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Voices Buried in the Ash Heap: Private Waste Disposers, Scavengers, and the 1939 World’s Fair

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Tina Peabody is a 2017 Short-Term Research Fellow at NYPL and Ph.D candidate in United States history at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is currently completing her dissertation entitled, Wretched Refuse: Garbage and the Making of New York City, a social and economic history of garbage collection and disposal in New York City between the 1870s and 1990s.

Studying the history of garbage teaches you that treasures can often be found in unexpected places, and this was certainly true of my research at The New York Public Library. This summer, I spent three weeks at the Manuscripts and Archives Division hoping to learn more about the role of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City’s solid waste management decisions in the mid-twentieth century. My hope was that I would uncover voices less often represented in histories of waste management, especially private waste disposers and scavengers. This research is part of a larger dissertation project in progress entitled, Wretched Refuse: Garbage and the Making of New York City, which examines the history of garbage collection and disposal in New York City and its effect on the social and economic fabric of the City between the 1870 and 1890s. 

The Robert Moses papers and the records of the New York World’s Fair Corporation from 1939 and 1940 provided me a window into the moment when the City was turning to sanitary landfilling as the dominant method of dealing with waste. Ted Steinberg's Gotham Unbound and Benjamin Miller's Fat of the Land have both shown that Robert Moses, infamous primarily for his role in infrastructure projects like the Triborough Bridge, played a large role in this eventual shift to sanitary landfilling. Though personally in favor of incineration as an ultimate waste disposal strategy, Moses not only cooperated with the Department of Sanitation to turn an old ash dump into Queens into the World’s Fair grounds (later Flushing Meadows Park), but cooperated with the Department of Sanitation to use refuse as fill for creating new park space, including Soundview Park, Orchard Beach, and Pelham Bay Park. This temporarily solved the problem of disposing the City’s waste after ocean dumping was officially outlawed in 1934, while satisfying Moses’ desire to increase recreational facilities on the City’s waterfront. 

Fairgrounds - Pre-Construction - Aerial view of site
Fairgrounds - Pre-Construction - Aerial view. New York World's Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated records

Though I knew the main features of this story, during my time at the archives I happened upon voices I did not expect to hear, many of which suggested the way that waste disposal decisions in this era marginalized private scavenging. As Carl Zimring has argued in Cash for Your Trash, scavenging and junk dealing had once been the province of immigrant groups and sometimes even provided a rare chance for upward mobility, but after World War I these opportunities waned. Particularly striking in this context was a letter to Grover Whalen, President of the World’s Fair Corporation, from a Long Island resident named Anthony Carrailo. Carrailo was a father of four, who begged permission to salvage scrap iron from the World’s Fair grounds where old sewer systems were being dug up. Carrailo noted that he had once been a WPA worker, but left because he felt there was more opportunity in salvage and emphasized that this was his only means of supporting his family. 

Carrailo’s letter was received on August 2, 1937. Four days later, C. T. Ford, Maintenance Engineer in the World’s Fair Operations Department, wrote a memo to the Chief Engineer and Director of Construction to deny Carrailo salvage rights, noting that they had already denied many similar requests. “These junk pickers have proved quite a nuisance at this site and the police are trying to keep them out,” Ford wrote, and added that there were two signs on the grounds announcing that junk picking was prohibited. The Fair Corporation received similar letters from other private contractors trying to capitalize on the waste disposal needs of the concessionaires at the World’s Fair. Some, like Carrailo’s, were denied outright, especially when it would have required concessionaires to separate out particular kinds of waste. By 1938, Ford suggested that the Fair Corporation handle waste collection and disposal with its own forces, disposing of all the waste by incineration. Incineration, like sanitary landfilling, would mean closing the door to wide-scale reuse of waste that private contractors and scavengers were advocating.

 Anthony Carrailo letter. New York World's Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated records. Photo credit: Tina Peabody.


Carrailo’s letter and Ford’s memo sat in a slim folder simply marked “Carrailo, Anthony” in the midst of the voluminous records of the World’s Fair Corporation. Had it not been for the considerable time I was able to spend sifting through the World’s Fair records because of my New York Public Library Short-Term Research Fellowship, Carrailo’s voice, like so many other private waste contractors and scavengers, might have been lost. I am thankful for the chance decision to open that folder, and hopeful that Carrailo’s story will now become part of the larger history of waste management, where it rightly belongs. 

 

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