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October 2nd, 2009, 05:46 AM
He Cleaned the Streets, and Left the Presidency to Others

By Jennifer 8. Lee

To symbolize cleanliness, street cleaners wore all-white uniforms
under changes instituted by Col. George E. Waring Jr.,
commissioner of street cleaning from 1895 to 1898.

If Theodore Roosevelt had started his career as New York City’s sanitation commissioner, would he have ended up in the White House?

The question is not entirely theoretical. Roosevelt was the top choice for commissioner of street cleaning of Mayor William Lafayette Strong (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A02E2D91339E033A25751C0A9679C94 649ED7CF), who entered office in 1895 on a wave of voter outrage. But Roosevelt turned down the job, and then he became police commissioner, which he — presciently — saw as a better launching pad for his political ambitions, according to Kevin Rice, whose history of New York City sanitation workers, “Dignity and Respect,” was released in late September (http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/queens/2009/09/23/2009-09-23_dignity_and_respect_local_831_tome_full_of_hero es.html) by the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association (http://www.nyc.gov/lobbyistsearch/search?client=Uniformed+Sanitationmen%27s+Associat ion).

So, instead of Roosevelt, Col. George E. Waring Jr., a sanitation engineer and Civil War veteran, took charge of what is now the Department of Sanitation (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dsny/html/about/about.shtml) in 1895. While Colonel Waring — he preferred his old military title to that of “Commissioner” — served only three years, his impact was extensive.

Jacob A. Riis (http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/r/jacob_riis/index.html), the muckraking journalist, wrote, “It was Colonel Waring’s broom that first let light into the slum.” The New York Times weighed in this way (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9B06E5DA1030E333A25753C3A9669D94 699ED7CF): “There is not a man or a woman or a child in New York who does not owe him gratitude for making New York, in every part so much more fit to live than it was when he undertook the cleaning of the streets.”

Mr. Rice thinks some of those claims were a bit exaggerated — though he acknowledges that the streets were significantly cleaner after Colonel Waring took over. In an 1895 article in The New York Times, “Clean Streets at Last (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9506E6D91039E033A2575BC2A9619C94 649ED7CF),” a reporter marveled, “The asphalt pavement was absolutely clean. You could see the epidermis of the street.”

Colonel Waring’s prior claim to fame had been creating a drainage system in Memphis after an 1878 yellow fever epidemic.

His Civil War service clearly shaped his approach to administration. As The Times put it, “He found the street-cleaning force a rabble and left it an army” — complete with a lockstep march down Fifth Avenue in 1896 that initially drew jeers, and then cheers.

As it is in many developing nations now, sanitation in 19th-century New York City was still a process in development. Manure (http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/09/when-horses-posed-a-public-health-hazard/) from horses, pigs and dogs piled onto the streets. Animal carcasses would rot on the street.

People would fling their human waste out their windows (http://www.fathom.com/feature/121636/). The city had doubled in size every 10 years from 1800 to 1880, straining the city’s capacity. In response, the Department of Street Cleaning was formally created in 1881. In the early era, the vast majority of the workers who were willing to work long hours for a dollar a day were from southern Italy. A number were migrant workers who would return to Italy for the summer.

One of Colonel Waring’s most public actions was to change the color of the cleaners’ uniforms to white, a symbolic move, but one that also subjected them to ridicule. The sanitation workers were called “White Wings,” a title that stuck for decades (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F00E3DA1539E433A25755C0A9649C94 6196D6CF). Workers had to wear not only a white shirt and white pants, but also a white pith helmet — an outfit more appropriate to safari than street cleaning. The white made the men easy to spot in the street, but Mr. Rice noted, “The mens’ wives rebelled at having to clean them.”

Not only did Colonel Waring clean up New York City streets for the first time, but he also systematized the city’s approach to sorting and collecting garbage. Using an approach similar to one in Boston, households had to sort refuse into three categories: ash, food waste and rubbish (everything else). In a way, he introduced recycling.

Labor relations, however, were one of Colonel Waring’s weaknesses. “He was goal-oriented, and the ends justified the means,” Mr. Rice said. “Along the way, he had a very casual attitude towards labor.”

Mr. Waring sparred with the organized labor unions — in part because he had a practice of using spies on the work force, a practice he defended. He also suggested that the city could cut costs by hiring foreign women and children part time (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=990DE3DA173CE433A2575BC0A9609C94 649ED7CF). He also cut salaries by a remarkable 17 percent. “The men really did rebel against him,” Mr. Rice noted.

After he left his position, Colonel Waring contracted yellow fever in Cuba and died (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9803E7DA1030E333A25753C3A9669D94 699ED7CF) in 1898, which The New York Times called an “irony of fate” given that it was a “filth-disease.”