Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/March 1881/The Problem of Municipal Nuisances

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THE PROBLEM OF MUNICIPAL NUISANCES.
By ROGER S. TRACY, M. D.

THE general democratic tendency of the past three hundred years has had some curious results. Free thought and free speech have brought about a universal freedom in criticism, so that, at the present time, singularly enough, it has come to be looked upon as a sign of high civilization and progress for every man to have an opinion about everything, whether he knows anything about it or not. One of the most complicated political problems that men have ever had to treat, viz., the Eastern question, is discussed in this city, by individuals and newspapers, with more readiness and assurance than in the council-chambers of Berlin or London, and every man above the condition of a rag-picker will give you his opinion on the philosophy of evolution. This exaggerated sense of self-importance brings with it not only the tendency to criticise everything not in accordance with each person's notion of what is right or expedient, but, inasmuch as conflicting currents of thought and action are unavoidable, a profound feeling of dissatisfaction with one's own environment. This feeling of dissatisfaction shows itself in curious ways. In place of the intense patriotism and personal loyalty of past ages, we find a widespread belief in almost all highly civilized nations that things are better managed elsewhere than at home, and the newspapers, here and abroad, are crowded with this not-always-well-based self-criticism. New York newspapers are great sinners in this respect. While they are continually extolling the natural advantages of the city, her magnificent river-front and harbor, her advantageous situation, her brilliant sky, they are also constantly bewailing her bad government, her lukewarm public spirit, and the universally asinine quality of her public officers. One would think that her present position as a metropolis is entirely due to natural advantages, and has been gained in spite of the most earnest opposition from her leading citizens. The elevation of an honest, sober, intelligent citizen to a public office makes him straightway an ass in the estimation of his fellows. A public officer, who declines to do what certain citizens want him to do, is believed by them to be prima facie corrupt. If he agrees to do what they wish, some other citizens are equally certain that he has been bought. It seems impossible for a man to remain in public office in New York City for six months without having charges or intimations of bribery come to his ears, in one form or another. And not only are our public officers all supposed to be open to corrupt influences, but, when they are put in office, they are believed ipso facto to become suddenly ignorant of all that they knew before. And not only are they taunted with ignorance, incapacity, and an itching palm, but they are continually reminded that things are much better managed elsewhere, and that the sooner they learn how a city ought to be governed, by observing how other cities are governed, the sooner they will become of some use in their places.

One of the things New-Yorkers complain most about is the dirty streets, including the garbage-box nuisance. It is a popular belief, fostered by the leading newspapers, that New York is the only large city in the civilized world where such a filthy nuisance as the garbage box would be tolerated, and those officers who have charge of the public health are continually reminded of Paris and London, where no such frightful eyesores exist, and where the public service in this regard is immaculate, as every person who has taken a flying summer trip through those cities is ready to testify.

Another frequent cause of complaint is the offensive odors from manufacturing establishments, which also are believed to be kept under such strict watch in Paris and London that they are never nuisances; and the American visitor, being sure that such things are banished from those cities, wants to have them driven out of this one.

The purpose of this paper is not to show that the complaints of our citizens are unfounded, for they are, unfortunately, too well founded, but to do something toward stemming the prevailing current of opinion—1. That the dirty streets and offensive odors of New York are entirely due to the negligence, stupidity, or corruption of public officers; and, 2. That Paris and London are free from the same kind of nuisances. I shall, in other words, try to show that Paris and London, in similar circumstances, are troubled with dirty streets and offensive odors, depending upon the same causes as in New York, and that the public officers of those cities find precisely the same difficulties in abating such nuisances that are met with here; and I submit that the public officers of the city of New York ought not to be called or considered stupid, ignorant, or corrupt, because they meet with the same difficulties as the intelligent, honest, and trained public officers of Paris and London, and, like them, do not always succeed in surmounting them to the satisfaction of the public.

