Our Garbage, Ourselves

Season 2, Episode 4

At the edge of Brooklyn, there’s a beach covered with glass bottles, nylon stockings, rusting kitchen appliances, and decaying batteries. The trash didn’t float here, though. It’s eroding from a poorly-covered landfill. We start this episode at Dead Horse Bay, where we ask what trash can tell us about structures of power, and end the episode in 1960s Bed-Stuy, where the local Civil Rights Movement took on a surprising enemy: garbage collection.

Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

Click here for Melissa Morrone's BookMatch list curated especially for this episode.

Episode Transcript

Robin Nagle People talk about Dead Horse Bay as being covered with garbage. And I suppose that’s not wrong.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Dead Horse Bay is on the southern coast of Brooklyn, near the Rockaways. The beach is pretty shallow and it’s looking out over the Jamaica Bay, but in the sand is embedded every kind of trash you can imagine: glass bottles, old tires, batteries. We were there a few months ago with Robin Nagle, a professor at New York University and the anthropologist in residence for the city’s Department of Sanitation.

Adwoa Adusei Robin researches trash, and what trash can tell us about ourselves. And the garbage on this particular beach has a powerful story to tell.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras As she walked along Dead Horse Bay with us, Robin stopped to look at this tangled mess of nylon stockings that was partially emerging from the sand …

Nylon stockings wrapped around a branch on Dead Horse Bay in 2019.
(Virginia Marshall, Brooklyn Public Library)

Robin Nagle We will see these to me creepy, accidental sculptural creations of nylons that have tangled around each other. But sometimes, you’ll pull one out of this mass, and if you cleaned it, you could wear it, you know. It’s not going to decompose any time soon.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Speaking of things that aren’t decomposing any time soon, at another end of the beach we found kitchen appliances. There was a sink, there was half of a stove, and nearby, halfway emerged from the bank of sand was …

Robin Nagle … and the chassis of a car maybe? Yes, wow! Look at that. It’s the whole car! The bumper is still … wow. And the the steering wheel, and …

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yup, An entire car! And it looked kind of like a skeleton. The bones of the front of the car were these rusting ribs emerging from the sand. The steering wheel was still attached, and one of the tires still had its rubber traction.

A rusting car skeleton on Dead Horse Bay, emerging from the edge of the landfill.
(Virginia Marshall, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei All right so, Krissa, where did all this trash come from? It didn’t float there, right?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras No, that’s right. This beach, which is sometimes called Glass Bottle Beach or Dead Horse Bay, is actually the top of a poorly-covered landfill. 

Robin Nagle Much of what is here came from homes that were torn down to make way for highways and other forms of urban renewal, quote on quote. And the people whose homes they were, they couldn’t take everything with them. So, you could call it garbage, or you could call it the ruins of a part of our own recent past that were involuntarily created because people without the means to protest or without enough power in city politics were simply told, “you got to get out of the way."

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay, so let’s back up. In the 1940s and 50s, Robert Moses, who was the parks and planning commissioner at the time, had these massive construction projects planned in New York City. He wanted to build parks and highways. He wanted to build stadiums and public buildings, and to do that, some estimates say his projects displaced over half a million people.

Adwoa Adusei And pushing out these half a million people also meant knocking down their homes, which, as you can imagine, created a lot of trash. Robin says that a lot of that material was brought out to Dead Horse Bay, and a massive landfill was created to extend the land in Brooklyn. That newly created land made way for Floyd Bennett Field and Marine Park.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The debris was trucked in from all over New York City, but there are clues in the trash that tell us that at least the top layer of the landfill is stuff that specifically came from Brooklyn. One of the ways that we know that is that students at Trinity School in Manhattan took field trips to Dead Horse Bay to collect garbage. And these kids found calendars from Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn and prescription bottles from Brooklyn Pharmacies … and that’s only the topmost layer of the landfill, so there’s much more to discover about who these objects came from. And that’s what Robin wants to figure it out.

Robin Nagle I see this place as like this quiet… not a cry for recognition so much as just—why would we not want to learn whatever we can about this, for our own understanding of this place that is part of us? It’s our story too even as we are not the people whose roller skates and car tires and light fixtures are scattered on the beach. But maybe they were our parents or grandparents. They’re somebody’s parents and grandparents.

Adwoa Adusei For anyone looking to discover more about these artifacts, the shifting landscape of Dead Horse Bay provides a challenge. The land is constantly changing as more trash gets swept into the sea and the landfill continues to erode. So in the next few months, that car that we discovered, it might not even be there. It might be underwater.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, as it continues to erode, people like Robin can hopefully find more clues about the origins of these objects, and the stories that led to their forced removal. So, today, we’re asking what trash can tell us about structures of power. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. 

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras Adwoa, to really understand Dead Horse Bay, I think we need to start even earlier. Because this part of Brooklyn has another story to tell about trash and power. 

Adwoa Adusei Okay, let’s hear it.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So in the mid 1800s, before it was Dead Horse Bay, before the nylons and the kitchen stoves, this place actually was an island, and it was called Barren Island. 

Miriam Sicherman … and it was pretty remote and hard to get to from the rest of Brooklyn because of weather and tides and erosion and …  it was considered a good place for so-called nuisance industries.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Miriam Sicherman. She joined our producer and Robin Nagle at Dead Horse Bay a few weeks ago. Miriam is an elementary school teacher in Manhattan… and she also happens to have just finished a book about Barren Island, which is awesome, because there aren’t a lot of books out there that cover this part of Brooklyn and the people who used to live here. Here’s Miriam again.

Houses on Barren Island, photographed some time before 1936, when all remaining Barren Island residents were evicted.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Miriam Sicherman So starting in the 1850s, really smelly and gross factories were here for processing garbage, for processing fish oil, fertilizer and for processing dead animals, especially horses, which there were thousands of that died every year in New York City back then.

Adwoa Adusei So the gruesome name for the island is literally just that gruesome? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah. And to this day you can find horse bones on the beach from the days when horse carcasses were rendered into things like fertilizer and glue. And that work didn’t get done without a lot of effort. So there were a lot of people living on Barren Island who processed garbage.

Miriam Sicherman It was always a combination of, typically, new immigrants and African Americans. And the African American men mostly worked in the fish processing plants which, that was considered the grossest most horrible job and it was typically, according to the census from those days, these were black men who were mostly born in Virginia or Delaware and in the early days they probably had been born into slavery. And there were a lot of new immigrants. According to some articles I read, some people went directly from Ellis Island to Barren Island.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So at any given time, there were several hundred immigrants and people of color, some of whom would have been refugees from the American south, living out on the island, doing this work that no one else wanted to do.

Adwoa Adusei And I can’t imagine it smelled very good either.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras No, and of course, those smelly industries gave Barren Island a pretty bad reputation.

Miriam Sicherman There were a lot of complaints about the smell, and not just that it was disgusting but in those days there were a lot of people believed it was really a health hazard.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But you know, the people who actually lived on the Island weren’t that bothered by the smell. For the most part, they liked where they lived, especially if you compared it to some of the other housing options available to immigrants and people of color at the time.

Miriam Sicherman If you think about it a that time what the Lower East Side was like in the late 19th century, people were crowded into these really unsanitary, unhealthy conditions and diseases would spread. People had no fresh air. And here, people had fresh air, they had a lot of fresh food because everyone had a garden and everyone went fishing. And, they had space to run around and have leisure activities. And, it was healthier, actually.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So another thing I find fascinating about Barren Island that evokes what Miriam is talking about, the sense that it was this rural, bucolic place, is that people used to keep free-roaming pigs on the island, like 500 of them in 1909. And this was long after the city had otherwise outlawed free-roaming pigs. So sadly, one day the Health Department caught on, boarded a ferry to the island, and in one afternoon, shot all the pigs.

Adwoa Adusei That’s so sad! We should say there were other animals though, right? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, people were fishing a lot on Barren Island, too. One resident who contributed his oral history to the Gateway National Recreation Area a few years ago, remembers a local boy set up a cage out in the waves to keep the fish fresh until they were sold, which sounds delicious. And, part of the reason I mention these stories is that, for Miriam, the aim of writing her book was to elevate and honor the story of the people who did this city’s dirty work, because this was a community so neglected by the rest of the city.

Miriam Sicherman There was never running water. There was never firefighting apparatus even though there were fires at these garbage plants a lot. And the Barren Islanders still … they were a really mixed community, they were being neglected by the authorities, and they still were  able to create a really highly functioning community here which I think is just cool.

An image of PS 120, the school serving children of Barren Island, taken between 1912 and 1936.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras At its most populous in the early 20th century, Barren Island had a population of around 1,500. But by the 1920s and 30s, Barren Islanders had started to move away. The last people on the island were evicted in 1936 to make way for the Marine Parkway Bridge, yet another project of eminent domain. These final residents were only given a month to move out, before their homes were bulldozed.

Adwoa Adusei So, Barren Islanders, who had already been pushed to the edge of Brooklyn to process garbage, were then forced out for the sake of construction?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, these two stories, the garbage processors on Barren Island, and the trash from displaced people pushed out to Dead Horse Bay, they have something in common. They’re both stories about power and geography. What we do with our trash, where we pick it up and then where we put it, says a lot.

Adwoa Adusei You know, Krissa this story of Barren Island actually reminds me of another story we can find right here in Brooklyn Public Library’s archives. It’s about how trash became a power struggle at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Brooklyn. So, let’s leave Dead Horse Bay and go to Central Brooklyn where, in 1962, Brooklyn CORE took on a somewhat surprising enemy: garbage collection. 


Adwoa Adusei Bed Stuy in 1962, was a hive of community organizing around civil rights. And one of the most visible organizations was Brooklyn’s chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or Brooklyn CORE for short.

Brian Purnell Now, at the time did people say Brooklyn CORE was a radical branch of CORE? was it understood? 

Robert Law Yeah, Brooklyn CORE had a reputation. If you had a demonstration and you wanted other CORE chapters to come, tell them Brooklyn CORE was going to be there. 

Brian Purnell Uh-huh.

Adwoa Adusei In the early 2000s, a researcher named Brian Purnell set out to tell the story of Brooklyn CORE. He interviewed dozens of people who had been active in Brooklyn during the fight racial equality in the 60s, and after he had written a book about it, he donated his oral histories to Brooklyn Public Library, which is what you’re hearing now.

Robert Law You know, we lived here in New York City, where everyone was thinking of themselves as upwardly-mobile and free. So in order to attract attention, Brooklyn CORE would use drama.

Adwoa Adusei That’s the voice of Bob Law. In the 1960s, Bob was a student at Pratt and an activist with Brooklyn CORE when the group organized a protest to address unfair garbage collection in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Nandi Weusi So where did you get the garbage from? 

Msemaji Weusi I’m not sure, again, but I would say in the general area of Fulton and Nostrand. 

Adwoa Adusei Brian also interviewed Msemaji and his wife Nandi Weusi in 2001. Msemaji was a postman in Bed-Stuy in the 60s and also lived in the neighborhood, so he saw first-hand what trash collection was actually like.

Brian Purnell Why did you do that? 

Msemaji Weusi Okay, as I remember it, you have to understand we’re talking about a long time ago 

Brian Purnell Yeah, this happened in 1962.

Msemaji Weusi The people in the area were dissatisfied with the way garbage was being collected. The garbage men would come by, supposedly collect the garbage, but still when they left the place would be filthy. Because when they pick up the garbage and some fell out the can, they wouldn’t necessarily pick it up or go back for it. It just stayed there. Unlike, our understanding was, in other neighborhoods.

The caption that accompanied this 1958 photo in the Brooklyn Eagle read: "Dirtiest town? -- Curb at Fulton St. and Nostrand Ave.
at 8:30 a.m. when empty trash cans [and litter on street and sidewalk] reveal sanitation truck has just passed." 
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei So, Garbage collection in Bed-Stuy only happened three days a week back then. It used to be collected six days a week, but during World War II, the city cut back collection. And eventually, when the population of Bed-Stuy exploded in the 50s and 60s, making it one of the largest black communities in Brooklyn, garbage collection did not keep up. So, members of Brooklyn CORE dug deeper and found that in predominantly white communities with a lower housing density, which basically means that fewer people were living in the same amount of space … those neighborhoods, they garbage pick-up was happening five days a week, in comparison to the three days in Bed-Stuy.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras  I see, so Brooklyn CORE is discovering racial discrimination in the municipal services in Brooklyn?

Adwoa Adusei Basically, yes. And they decided to do something about it. Members of Brooklyn CORE asked city government to fix the problem of dirty streets, but the city’s response blamed residents for not taking better care of their neighborhood. So, on the morning of Saturday, September 15, activists picked up brooms and trash cans and followed the garbage trucks. Here’s Msemaji again. He took part in the protest.

Msemaji Weusi In other words, we went after the truck and the garbage we picked up was what they should have picked up. And we wound up, we hired a Uhaul and put this stuff in cans or bags on the Uhaul, and took it to City Hall and deposited on the steps of City Hall.

Adwoa Adusei Here’s Bob again:

Robert Law Throwing that garbage on the steps of City Hall was emotionally gratifying. It was like man, striking a blow! It was like, here take this garbage back. You know. It was, you got the sense of fighting back. And so what we said was that, not only now, we will come back again next week until you pick up this garbage. Because we say that what we’re asking for is very reasonable. And until you pick up this garbage, we will bring this garbage back down here again and again. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wow, that must have been quite a sight. So, did it work?

Adwoa Adusei In some ways, yes. Operation Cleansweep, as if came to be known, forced those in power to pay attention to how municipal services are distributed. The Sanitation Department added more trash cans on street corners and started picking up bulk twice a week instead of just the once. But, there was no five-day garbage pick-up, which was one of the demands. And there were still a lot of unfair conditions in the neighborhood that activists would continue to fight for, and in some cases they still are fighting.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right so, Operation Cleansweep electrifies the community and delivers this message to politicians: What we do with our garbage matters. 

Adwoa Adusei Absolutely. It was just one protest in a series of actions by Brooklyn CORE. They continued to protest housing discrimination, segregation in public schools, and racist hiring practices throughout the 1960s. Their stories are important to return to, especially today. And you can come into the library to hear them. They’re part our Civil Rights in Brooklyn Oral History Collection. We’ve put a link to it in our show notes. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And while we’re plugging the Brooklyn Collection, I will say there we have some incredible photographs of Barren Island in the early 1900s, so we are putting those on the show page, too. 


Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, now it’s time for our BookMatch segment. Joining us to recommend a few books for you guys is librarian Melissa Morrone. Hi, Melissa!

Melissa Morrone Hi, Krissa, thanks for having me.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So we’ve just spent this whole episode talking about trash and what it can tell us about inequality in the city and the power of activism. So you have put together a list of books on the topic. What’s the first one you’ve got?

Melissa Morrone Yeah, well so the first one is very related to trash in one of its chapters. It’s Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn. So this is a rather academic book by Brian Purnell. And, so as you’ve been hearing in this episode, Brian Purnell’s book talks about Operation Cleansweep and really goes into how it came to be and how this activist project had an impact on people’s everyday lives in the city.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, for sure. So, what’s your second book?

Melissa Morrone So my second book is called Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein. It tells the story of the fiscal crisis in New York City in the mid 70s and how the actions of government and the financial industry and even less expected perhaps characters like union leadership pushed New York City to become a very different place with much greater inequality. But the reason that I wanted to bring it up for this episode is that it also does include stories of neighborhood activism that you can really dig into, including a Greenpoint community’s intense efforts to save their firehouse from closure and the fight to save Hostos Community College. So I think it’s a really important read.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, and that’s not unrelated to the last book that you have in terms of fights for inequality in New York. 

Melissa Morrone Definitely not. And in terms of inequality it picks up where Brian Purnell’s story ends.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah. And what’s the last book you’ve got?

Melissa Morrone So the last book, so unlike the other two I think that this next book is something that you can really kind of fall into, lose track of the sense of time passing as you read it. It’s The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-first Century which is by D. W. Gibson. It’s about New York City as a whole with a lot about Brooklyn. So it’s a really kind of impressionistic but also documentary work that I think is important for years to come.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah and actually Gibson’s book was the nonfiction winner of our 2015 Lit Prize, which was the inaugural year that we had the Brooklyn Eagles’ Literary Prize. Definitely a great book, and I like impressionistic, that’s a good way of putting it. Everyone, that was Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings by Brian Purnell, Fear City by Kim Phillips-Fein, and The Edge Becomes the Center by D. W. Gibson. So, we’re putting a link to that complete list on the website. It’ll include those titles and a few more that Melissa has selected for the episode. So you can check them all out right here at BPL. Thanks, Melissa.

Melissa Morrone Thank you.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts, as well as a link to the BookMatch list, historic photos of Barren Island and our Civil Rights in Brooklyn Oral History Collection.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, in the new year, we’re putting together an episode about falling love at the library. So we want to hear from you. Send us an email and tell us about a time that you fell in love at the library. Our email is podcasts@bklynlibrary.org.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Meryl Friedman, Jennifer Proffitt and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast. Borrowed will be back in two weeks. Until then, reduce, reuse, recycle.