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19th century New York City was one dirty place

New York City’s Sanitation Department’s resident anthropologist has been digging back into the city’s trashy past.

New York City has a reputation in some quarters — deserved or not — as a dirty city. Have we gotten any better at cleaning up after ourselves?

You have no idea. Going back 100, 150 years, American cities were disgusting — and New York City was notorious as the filthiest and stinkiest. We were a laughingstock. The rumor goes that sailors could smell the city six miles out to sea. And all of this filth exacerbated a public health crisis — people were dying of diseases like typhus, cholera, yellow fever, things that spread more easily in neighborhoods where the streets were dirtier. A cholera epidemic in the 1830’s killed 3,515 people, which was roughly12 percent of the population at the time. That same percentage would mean about 100,000 people today. The mortality rate in 1860 New York was equal to that of medieval London.

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