Pollans on Melosi, 'Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City'

Martin V. Melosi
Lily B. Pollans

Martin V. Melosi. Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 800 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-18949-1.

Reviewed by Lily B. Pollans (Hunter College, City University of New York) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58197

Over his career, Martin Melosi has helped historians and urbanists to understand the vital role of sanitation and environmental infrastructure in the development of American cities. His latest book, Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City, published by Columbia University Press, takes on Fresh Kills Landfill, one of the largest pieces of solid waste disposal infrastructure in the United States, tracing its entire life span, from thriving salt marsh to gargantuan landfill to rare bird habitat at the edge of a metropolis.

Fresh Kills is in direct conversation with a recent thread of New York City histories that have been retelling the evolution of the city as a continuing negotiation between politics and land. These new works, including Kara Schlichting’s New York Recentered (2019) and Steven Corey and Carl Zimring’s collection Coastal Metropolis (2021) are, together, making New York’s environmental history—particularly the construction and management of the city’s coastlines—legible in a new way. Fresh Kills also expands the growing subsection of work in within discard studies, which Melosi himself instigated with his first book, Garbage in the Cities, which highlights the intricate relationships between industrial consumption, municipal waste disposal, and the physical and political construction of the modern city. Fresh Kills provides what may be the deepest examination of these relationships yet, using the tale of a single piece of infrastructure to demonstrate just how fundamental garbage management has been to New York City’s development in the industrial age.

Fresh Kills is an epic drama, extraordinarily rich in archival detail, that traces New York City’s long saga of waste disposal from the early nineteenth century through the present day. At times, the story is an outright romp, as it tracks political hijinks, corruption, mafia involvement, and neighborhood-scale rivalries. But it hangs together as a serious account of the city’s remarkably consistent failure to plan adequately for the future of garbage even as garbage remade the city one dumpsite after another.

Fresh Kills begins part 1 (“The Backdrop”) with an introduction to New York City’s geography, political and physical. Readers are situated within the city’s unusual borough structure and the particular dynamics of urbanization on a land-scarce island. The history of how the boroughs agglomerated into one institutionally complicated political territory is also the history of how Staten Island—a rural island dominated by agriculture well into the 1880s and more geographically and culturally proximate to New Jersey—was convinced to annex itself New York City on the promise of investment, infrastructure, and modern services.

But instead, as Melosi details in part 2, “Staten Island: The Borough of Last Resort,” the island’s sacrifice of independence yielded first a yellow fever quarantine station—which residents protested and eventually burned down—and then a long string of noxious land uses, one after another. Staten Island residents quickly began to understand themselves “as pawns rather than partners in city affairs” (p. 80).

Melosi follows a number of fascinating narratives that connect the history of disposal indelibly to the history of land making and urban development. In part 3, “Seeking a Disposal Sink,” Melosi brings readers through a decades-long search for appropriate disposal technologies and sites in the city. For decades, the city’s most important dumping grounds were in Jamaica Bay. But frequent complaints from Queens residents and big coastal development plans eventually pushed these disposal sites—Rikers and Barren Islands among them—out of favor.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each new generation of city leadership promised new solutions to the city’s waste problem. There was always a new technology on the horizon, a perfect solution just out of reach. But all of these solutions required infrastructure somewhere, and no one wanted it. In stunning detail, Melosi recounts how, year after year, administration after administration, grease extraction, ocean dumping, incineration, and eventually, waste-to-energy all failed to gain traction over landfilling due to siting battles and technology that never quite delivered on its promises. In part 4, “Living with and Surviving the Landfill,” we see a little ash dump in Staten Island’s once-pristine southwestern salt marshes converted into a solid waste landfill to accommodate a growing stream of discards from the entire city.

Throughout the text, Melosi mingles well-known historical figures—Coronel George Waring, for instance, and a string of variously famous and infamous city mayors—with lesser known heroes and villains (depending on your point of view). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robert Moses had a great deal to do with the location and prominence of Fresh Kills Landfill. He maintained a somewhat iron grip on city dumping throughout his tenure, seeking what he called “clean fill” to remake coast lines and build more city, while using the imagery of fabulous new beaches and excellent modern infrastructure to convince communities to accept literal tons of waste into their own backyards. Fresh Kills was initially part of such a plan, which was to convert Staten Island’s southern coast into a publicly accessible recreation and industrial park. But as disposal sites and novel technologies failed in other city locations, Fresh Kills eventually became, by default, the sole site for disposal within city limits, ultimately accepting all of the city’s municipal solid waste and much of its construction waste for half a century.

Melosi emphasizes that Staten Island never accepted its fate quietly; one of the most wonderful parts of this book is the many portraits of Staten Island civic leaders who frothed up locals and took on the city’s power structures, repeatedly threatening—and once almost winning—secession. But despite unending protest, by the 1980s, the scale of Fresh Kills was practically unfathomable. Fresh Kills Landfill accepted nearly ten thousand barges of garbage every year with a constantly shrinking budget and workforce.

