cover image Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York -- The Last Two Hundred Years

Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York -- The Last Two Hundred Years

Benjamin Miller. Basic Books, $18 (425pp) ISBN 978-1-56858-172-9

Of all of New York's unnatural resources, garbage is perhaps the most lucrative and, historically, the most contested. This deeply researched, eclectic history of how New York has handled its increasingly mountainous accumulations of trash is social and political history at its best. As Miller's comprehensive view makes clear, the problem of urban garbage disposal has many tentacles. While social philosopher Jeremy Bentham viewed it as a moral problem, yellow fever and cholera outbreaks in the city later revealed that it was also a health problem. When new technology allowed grease to be easily extracted from refuse, however, it became an economic boon; as the metropolis began to expand, garbage also became a basic landfill material, producing millions for developers and city politicians. Miller, the former director of policy for the New York City Department of Sanitation, is equally at ease with the intricacies of Brooklyn ward politics, Frederick Law Olmsted's theories of urban planning and Edison's plan for convenient electricity, and manages to work many fascinating details into his larger economic and political framework. His story grows pointedly relevant when he details the 1938 efforts of municipal administrator Robert Moses to designate the Fresh Kills marshland as a landfill area (in order to fulfill his secret plan to build a bridge to New Jersey from Staten Island)Da move that infuriated environmentalists and continues to haunt the city's administrations. Miller has crafted a notably elegant treatment of this important though neglected topic. Agent, Malaga Baldi. (Oct.)