New York was pretty much a cesspool in the 19th century. “We were a laughingstock,” as anthropologist and trash historian Robin Nagle once put it. But in an odd way, New York owes its current success to its refuse—after all, it’s built on the stuff.
The ocean has been New York’s garbage dump for centuries. It’s estimated that 80 percent of our trash ended up in the sea at one time, but plenty wound up lining the city’s shore too—starting a long tradition of expanding the city’s footprint artificially. By the 20th century, this “landfill” had created many thousands of new acres for the city—what the New York Times wouldcall the “fattening” of the city in 1966.
And it wasn’t just garbage: It was refuse including rubble, rock, and dirt, often carted in from the city’s biggest infrastructure projects. The digging of the subway system, Grand Central, and even the original World Trade Center helped create acres upon acres of New Manhattan. In an odd sense, NYC has cannibalized itself—digesting what lies beneath and spitting it out along its shoreline, an ever-hungry parasite that is still churning out new land today.
Ellis Island Is Built On Rubble Displaced By the Subways
Right now, Ellis Island sits on almost 28 acres. Originally, it was 3.3. Those 24 extra acres were created using landfill beginning in the 1890s, but no one quite agrees where it came from. Most sources, including The National Parks Service, say it came from the construction of the modern subway system—including Grand Central, seen being excavated above!—which means that NYC’s subway system directly contributed to creating the primary entrance point for millions of new New Yorkers.
But here’s the funny thing about the historical ambiguity: The question about where the landfill came from ended up being really important. You see, even though it’s on the New Jersey side of the line, New York has long claimed the island for its own. But in the 1990s, New Jersey actually took New York to court over it, claiming that all of the “artificial” parts of the island—practically all of it!—belonged to Jersey. Part of New York’s defense was that the landfill parts had come from digging the subway tunnels below Manhattan—but NYC’s council couldn’t actually find the proof they needed, according to the New York Times.
As this great Proud Geek post explains, they ended up agreeing to disagree, and today, all the fake parts of the island are actually New Jersey. New York still claims that original 3.3 acres, though.
Part of FDR Drive, which snakes up Manhattan’s eastern profile, was actually built over rubble shipped over from wartime England—a fact first brought to our attention in 2007 by BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh, who explained that rubble from bombed English cities were used as ballast for ships coming to America.
As it turns out, most of the rubble actually came from Bristol, upon which German planes dropped thousands of bombs during World War II. Over on Jalopnik, Michael Ballaban elaborates:
With nearly 85,000 buildings destroyed, Bristol had lots and lots of rubble. Just plenty of it. And when push came to ballast, the Brits just sort of said “screw it,” I imagine, and heaved the remnants of their homes and their factories and their beautiful churches into the bowels of chugging cargo ships.
They dropped so much rubble there, in fact, that the area near the water’s edge between 23rd street and 34th street came to be known as the “Bristol Basin.”
Rikers Island Is Built on Ashes and 19th Century Refuse
In the 1880s, the city decided it was time to build a bigger jail—and it would use its voluminous garbage output to do it.
As The New York Times explained in a September 1886 story called To Build a Bigger Jail, cribwork would be filled with ashes and “street dirt” from the city. It would save the Street Cleaning Department a hell of a lot of trouble: “On that basis, the Street Cleaning Department estimates that it can fill here about 50 acres per annum at a vast saving over the present mode of getting rid of refuse material, which is supposed to be by sending it out to see in barges,” explained the NYT.
In a horrifying account of the landfill operations by Corrections History, we get this quote from a city employee who worked on the project for years:
The rats grew so numerous and so large that the department imported dogs in an effort to eliminate the rats. The dogs were not fed by the authorities but lived soley on the rats. Despite this, . . . the rats continued to multiply. . . . Gases . . . were constantly exploding through the soil covering and bursting into flames . . . in the summer the ground resembled a sea of small volcanos, all breathing smoke and flames. . .
Images: “Unloading ashes and rubbish” at Rikers in 1906 via the Internet Archives on Flickr; Rikers Island in 2012 by Doc Searls/CC.
Battery Park City Is Built on Dirt Excavated From the WTC
For decades before it got underway, people called Battery Park City “the new town” on the Hudson. It was to be a wonder of engineering, and it would be created through the”construction a cellular-steel cofferdam retaining structure, extending 1,500 feet along the six waterfront block,” explained the New York Times in a December 1966 article titled Hudson Landfill Project to Start. Inside that structure would go refuse and rock excavated by its neighbor: The World Trade Center.
“The landfill will further fatten Manhattan Island, which has gradually spread itself into the Hudson River, the East River, and the Upper Bay ever since the days of Nieuw Amsterdam more than 300 years ago,” the NYT added.
Images: The finished landfill during an anti-nuclear rally in 1979, AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis; Wil Blache, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
And the Landfill Continues
Though landfill definitely seems like a 19th century phenomenon, it continues until this day in NYC. The City Atlas points out that the excavated refuse from numerous current infrastructure projects—including the Second Avenue Subway line—is being carted out to help along other projects around the city, including Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Meanwhile, on Staten Island, the former world’s largest garbage dump is now a park that actually generates revenue for the city. So the metabolism of New York, an endless geological give and take, continues to churn away.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffe
Lead image: Illegal dumping off the New Jersey Turnpike; Gary Miller, National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons