Patricia Strach and Kathleen S. Sullivan, "The Politics of Trash: How Governments Used Corruption to Clean Cities, 1890–1929" (Cornell UP, 2023)
Political Scientists Patricia Strach (The University at Albany, State University of New York) and Kathleen S. Sullivan (Ohio University) have written a fascinating and important exploration of trash. More precisely, this is a complex examination and analysis of the development of our municipal sanitation processes and structures, highlighting intersecting policy areas, urban and local politics, and racial, gender, and class politics. The Politics of Trash: How Governments Used Corruption to Clean Cities, 1890–1929 (Cornell UP, 2023) has it all: corruption, gender and racial hierarchies, blame defection, rejection of expertise, case studies across a host of different cities around the country, and the collection of, the disposal of, and the innovations of garbage.
Strach and Sullivan examine this multidimensional policy issue from an American political development perspective when the issue really took root in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century. At this point, urban areas saw demographic growth from migration from rural areas as well as the waves of immigrants who came to the U.S. Most U.S. cities found themselves facing the same problem: unsanitary living situations. The initial research found that there were three different forms of trash collection, and they highlighted the processes in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. San Francisco had no formal municipal collection process; instead, the citizens of San Francisco contracted directly with scavengers themselves to remove the garbage. Pittsburgh, as a municipality, contracted out the responsibility—but the process there was one that fed fees back to the municipal leadership. New Orleans, awash in local government corruption, ultimately had a municipal collection program, which was generally far from effective. While these three cities were the basis for the initial research, St. Louis and Charleston were also added to the case studies, with Birmingham and Louisville as secondary examples within the study.
The Politics of Trash also explores the way in which citizens need to engage with and comply with the sanitation programs. In order to urge compliance, cities often called on women’s civic organizations to model and advocate for participation in the garbage process. Obviously, these were white women’s civic organizations and while they had been advocates for sanitation processes, they were generally cut out of the development process since women were not to be too close to politics itself. Strach and Sullivan spent time with the Good Housekeeping magazine archives in order to flesh out this dimension of the analysis. The research also highlights how blame was put on immigrants and people of color when the sanitation programs failed—often because of corruption and lack of sufficient resources.
The authors note throughout the text that the form that we remove and dispose of waste/garbage/trash now is the same as it was 100 years ago. And while we often separate compostables from recyclables from trash, this is not all that different than the ways that people disposed of their garbage in Pittsburgh, and Charleston, and San Francisco a century ago. And many of the same forms of removal remain in place. The Politics of Trash is a lively and fascinating analysis of a part of our lives that we often don’t consider to be political, but it is political, and has been for quite some time.
Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached @gorenlj.bsky.social
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