This is not the place for a complete discussion of the subject of street-cleaning, but it may be well, as a preliminary to what follows, to call attention to some points on which there is decided popular misapprehension. It is believed by most citizens of New York that ample funds are given to the Bureau of Street-Cleaning, and that, if this money were honestly expended, our streets ought to be as clean as those of Paris. Now, the facts of the case are these:

Our Bureau of Street-Cleaning employs 387 street-sweepers. Paris has a permanent corps of 3,180, besides 190 machines, each doing the work of ten men. Our bureau has to clean, more or less perfectly, 1,415 acres of paved street surface; Paris, 2,667 acres. The great difference in force, in proportion to the work to be done, is apparent at a glance. Our sweepers are paid $1.60 per day for eight hours' work. The Paris sweepers receive sixty cents per day for ten hours' work. For the sake of ease in calculation, we will suppose that as much work is done here in eight hours as in Paris in ten hours. Then each sweeper in New York costs a dollar a day more than each one in Paris. From the figures already given, the following results may be deduced:

If New York sweepers received Paris wages, we should, with our present force, save yearly $141,255.

If New York sweepers received Paris wages, we could, without increasing the expense of street-cleaning, increase the force by 645 men, i. e., nearly treble it.

If there were as many sweepers in New York as in Paris, in proportion to the area required to be cleaned, the expense of street-cleaning in New York would be increased by $474,500.

If Paris sweepers received New York wages, the expense of street cleaning in Paris would be increased by $1,160,700.

As a matter of fact, the expense of street-cleaning in New York for 1879 was $690,000, including $40,000 for removing ice and snow; and in Paris for 1878, $817,000, including $181,000 for the removal of ice and snow.

An important part of the duties of a street-cleaning bureau is the removal of ashes and garbage. It is also exceedingly difficult, in a large city, to do this effectively and economically. I say, in a large city, for in a small village the garbage nuisance is at its minimum, and it increases with the number and crowding of inhabitants. It is unfair to compare the New York method of removing ashes and garbage with that of smaller and less compact towns, like Boston and Philadelphia. The difficulties to be surmounted in this city are even greater than in Paris or London, because of the peculiar shape of the city, and because we are surrounded by water. But this is a digression.

It is a common belief, reiterated in the daily journals, that the household and street refuse of Paris is sold for enormous amounts, and that so much money is received on this account that the street cleaning service of that city is a source of revenue instead of expense. This is not so. The chief revenue in this regard is derived from the rag-pickers. In New York these people ransack the boxes and barrels on the street, without paying for the privilege, and all that they collect brings them a clear profit. In Paris, on the other hand, the privilege of rummaging the dust-heaps is farmed out to wealthy contractors, who employ about 7,000 chiffoniers, and have a monopoly of rag-picking. So far as I can ascertain, this is the only source of actual revenue to the city of Paris from its street refuse, and what the amount of this revenue is I can not learn. It is very hard to find out anything about the municipal expenditures of that city, as it has no official journal like our "City Record."

Now, let us see what are the practical results of the methods of street-cleaning and removal of household refuse adopted in Paris:

"Street-cleaning in cities has for its aim the removal of dust, mud, snow, filth, and household refuse. As regards the latter, which ought to be thrown directly into the carts, municipal regulations in Paris continually conflict with a corporation very jealous of its privileges; I refer to that of the rag-pickers, who conduct a business represented by nearly 7,000 persons, collecting with their hooks material worth 4,000,000 francs ($800,000) a year, and feeding the manufactories of paper, pasteboard, lampblack, etc. We are obliged, therefore, to yield to the demands of these Diogenes of the street, and to allow, to the great prejudice of sight, smell, and health, the throwing upon the public street, toward evening, of all kinds of refuse, to be picked over by the hook of the rag-picker. They insist upon this, and they wield a great power." (Fonssagrives, "Hygiène et Assainissement des Villes," Paris, 1874, p. 174.)

