Back to Conference Participants Abstract: From Manhattan Beach to the Brooklyn Naval Yard: Sanitation and Citizen Dissent in Brooklyn, 1880-Present  




From Manhattan Beach to the Brooklyn Naval Yard will examine the long and vocal tradition of citizen protest against sanitary nuisances and environmental pollution in New York City. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, few issues have generated more vehement and sustained public debate than that of proper waste disposal. Brooklynites, like their counterparts throughout the rest of Greater New York, have not been idle in their concern for efficient and sanitary refuse management. From Manhattan Beach to the Brooklyn Naval Yard will highlight four major episodes in the struggle for a healthier borough and an improved quality of life throughout the city.
The first waste disposal controversies to be examined are the co-called "Garbage Wars" that erupted every summer in the late nineteenth century over the dumping of refuse near Manhattan Beach. Every summer, residents along the Brooklyn shore would accuse New York City of polluting beaches with wastes from garbage scows. The city's quest to find a replacement for ocean dumping eventually led to the establishment of garbage rendering works on Barren Island (now Floyd Bennett Field) in 1896. However, odors from the Barren Island made life miserable for neighboring residents. In 1918, pressure from a variety of Brooklyn citizens, civic, and business organizations forced Mayor John Hylan to close the Barren Island facility and resume ocean dumping of refuse; this time, further out to sea.
By the late 1930s, a third period of citizen activism arose once the New York City Department of Sanitation (DS) began landfilling operations in and around Jamaica Bay. Between 1938 and 1948, thousands of New Yorkers organized to oppose sanitary landfills in their neighborhoods. By the 1970s, a fourth round of controversy developed as the DS announced plans for a new waste-to-energy incinerator at the old Brooklyn Naval Yard. Throughout each of the above episodes, special emphasis will be given to how citizens perceived environmental threats, how they organized and lobbied government officials to remedy sanitary problems, and what the result of such activism means to the future of waste disposal in the nation's largest city.