In this audio postcard, anthropologist Robin Nagle explores the shores of Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay, where the detritus from several eras of urban history still gurgles up every day.
PETER: Right around the time New York City contained its pig population, it started setting up an alternative method for disposing of all those dead horses that used to litter its streets. The carcasses were shipped out to an island off the coast of southern Brooklyn. There, a community of mostly immigrants processed them into things like soap, glue, and fertilizer. These people also manned fish oil plants and incinerators for the city’s non-horse garbage. It was a notoriously foul smelling place.
BRIAN: As horses were replaced by automobiles, those rendering plants were shut down. The stench gradually subsided. But Dead Horse Bay, as it was known, would soon get a second life as a destination for trash.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the marsh separating the island from the mainland was filled in with garbage. That garbage included the bulldozed homes of nearby neighborhoods. Those homes were cleared to make room for one of Robert Moses’s infamous urban renewal projects.
This enormous landfill was capped in the early 1950s. But almost immediately, that cap broke. Ever since, the detritus of early 20th century life has been washing up on the beach, along with a random horse bone.
On an early morning a few weeks ago, producer Emma Morgenstern headed out to Dead Horse Bay. Along with her was Robin Nagle, a scholar of New York City’s trash history. Emma sent back this audio postcard.
ROBIN NAGLE: I’ve never been out here at 6:30 on a Saturday morning in April. This is lovely.
This beach is, in some places, so completely covered with bottles and shoe leather and bits of china and toys and pots and pans and tormented nylons that you can’t actually see beach. And there’s a horse bone.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: So why don’t you tell me how all this stuff got here?
ROBIN NAGLE: All this stuff got here when Robert Moses was expanding the landfilling of garbage around the city, which was especially urgent after the United States Supreme Court told New York it could no longer dump garbage at sea, which we had been doing for centuries. That Supreme Court order took effect in 1934. From that point forward, we started building landfills and incinerators all over the city.
Everything we see here was placed here sometime between early February and mid-March of 1953. And it’s all from somewhere in Brooklyn. I’m not exactly sure where yet, but I’m working on that.
And these are the debris from homes that were razed to make way for various forms of urban renewal and highway construction. And so when people think this is garbage, this is no more garbage than if you took everything from your own home and just put it all in a truck. First knock it all down, then put it in a truck, and then cart it away.
Well, I’m very excited. This is a vinyl bottle of Stopette spray deodorant. This is when these forms of plastics were just coming into common use.
So it’s a squeeze bottle with a small opening on the top and you aim this at your armpit and you squeeze it. And you would be sprayed with the Stopette spray deodorant and then you won’t offend people when you go out in the world. I can’t quite read it.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Something fluid ounces.
ROBIN NAGLE: Chicago, Illinois.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Contains abrasive something chlorides.
ROBIN NAGLE: OK, that doesn’t sound too good.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: [LAUGHS]
ROBIN NAGLE: I have never found a bottle of Stopette. And I have heard about Stopette for years.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Oh really?
ROBIN NAGLE: Yeah!
EMMA MORGENSTERN: Oh.
ROBIN NAGLE: Because we don’t use this form anymore for deodorant. This is a sculptural nightmare, sort of. It’s a tangle of bleached white cloth that is choking whatever it’s wrapped around, a visual cacophony of knotted, tangled, entwined, and some filled little sacks almost where the sand is inside.
You find this throughout Dead Horse Bay. Ladies’ nylons. And I find them horrifying, because they’re just so contorted from what we think they’re supposed to look like. And there it looks like a little bit of bathroom floor tile.
EMMA MORGENSTERN: And also a syringe. That looks new.
ROBIN NAGLE: Oh yes. I’m sure it’s new indeed.
I want to know the stories of the human beings who were part of these objects 60 years ago. And I want to know what happened to them and where they went, and why they bought that bottle of Stopette deodorant, and who used the roller skate and who cooked in the frying pan?
I almost feel like the people whose lives were part of these things are standing just behind a scrim. And if I could just get through that scrim of time, I could meet them and hear their stories. And these objects are that scrim.
PETER: That’s Robin Nagle. She’s the director of the Draper Program in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. She’s also the anthropologist in residence in New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Our audio postcard was produced by Emma Morgenstern.