"In Freycinet's opinion ('Assainissement des Villes,' p. 343), as far as promptness and completeness of street-cleaning in the narrower sense are concerned, Paris is in advance of all other great cities; but it is not so with the household refuse, which, in the absence of special means of removal, must naturally take its way over the street. Although this refuse, intended for removal and thrown on the street for this purpose, ought to he taken away at an early hour of the morning, it often remains upon the street till evening, is scattered about, etc., and all, according to Freycinet, because they do not wish to interfere with the unhealthy occupation of the rag-pickers, who rummage the mess for rags and bones." (Götel, "Oeffentl. Gesundheitspfl. in den Ausserdeutschen Staaten," Leipsic, 1878, p. 205. The italics are mine.)

Götel states that things are much better managed in Lyons and Bordeaux in this respect—very much smaller cities, be it noted.

So it appears that the problem of the expeditious and inoffensive removal of household refuse has not yet been solved in Paris, the opinion of amateur sanitarians in this country to the contrary notwithstanding.

Last December there were two heavy snow-falls in Paris, only four days apart. The first storm crippled the street-cleaning department, and after the second the authorities were almost in despair, being hampered, as ours are, by the lack of funds, and, while their hands were tied, being harassed, howled at, and snapped at by the journalistic jackals. Almost a complete history of this episode can be gathered from the following comments of the press:

"As regards locomotion, the streets are gradually becoming more practicable for both riding and walking, thanks to the army of sweepers that the municipal authorities have at length set to work. It is remarked, however, that on the occasion of the last heavy fall of snow in Paris, some five or six years ago, the public thoroughfares were cleared much more rapidly than this time, owing to the military having been engaged in the task, and some surprise is expressed that they were not made use of this year. Certain it is that the public have had to suffer much loss and inconvenience, which they might have been spared by more prompt and energetic measures on the part of the authorities," (London "Standard" Paris correspondent, Decembers, 1879.)

"In some of the public gardens the snow is untouched, and they have ceased to be thoroughfares; but in the streets it is slowly being carted away, the traffic being carried on under great difficulties. Most of the tramways have stopped working." (London "Times" Paris correspondent, December 10, 1879.)

The depth of snow that fell in these storms was estimated to be fifty centimetres (twenty inches). The chief of the Department of Public Works, M. Alphand, being called upon to explain why he did not immediately remove it all, stated that there had fallen altogether about 7,000,000 cubic metres of snow, and that it cost three francs a cubic metre to remove it, or 21,000,000 francs for the whole (about 84,000,000). The Municipal Council did not feel authorized to expend this vast sum, but they did generously vote 500,000 francs ($100,000), in addition to the regular appropriation for street-cleaning, and M. Alphand was thus enabled to put an immense force at work upon the streets.

It is worthy of notice how differently this public officer was treated from our own. In the spring of 1879 our Police Commissioners were summoned before the Mayor, and two of them removed from office because they had not kept the streets clean during the winter. No extra appropriation for them nothing but disgrace! A comparison of the condition of the streets in both cities may be instructive. In Paris twenty inches of snow fell in December, eight inches at one time and twelve at another. And this was a remarkable event in that city, although such storms are not uncommon here. For instance: on February 3, 1876, we had eleven inches of snow; on January 13, 1877, thirteen inches; and March 16th following, three and a half inches. In the winter which proved so unfortunate for our public officers, we had, on January 1, 1879, five inches of snow, and on the 16th thirteen inches more, or eighteen inches in all, and nearly as much as fell in Paris last winter. Between these storms we had freezing weather, the thermometer marking above the freezing-point only six times, and never rising above 38º in the hottest part of the day. So the cases are not altogether dissimilar. Let us see how much better the efficient street-cleaning department of Paris did its work than ours.

The following extracts are from the "Figaro" of December 10, 1879:

"'La Presse' says, 'A little less politics, and a little more sweeping.'

"'Le Mot d'Ordre': 'A little more sweeping! "La Presse" is right; let them sweep out. the head of the bureau.'

"'La Presse': 'We have lived in countries where snow is not an exception, as it is in Paris. In those places snow has never been an obstacle in getting about the streets. As soon as the snow begins to fall, they sweep it up and carry it away.'"