Ed Koch’s Sanitation Commissioner, Norman Steisel, did his best to keep garbage in the landfill and protect neighbors from the rapidly growing mountains. But by this time, Staten Islanders were well and truly done. Under the new framework of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Staten Island’s Democratic Assemblywoman Betty Connelly convinced New York’s Supreme Court that Fresh Kills had become an illegal dumpsite. She wanted to close the landfill and fulfill the ancient promises for a city park. Though the site would remain active for several more decades, Connelly’s law suit triggered critical limitations and guidelines that shifted dumping practices and laid the foundation for eventual closure.

Over the 1980s, as local landfills closed across the country and a few high-profile trash crises made it to the national media, the issue of urban waste disposal gained widespread political traction. In this context, part 5, “The Road Closure” depicts the final machinations of debate around Fresh Kills Landfill. By 1990, the city was swinging back toward incineration as a panacea; but once again political pressure from residents across the five boroughs stymied any action in that direction. In this moment, with the city still dragging its heels on closing Fresh Kills, Staten Island mounted its most effective secession movement yet. The borough drafted a charter, Governor Mario Cuomo approved the plan, and in 1993 Staten Islanders voted two-to-one in favor of secession, with most stating that Fresh Kills Landfills was the most important reason for their support. Ultimately New York State’s legislature denied secession. But the legislature did, instead, formalize a plan for the closure of Fresh Kills Landfill. In 1996 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, with Governor George Pataki and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari by his side, announced that the landfill would stop accepting waste once and for all in 2001.

The debate about incineration in the city raged over the next five years, and new questions about potential waste export arose. But one remarkable consistency over this period, like all that preceded it, was the failure of the city to seriously consider recycling or consumption reduction. Interestingly, this echoes similar conversations in other cities at the time. In my own work on Boston, I saw an almost identical municipal position vis-à-vis recycling. Very few municipalities were willing to take a gamble on unproven technologies when their core responsibility was disposal, as also explored in Lily Pollans’s Resisting Garbage (2021). But while previous administrations in New York had shown at least nominal support for recycling in theory, Mayor Giuliani was openly opposed. And so, as the city faced the closure of its last remaining disposal facility, it began to plan for export with virtually no consideration for shrinking the size of the city’s waste stream. Executing a plan that cost more than $1 billion, the city began to wind down operations at Fresh Kills and construct the infrastructure for waste export, which at first consisted of three marine transfer stations that would divert the city’s garbage to landfills and incinerators in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, and Ohio.

At the risk of giving away the punch line, the landfill eventually did close. There were hiccups, naturally, which part 6, “The Post-Closure Era” details, most notably the extension of dumping to accommodate the remains from the World Trade Center after 9/11. But the last loads of cover blanketing an “estimated 150 million cubic yards of refuse” (p. 466) were laid down in 2002. And thus began a new era. New York State became the largest net exporter of solid waste in the country by the end of 2001, and Fresh Kills Landfill began a long transition from active landfill into sacred burial ground, wildlife sanctuary, and public park; from wastescape into Lifescape.[1] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the closure of Fresh Kills and the subsequent export plan did not end the political maneuvering around garbage. Melosi makes sure to show readers that the careful remediation and exquisite remaking of Fresh Kills was not an ending. Debate around disposal technologies, environmental justice, NIMBY politics, and recycling has continued unabated, even as the immediate problems associated with waste disposal were imposed on even more distant populations.

What really becomes clear in Melosi’s intricately detailed history is that throughout political eras, regardless of whether any administration leaned more political or more technocratic, Republican or Democratic, neoliberal or truly leftist, fiscally flush or nearly bankrupt, citizens have always complained about the same issues; managers were always negotiating among the same limited and inadequate treatment technologies; the DSNY has managed to move mountains despite being always on the political chopping block; and no one ever really wanted to think about garbage. Despite understanding intellectually that the problem of waste arises with consumption, city leaders have never been willing to take on production or consumption as a matter of policy. Fresh Kills bears the subtitle “A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City,” and the book’s introduction neatly narrates the intuitive but often invisible connections between production, consumption, and the generation of solid waste in urban space. But the book doesn’t actually track changes in consumption or policy around consumption in nearly the detail that it tracks the politics of disposal within the five boroughs. There is a good reason for this: for the most part, the issue of consumption has not been seriously grappled with as a matter of municipal policy until very recently. The civic silence around this discussion is incredible given how much energy, time, labor, land, and ecosystem has been sacrificed to the management of the city’s discards.

Weighing in at eight hundred pages, Fresh Kills tells many stories. But perhaps above all, it can be understood as a tender and overdue portrait of Staten Island—the feisty “forgotten borough” that remains a bit of an unknown quantity to the rest of the New York City.[2] And yet, Melosi shows us, this misfit borough, for half a century, made the rest of New York City possible.


[1]. As Melosi details, the city held a design competition for Fresh Kills park. Lifescape was the landscape design firm Field Operation’s name for the winning design.

[2]. A relation apart captured incisively even in fiction, like N. K. Jemisin’s recent The City We Became (New York: Orbit Books, 2020).

Citation: Lily B. Pollans. Review of Melosi, Martin V., Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58197

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