_1: [MUSIC] Today,

FEMALE_1: the New York Department of Sanitation operates a fleet of

FEMALE_1: 2,500 trucks and performs

FEMALE_1: a truly impressive feat in

FEMALE_1: keeping the city from drowning in trash.

FEMALE_1: There are even proposals floating around to

FEMALE_1: take a page from Barcelona's playbook

FEMALE_1: with communal dumpsters on each block or

FEMALE_1: Sweden's with pneumatic tubes and underground storage.

FEMALE_1: Next thing you get a whiff of old that garbage,

FEMALE_1: you can think those procrastinating 1800s commissioners.