My granddaughter has lived in New Jersey for about a year now, commuting to her work place in the “Big Apple” every day. Katie’s description of “New York, New York” is not in tune with the romantic song Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and others sang and which I often sing to myself when no one else is around. Her reports are a bit less romantic and much more graphic as she tells me of the crowds, the smells, the trash, and the sounds of this urban center of nearly eight and a half million people.
Only yesterday—in the mid-1800’s—New York City had a population of about a million and a half people, plus 200,000 or more horses. Yes, horses—and flies (more flies than horses)! Each horse dropped twenty-five pounds of manure and several quarts of urine every day. There were 427 blacksmith shops, 249 carriage and wagon establishments and on a typical day over “8000 horse-drawn vehicles with two or more horses, passed by the corner of Broadway and Pine Street.” New York City in that day had no sewage system, no street cleaning, and no flush toilets. Garbage, both human and animal waste—was thrown out windows and onto city streets creating serious health issues. “Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure” (Joel Tarr, Carnegie-Mellon University). Salvation (so-called and proclaimed) from such a hell, however, was only 25 or so years away, saving London and other cities from such an impending manure disaster.
Only yesterday—a mere hundred years ago—a new kind of horse came on the scene. By 1910 the “horseless carriage,” along with other innovations like street cleaning, flush toilets and sewer systems, gave promise to a new day in New York City and elsewhere. The “horseless carriage” was touted as a positive solution. “It is all a question of dollars and cents,” someone wrote about the transition from horse to horseless, “this gasoline or oats proposition.”
Today the horses are gone from the city streets, but their successors, the new horseless carriage, has created new problems ranging from wars to “preserve the oil” to climate change. The new problems may be more difficult to solve than “The Great Horse Manure Crises of 1894,” when “it seemed that The End of Civilization As We Know It would be brought about, not by a meteor strike, global sickness or warfare, but by an excess of manure, by the urban equine.”