And "Figaro" adds: "All this is perfectly true; in London, they melt the snow instantly with jets of steam; in Berlin, where it snows almost constantly in winter, the street-cars do not cease running for an instant, owing to analogous measures, which keep the rails absolutely free. But we are in France, we are in Paris; and a practical spirit is, unfortunately, the only thing we lack."

How much all this sounds like the talk of our own newspapers!

The attacks of the press were so persistent, and the displeasure of the public so marked in various ways, that M. Alphand was summoned before the Municipal Council. In his speech, reported at length in "Le Figaro" of December 12, 1879, he referred in the following words to some of the statements made in the newspapers:

"Foreign countries have been mentioned; it has been stated that in them the snow is removed immediately. Brussels has been given as an example; now I myself was in that city three years ago, at the very time when they had a fall of snow; I declare to you that I did not see a single cart carrying away snow, and when it thawed people splashed along in a black mud twenty-five centimetres thick" (ten inches).

M. Alphand stated that there were at that time employed in removing snow 13,940 men, 3,900 horses, and 2,400 carts.

Imagine our Board of Apportionment supporting the hands of its public officers, in trying times, in this fashion!

This immense body of laborers was put at work before the middle of December. And how much did they accomplish?

On January 5th a correspondent writes: "Beneath our feet such mire as has not been seen since the first week succeeding the original deluge. . . . From the first fall of snow, upon the 4th of December, the regular scavenger service was suspended, and now, that the snow has melted away, great heaps of offal and filth of all sorts lie rotting in the open air." (The italics are mine.)

In a letter to the "New York Evening Post," dated at Paris, January 6th, Edward King writes: "Coming into the city after a brief journey to Spain a day or two since, I almost fancied myself in New York, so familiar seemed the long banks of snow, garnished with dirt and the refuse from kitchens. The municipal authorities have been unable to maintain their reputation for promptness in street-cleaning, in presence of the unaccustomed snowy visitation."

As late as February 18, 1880, more than two months after the snowfall, and with mild weather intervening, notwithstanding the efforts of 14,000 men and the expenditure of $100,000, "Le Figaro" has the following paragraphs:

"There still remain, in many of the side streets, disagreeable reminders of the snow of last December. Thus, to mention only one instance, but one that counts, we call attention to the streets and passages of the districts bordering on the Eighteenth Ward (arrondissement). The streets and narrow alleys lying between the Rue Ordener and the fortifications, and between the long Rue des Poissonniers and the Avenue de Saint Ouen, are in a wretched state. Heaps of filth, composed of earth-mixed snow, vegetable scraps, and refuse of all kinds, stagnate in the puddles formed by the holes in the pavement.

"The complete repair of this pavement is absolutely necessary. The old women of the quarter quarrel every day about who shall clean in front of the houses, and the streets remain filthy.

"Between the passages Traëger and des Poissonniers there is an open space of about one thousand square feet" (one hundred square metres). "This space is now a mere slough of filth, where the inhabitants, careless of sanitary laws, deposit the most unseemly products of their meals." (Something left to the imagination here.)

"Let there be a hot sun, and an epidemic will sweep away the tenants of these hovels by the hundred.

"Note to the Commission of Hygiene and Public Health, and to the ashmen. The tenants of this quarter have lost the habit of seeing these men."

The extraordinary parallelism between such passages and the comments of our own newspapers in the spring of 1879 will be noticed by every one.

Query? If 14,000 men and $100,000 are unable to clean 2,667 acres of street in Paris in two months after a snow-fall of twenty inches, what ought in justice to be expected from a force of 400 men, with no extra appropriation, working on 1,415 acres of street in New York, after a snow-fall of eighteen inches?

In London, such snow-storms never occur; but, that the authorities find it difficult there also to keep the streets in that condition of perennial neatness demanded by the press and the public, the following extracts will show:

"There is a natural dowdiness about the streets of London, especially in autumn, which is perhaps incurable. . . . The pavements begin to be deeply smeared with that peculiarly nasty London slime, which can only here be produced in its glutinous and slippery perfection."—("Saturday Review," November 1, 1879, p. 531.)

