Conquering the Organic in Filthy Cities

In 2012, the final episode of the BBC-documentary series Filthy Cities, hosted by the English television presenter Dan Snow, took viewers back “to a seething Manhattan in the throes of the industrial revolution.” Among other things, the only American episode of this three-part series argued that New York was a “nightmare” for the millions of poor emigrants who settled in the Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points in the late nineteenth century.

As Snow recites, New York was one of “the most disgusting and filthy places on earth;” it was a corrupt and frontier city, where immigrants were ruthlessly exploited by plutocratic barons and avaricious landlords, residents were hemmed in by claustrophobic and unhygienic tenement conditions—without access to central heating, running water, or public sewers—and parasitic diseases like typhus and cholera were permitted to reign unabated.

Although the smell, muck, and filth of industrial Manhattan might offend our modern sensibilities, recent scholarship on what American historian Ted Steinberg has called ‘the organic city’ suggests there were some benefits to these nineteenth-century urban environments that Filthy Cities does not explore. By extension, the triumphalist conquest of the unclean city did not come without significant environmental and social consequences.

Filthy Cities derives its narrative bent from a historiographical tradition about the triumph of the modern world over its pre-modern forebear. In American historiography, the period under consideration by this episode is often categorized as the Progressive Era (1890-1917). It has largely become defined by community activists like Jane Addams, who co-founded the Chicago Hull House in 1889, and muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, who exposed the conditions of the Chicago abattoir industry in 1906. In the context of the documentary, the surgeon and public-health pioneer Stephen Smith stands in for these exceptional individuals, who are credited with blazing the trail for the modern city by conquering uncleanliness.

Although the progressive narrative holds sway in the public consciousness, urban and environmental historians have begun to re-examine some of its assumptions. In his Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (2002), Steinberg argues that sanitary reforms “came at a cost,” namely the sacrifice of “a certain social and environmental logic.” For example, when city reformers replaced horses with electric streetcars, they terminated the factory-like manure production that supported local hay crops and vegetable gardens. To this day, it is hard to believe that some landowners, such as one who lived in the now-dissolved King County, New York, actually bestowed their manure piles to their descendants in their wills.

Also, the installation of public sewage systems dispersed biological waste into the harbors, lakes, and rivers, when previously it had provided employment to “night-soilers” who would recycle the waste as fertilizer. These night-soilers would extract biological waste from privies and cesspools; and then they would market that waste to countryside farmers, who lived on the outskirts of town where land was cheaper. In this sense, the night-soilers participated in the economy, cleaned up the city, and encouraged composting practices all at the same time; however, this agro-ecological practice disappeared after the advent of underground plumbing.

As Steinberg continues, progressive-era reformers essentially eliminated a sustainable and inexpensive street-cleaning crew when they lobbied to prohibit swine from roaming the public streets. After devouring garbage that lined the city thoroughfares, these pigs could be butchered and eaten, thus completing a logical food cycle. In this way, Steinberg argues that pigs converted local refuse into protein for the working-class poor. After pigs were banished from city streets, trash increasingly became dumped outside of the city limits, in such places as the Atlantic Ocean, “some 760,000 cubic yards of refuse in 1896 alone.”

But Steinberg is not the only historian who is interested in drawing connections between the development of urban environments and their coeval social consequences. For example, the American historian Michael Rawson discusses these connections in his Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (2010). Rawson argues that the enclosing of the public commons had significant consequences for the farmers who made their living by grazing their cows on its grass, planting their produce on its plots, and penning their chickens and swine in its limits. To this day, the grass on the Boston commons is restricted to recreational use and leisure, and the city has to pay mowers to do what cows had done for free—what horses and cows were still doing in other American cities.

In general, urban scholarship has invested itself in understanding the complex historical relationships that have existed between environmental social change. To provide two examples, Matthew Klingle has probed these questions in relation to Seattle, Washington, in his Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (2007), and Andrew Hurley has addressed them in relation to Gary, Indiana, in his Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 (1995). Although these scholars often disagree about how to handle the problems associated with environmental and social change, none of them are willing to doubt their existence.

Among other criticisms, Filthy Cities attacks tenemency in Five Points, Manhattan. Snow states  that overcrowded apartments that doubled as workplaces resulted in many of the sanitary problems that plagued the industrial city. But just as the fear of all things smelly and filthy can be traced (in part) to Progressive-era writings, this negative outlook on tenemency also has distinct roots in the historiographical record. Not only was the idea of urban dwellings abhorrent to the Jeffersonian ideals of the planter class, but the American historian Lewis Mumford positioned overcrowding as the bane of the modern city in his The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961). To all of these figures, tenement buildings were interpreted as dark and depressing incubators of disease and discontent.

But now even this idea has been challenged. David Owen, in his book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability (2010), argues that high-density living is the solution to our modern environmental woes. Using Manhattan as his model, and basing his data on per capita usage rather than square miles, Owen argues that residents of high-density areas always produce less carbon emissions, produce less material waste, purchase less consumer products, get more exercise, use less energy, and destroy less natural habitat than their suburban and rural counterparts. In this sense, Owen suggests value in the organic, immigrant slums that Filthy Cities deplores.

What can we make of this research? Has the time arrived for a large-scale re-evaluation of the Progressive-era cleanup, as well as a re-evaluation of the design for the modern American city? Are urban Americans ready to see manure in their streets again? Are they ready to share their sidewalks with pigs and chickens? Can these sorts of changes even be implemented without returning to the unsanitary conditions that seemed to demand their abolition in the first place? Or, will the organic cities of the future be something entirely different from anything we have seen in the past?

What do you think?

You can watch the entire episode of Filthy Cities, ”Industrial New York,” on YouTube at

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


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