Garbage pickups tell a tale of two cities,
with part of Manhattan shrinking
BY GABRIEL SANDOVAL,
ANN CHOI AND ROSA GOLDENSOHN
As many New Yorkers began to stay away from work,
school and restaurants, city sanitation workers
picked up more household trash last month than
they did the previous March, statistics show — except,
primarily, in parts of Manhattan.
Trash experts say the light trash loads in neighborhoods
that include the Upper East Side, Upper West Side and
East Village could refl ect residents departing those areas
as coronavirus spread.
Even as the Department of Sanitation collected 4.1%
more tons of waste, recycling and compost citywide in
March 2020 as it did during the same period last year
— 255,555 tons total — Manhattan Community District
3 on the Lower East Side saw a 5% drop in trash tonnage.
Other areas saw smaller dips, including Harlem, SoHo,
Chelsea and the West Village in Manhattan and Fordham,
Hunts Point and Soundview in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, many parts of Queens and Staten Island
have seen a marked increase in household garbage collected,
approaching 12% in Astoria.
The shifts occurred during a month that saw a cascade
of actions in New York that dispersed people to homes
both in and outside the city. Those included shutdowns
of college campuses and a statewide “PAUSE” order from
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 20 that left only essential
workers on the job.
Like ‘There’s Nobody’
Anecdotal accounts abound of well-heeled Manhattanites
decamping for second homes in the Hudson Valley
and the Hamptons.
Sally Afonso, 37, says the rest of her East Midtown
townhouse has emptied out. One neighbor went upstate,
while another couple headed back to North Carolina,
where they had moved from. Her landlord, who usually
lives next door, is also gone.
The only time she sees people other than her husband is
when she goes out on her balcony to cheer for health care
workers daily at 7 p.m.
She feels fortunate, though, to be able to work from
home and stick it out safely in the city she loves. She is not
envious of those who have left.
“I feel kind of like, when they come back, like they didn’t
go through it,” she said.
Building service workers in upscale parts of Manhattan
say they see the effects.
Joseph Alvarez, a porter at a Sutton Place-area building,
estimates that half of the households have left for country
He usually starts collecting garbage fl oor by fl oor, from
the top fl oor down, fi rst thing when he gets in to work in
“I do see a lot less garbage than what I normally would
see when they’re there,” said Alvarez, 50.
Many residents are often away on weekends, he said. But
since early March, he said, it’s as if every day is a Saturday.
A sanitation worker picks up garbage bags in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, during the coronavirus outbreak, April
“It just feels dead, it feels like there’s nobody there, even
though there’s a few people that I know are there,” he said.
By contrast, he hears TVs blaring and the toddler upstairs
in his Hollis, Queens, building.
Queens Community District 12, which includes Hollis,
saw its garbage output jump 3.4% last month over March
2019 — while Manhattan Community District 6, where
Alvarez works, saw a 2.6% decline.
“Actually,” said Alvarez, “everybody’s home in my
To Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence at the city
Department of Sanitation, the trash trends may be telling
the story of a city undergoing a seismic transformation.
“Garbage itself always, like a canary in a coal mine, is a
key indicator of social change,” Nagle said.
“Manhattan is considerably wealthier than Queens, so
I’m assuming more Manhattanites left the city, while more
Queens residents have no choice but to shelter at home.”
The Upper East Side had a median household income
of $133,850 in 2017, versus $67,650 in Astoria, Census
fi gures show.
As household trash pickups surge in many areas, the Department
of Sanitation has taken a “higher level approach,”
shuffl ing workers to meet the demands of neighboring districts,
said Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the agency.
“Our operations staff look at the workers available, the
work that needs to get done, and fi gures out the puzzle in
the best way possible to get the job done,” she said.
Mager echoed the notion that crisis-driven shifts in
population may be affecting the volume of waste.
“Some parts of Manhattan have had a signifi cant decrease,
potentially due to residents that have left the city
PHOTO: BEN FRACTENBERG/THE CITY
during this crisis,” she said. “Other neighborhoods have
seen increases in refuse tonnage, as residents are staying
Workers say that the added burdens, compounded by
the risks of illness inherent in hauling potentially infected
waste, are taking a toll.
Sanitation worker Raymond Copeland died of complications
related to COVID-19 on April 5, making him the
fi rst DSNY employee known to have died of the virus, the
Queens Daily Eagle reported.
As of Friday morning, 414 employees had tested positive
for COVID-19, though a number have already returned to
work, Mager said.
A Staten Island sanitation worker, who collects residential
garbage and spoke on condition of anonymity, told
THE CITY that shouldering the extra load has been “physically
and mentally daunting.”
He’s lost sleep and fears falling ill.
“It’s kind of scary that I could sit there and do my
job, but in the back of my mind, I have to worry about
my health,” said the two-decade veteran of New York’s
Strongest, who added he picked up respiratory illnesses
from working in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
“No matter how much work that we do — whether it’s
in snow, 9/11, Sandy, the coronavirus — we are quickly
forgotten as people who just don’t matter,” he added.
“We may not be considered fi rst responders or ‘essential,’
but I know we see ourselves as the front line to the city.”
This story was originally published on April 12, 2020 by
THE CITY, an independent, nonprofi t news organization
dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people
of New York.
Schneps Media April 16,2020 11