"The streets of London are being much improved by wood pavement" (they will find this a mistake), "but they are still allowed to remain in a condition of dirt which can not be otherwise than very injurious to the public health. London smells are as objectionable as London noises, and in removing the latter some attempts might with advantage be made at least to diminish the former. This end would in great measure be attained by a proper system of street-cleaning. Under existing arrangements there is no provision for a thorough and periodical cleaning of the roads. They are not even swept, the result being that in dry weather they are littered with refuse and abominations of various sorts, which pollute the atmosphere and fully account for the unpleasant odors which have during the present summer prevailed in the metropolis and been the cause of general complaint. Water-carts are of very little service in washing the streets; they may lay the dust for the time, but they merely transform it into mud without removing it. Heavy thunder-showers exercise a more beneficial effect, but their visitations are uncertain, and the manure they wash into the drains often stagnates in the sewer, and might be turned to profitable account if collected and disposed of. The attention of the vestries has lately been called to the whole question of street-cleaning by the National Health Society, and the sooner some steps are taken to purify out-door as well as in-door London the better."—("St. James's Gazette," quoted in "New York Sun," September 5, 1880. The italics are mine).

The bad odors above mentioned are also referred to in the following extract from the "Lancet" of May 29, 1880: "Attention has at length been drawn in the daily press to the disgusting smells pervading many of the principal London streets at the present moment. A correspondent likens the smell in Victoria Street, Westminster, to that of a charnel-house; and the smell in the Quadrant, Regent Street, on Friday and Saturday last, was so like that of carrion, that we heard the question debated whether it did not come from some open windows in the houses near the spot where it was felt" (sic!), "and might not arise from some, perhaps unknown, can-ion there. But this is not the only part of Regent Street which has recently been distinguished by a foul smell. The stench (arising from foul sewage according to some, from foulness of the roadway according to others) has been specially obvious to the passer-by about the center of the street, and between Oxford Circus and Margaret Street. In the latter place it was particularly disgusting on Saturday evening. Other streets in the West of London have, and are, suffering from persisting stink" (sic! punctuation and all). "It has been suggested that this offensive state of things has arisen from the long spell of dry weather, and consequent insufficient flushing of the sewers or streets, or both. But are the sanitary authorities of the metropolis so wanting in ingenuity, energy, and means that the effects of absence of rain upon the sewers and streets at this time of the year can not be counteracted?"

From the above it appears that New York is not the only city where rain is expected to help in cleaning the streets, or where the public authorities are expected to make up for the meteorological defects of an exceptional season.

In the removal of ashes and garbage, London does not seem to be much in advance of New York, as witness the following extracts: "What can be more unreasonable than the practice of accumulating kitchen stuff and household dirt of every description in heaps under our windows during the heat of summer?. . . The scavenging of our cities and towns is done by contract, and the men employed in the work are so underpaid that, as a matter of experience, they decline to discharge their duty except when bribed by householders. Complaints reach us of the extent to which the practice of levying black-mail is carried by the London dustman, and doubtless the evil is rife elsewhere. Servants are powerless to compel the inert and insolent men who parade the streets with carts to empty the dust-bins. . . . Altogether, the system of clearance is a fiasco."—(London "Lancet," August 17, 1878, p. 233.)

Substitute garbage-box for dust-bin in the following letter,[1] and it might do for the complaint-book of the "Herald":

Meadowside, Putney, September 20, 1880.

Sir: At an inquest held a few days ago on the body of a child who died at Lisson Street, Marylebone, the coroner, Dr. Hardwicke, commented strongly on the serious injury to health occasioned by the present system of allowing dustbins to remain in London and its environs for lengthened periods without being cleaned out. Perhaps you would bring your influence to bear in this matter, which certainly appears to me to require looking into.

An uncleaned dust-bin, with its festering mass of decaying animal and vegetable refuse, particularly in hot weather and in crowded districts, is a grave evil, as any one who has given the slightest attention to the matter of hygiene will allow, and the present system of having them emptied once in a fortnight is simply absurd. Of course, those who are addicted to cleanly habits can have their dust-receptacles attended to oftener by entering into a private contract with the dustmen; but those whose means are straitened, or who can not afford this luxury, must be content to endure their pestilence-breeding bins, with all the foul odors and health-depressing influences attached to them, until such times as it may please the dustmen to give them a dirty clean-out, the visits of these gentlemen being, like those of the angels, "few and far between," in the poor and crowded districts of this great city.

I have frequently been told by members of the working classes that it is no unusual thing for the dust-bins in their neighborhood to remain unattended to for months at a time; and, when they appeal to the dustmen in charge of any passing cart, they are either laughed at or met by a volley of abuse for their pains.

Surely such a state of things, which is easy of remedy, should not any longer be permitted.

Yours truly,

G. Stanley Murray, M. D.

The italics in this letter are mine. The writer shows his imperfect acquaintance with the necessities and difficulties of the public service, in the last paragraph, when he writes, "which is easy of remedy." To be sure, the remedy seems plain enough to any one who has never tried to make his own plan work practically. All that is needed is a few carts, horses, and men, with system, energy, intelligence, and industry—men with the latter qualities, as is well known, being exceedingly plentiful in the world, and their services dirt-cheap. A writer in the "Contemporary Review" for October, 1879, page 294, Henry J. Miller by name, representing himself as a poor man appealing to the upper classes for aid in bettering the condition of the poor, makes the following suggestion in his article "Lazarus to Dives," which, as an off-hand solution of a great problem, equals anything in our own daily journals: "Furnish" every householder "with two boxes, varying in size according to the dimensions of his domicile: one to form a receptacle for dust, cinders, old rags, broken bottles, and what is generically known as 'dry dirt'; and the other for decayed vegetables, the entrails of fish, and that kind of refuse that we rather uneuphoniously call 'muck.' Such boxes to be taken away once a week, and empty ones left in their stead. As a corollary to this, forbid him, under penalties, to continue his present practice of pitching derelicts into the street, as the readiest means of being quit of them; and make him responsible for the cleanliness of his door-steps and the pavement in front of his dwelling."

I have but one more subject to touch upon. In the spring of 1878 a determined effort was made by a public-spirited citizen to have the Health Commissioners of this city punished because they did not drive all offensive businesses out of the city. The attack upon them failed, and it failed for the same reason that similar attacks have failed, and will fail elsewhere, and that is, because the trades classed as offensive constitute an important part of the industries of a great city, and their banishment would strike a terrible blow at her commercial prosperity. The meat business alone in New York runs up toward a hundred millions annually, and the city can not afford to lose it, with the hundreds of smaller allied businesses that must inevitably follow it wherever it goes. I have brought up this subject because, singularly enough, the same trouble and similar complaints have arisen in Paris this summer, and the parallelism between the course of the journals there and here is as marked in this case as in the others mentioned above.

The Paris correspondent of the London "Lancet," in the issue of July 31, 1880, writes: "For some time the atmosphere of Paris has been anything but agreeable. Toward the evening, an unpleasant smell—or rather a more unpleasant smell than usual—has been noticeable, so much so, indeed, that it has at last become offensive even to the republican nostrils of the Municipal Council. This odor has been supposed by some to emanate from the sewers, while others have attributed it to putrefaction in the numerous kiosques which adorn (or disfigure?) the boulevards. It would appear, however, that the effluvium originates outside the fortifications, in the twenty-seven dépotoirs, or night-soil depots, which at some distance surround the capital, and perhaps also in the sewage-boats which are anchored in the Seine, near the Pont des Invalides. It depends in a great measure upon the absence of the disinfectants which should be used by the contractors who empty the cesspools, but who appear, from the statement of one of the Municipal Councilors, to have been abetted by the police in their neglect."

A month later, August 28th, the same correspondent writes: "The pestilential smells which have infected Paris for some time are awakening a feeling of indignation against the responsible authorities, which is expressed freely in the daily papers, and that quite independent of party spirit. A few days since the well-known critic, Francisque Sarcey, devoted an article to this matter in the 'Dix-Neuvième Siècle,' and invited the inhabitants of his district to sign the petition in preparation against the nuisance; and the 'Figaro' of to-day prefaces some satirical remarks by the statement that 'Paris est en ce moment infecté par les odeurs les plus épouvantables. Tous les égouts sont à découvert.' The odors, which in reality emanate, as was stated in a previous letter, from the night-soil dépotoirs which surround the city, and also from the carts and boats which convey the sewage outside the walls, are due to the neglect of the contractors in the use of disinfecting measures, and there seems to he no doubt about the connivance of the police at this abuse. . . . The 'Petite République Française' thinks that the only remedy lies in the suppression of the bureaux which are fallaciously called 'sanitary' or 'hygienic,' and which cover the responsibility of the prefect by a semblance of official sanction, which, as a matter of fact, they can not withhold." (The italics are mine.)

The usual hasty charges of corruption and incompetence, it will be observed, and the usual expression of a belief that matters could be mended by turning the incumbent officers out of their places and putting green men in their stead!

Meanwhile the Council of Hygiene was busily at work tracing the source of these odors, and endeavoring to find means of suppressing them. The "Journal Officiel" of October 7, 1880, contains the report of a commission appointed for this duty, in which they take strong ground with regard to the harmlessness of the odors, so far as the public health is concerned. It has always been maintained by the Board of Health of this city that the odors complained of by our citizens were not detrimental to health, but only destructive of comfort, and its officers have been much ridiculed for this opinion. It is not unpleasant, therefore, to find that the corresponding board in Paris takes the same view. The following extract will show this:

"The commission deems it necessary, in the first place, to reassure the public with regard to the influence exercised by sewer emanations upon mortality and upon the diffusion of contagious or epidemic diseases. In a communication to the Academy of Medicine, March 6, 1877, M. Bouley has stated that the proof of this contagious action, far from being demonstrated, was contradicted by certain observations. This doctrine has been maintained in the Council of Hygiene, by MM. Bouchardat and Hillairet, whose authority in such matters is well known. The emanations from the mouths of sewers, as well as those from the great chimneys of our factories, do not contribute, in any degree whatever, to the development or propagation of epidemic affections."

In this report, the bad odors complained of in Paris, especially during August and September, penetrating to the center of the city, are attributed to the ventilating shafts of "fosses d'aisance," the depots des vidanges at Billancourt, Aubervilliers, and Les Hautes-Bornes, Arcueil. As remedies they recommend the prompt prosecution of persons who discharge night-soil into the sewers (which is not allowed in Paris, and accounts for the cleanliness of her sewers), the thorough flushing of the sewers, a vast increase in the water-supply for cesspools and water-closets, the ventilation of the sewers, and the strict supervision of fat-rendering establishments. And they add that, "in seeking these means of prevention, we do not lose sight of the just recommendation of the Minister of Agriculture and Commerce, dated January 7, 1878, that they ought to be practicable and susceptible of being put in operation without entailing the suppression of the manufactures themselves." (Italics in original.)

The report lays great stress upon the facts that the odors from poudrette-works, fat-rendering establishments, fertilizer-works, etc., are not injurious to health, and that a suppression of these works, such as the public demands, would result in great inconvenience and even danger to the city: "Il faut le reconnaître, ce sont des établissements nécessaires."

M. Alphand, chief of the Department of Public Works, who was held partly responsible by the public for the state of affairs, made a speech before the Council of Hygiene, October 1st, which is reported in the "Journal Officiel" of October 7, 1880. He speaks more at length than the commission above-mentioned with regard to establishments of the kind that have caused so many complaints in New York. He says:

"The abattoirs of La Villette give rise, as our colleague Dr. Voisin has remarked, to disagreeable odors. These odors do not come, as has been supposed, from the barge which receives the manure and entrails of the slaughtered animals; those matters are, in fact, thoroughly disinfected and removed daily. The bad smells which escape in the vicinity of these abattoirs of La Villette are produced by the fat-rendering, which is done immediately after the killing. This is a nuisance inevitably connected with all establishments of this kind. . . .

"There is, at the gates of Paris, between the Chemin de Fer du Nord and the canal, all along the street La Haie-Coq to Aubervilliers, a collection of factories that treat animal matters and spread abroad nauseous smells. . . . It can not be too strongly insisted upon that these emanations, so objectionable to the sense of smell, have no miasmatic character, and are not dangerous in a medical point of view. . . .

"An evident proof of the harmlessness of these odors, as far as the public health is concerned, is found in the following figures: The complaints of bad odors began in August and increased in intensity up to the month of September. Now, the mortality lists, for the first week of August, show 1,114 deaths; the list for the week from September 9th to 16th shows only 881, a number smaller than the average when Paris is in the best sanitary condition."

The following words of M. Alphand are worthy of consideration here in New York:

"Besides, the public must not demand the impossible, and the production of emanations more or less disagreeable, more or less offensive, can never be completely avoided in the midst of this collection of two million human beings, and many hundreds of thousands of animals—dogs, cats, horses, cattle, poultry, etc."

The speech of M. Alphand was not dealt with tenderly by the newspaper men, who naturally knew much more about the subject than he did. M. Francisque Sarcey, in the "XIXième Siècle," scarifies him in the following terms, which lose much of their vigor and sarcastic force in the translation:

"M. Alphand deduces from this very unanimity an argument against the press; it is the newspapers, he says, that have thrown bitterness into the question. It is they who have made all the trouble! By crying out against the bad smells, they have finally persuaded the Parisians, and even foreigners, that these bad smells really exist. Before this concerted outcry, Parisians never noticed that it stunk in their city. Now, behold! they are all up in arms against this pretended infection. Who is to blame? Those incorrigible gabblers—the newspaper men. For a trifle, M. Alphand would be willing to say that it is we who are malicious enough to stink, for the pleasure of giving trouble to the authorities. For the past week it stunk every evening in my quarter, and it stunk strongly. One evening, in particular, it stunk so that I found myself compelled to shut my windows, and then it only stunk the more. On my honor! yesterday morning I had an article to write; I am in the habit of entertaining our readers with all the subjects that interest me, and just at the time when they interest me, and, as it stunk in my quarter, I immediately said, with my usual bonhomie, 'Oh, my children, how it stinks in my quarter!' No, you can not imagine how it stinks in my quarter. This phrase is my witness that I did not ask myself, before uttering this cry of suffering, whether M. Andrieux had made an arrest the night before, nor even whether M, Andrieux was the prefect of police. I said, it stinks, because it stunk, with the ingenuousness of a man who holds his nose, exclaiming, 'My God! how it stinks!"[2]

The war of words between the public and the officials is still going on, and is becoming more virulent. At the session of the Conseil Général of October 26th, M. Raspail is reported to have made "a furious attack on the prefect of police, in reference to the factory at Les Hautes-Bornes, the worst of all the factories surrounding Paris, which had been already closed by M. Léon Renault. In spite of M. Voisin, this factory was reopened, thanks to the influence of M. Léon Say, a friend of M. Pauville, the new owner. The papers drawn against this establishment are flawless. Workmen refuse to labor in summer in its vicinity, and those who do work there are seized with vomiting. In place of closing this pestilential center, it is allowed to grow larger. And this is the history of the other depots and ammonia-factories in the suburbs.

"These bastilles of infection," says M. Raspail, "must disappear, and they will disappear, I assure you, in spite of all possible protection."[3]

This paper is already too long. I have had in its preparation but one object, viz.: to demonstrate that some of the nuisances existing in New York continue to exist, not on account of the ignorance, incompetence, or negligence of officials whose duty it is to abate them, but because there arise in connection with their suppression certain vast problems which are not yet solved anywhere in cities of equal size with this. And these problems do not lie on the surface, but only confront the theorist when he applies himself to practical work with personal responsibility, and he begins to find that the means at his disposal are inadequate to the results expected from him.

 
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  1. London "Lancet," October 2, 1880, p. 563.
  2. "Lancet," October 16, 1880, p. 639.
  3. "Figaro," October 27, 1880, p. 5.