In most cities of the developed world, mechanical street sweepers are a fact of life. Even New York’s carless commuters are fluent in strategies to use on “alternate-side parking days,” when the scheduled passing of a street sweeper forces all of a block’s parked cars to one side of the street. It’s easy to forget that, before these behemoth, motorized sponges began scrubbing the streets en masse, even the widest boulevards were cleaned by hand. This street sweeper in 1910 New York would have his work cut out for him after his beat — Fifth Avenue — was considerably widened that year. Although the mechanical sweeper had debuted in 1840s Manchester, it took nearly a century to catch on almost everywhere else.
Of course, street cleaners — some wielding handmade brooms — are a common sight in the poorer countries of the so-called Global South. But old photos of individual sweepers toiling to keep dry the rain-soaked streets of currently presently, hypermodern Tokyo come as a bit of a shock. The photo above, from the collection of the Dutch Naational Archief, is dated “circa 1930,” though some commenters think it might have been taken even later, perhaps in the immediate postwar era. Almost nothing here is recognizable as contemporary Tokyo — except maybe the electronics store in the background. Many of the street sweepers are wearing conical hats typical of agricultural field laborers, and some are even sporting a mino, a traditional form of raincoat made from straw.
Flash forward to May, 1960, when the second photo was taken in Richmond, Virginia. By this point, street sweeping by hand was long since relegated to sidewalks and public parks, and the big broom being pushed along the street in this “sanitation parade” is purely symbolic. So, one commenter wryly notes on the photo’s Flickr page, is the anti-letter message the city is trying to convey (“A Clean City is Everybodies [sic] Job,” the sign below the giant garbage can reads) — “I guess if your litter floats away it’s alright,” she mocks one of the paraders, who is releasing a bunch of balloons into the air.
Today, many cities have enacted laws to force adjacent property owners to sweep or shovel the walkways outside their homes or businesses, or else use small vehicles to clean even their sidewalks, like this one in Mexico City. But professional street sweepers have not died out completely. Some London boroughs still pay municipal sidewalk sweepers. In the United States, you usually find them in a Business Improvement District, like Manhattan’s Herald Square, where retailers have pooled resources and pay a crew to keep busy sidewalks clean. Manual street cleaners (often, now, using vacuums as much as brooms) are still legendary for their heroic efforts after massive urban celebrations like New Orelans’ Mardi Gras or the New Year’s Eve party in Times Square. And their merits may be somewhat reevaluated now that environmental concerns about stormwater runoff — and the trash it carries with it — show that mechanical sweepers, which lack an eye for detail, are not as effective as one might think.
For all the meticulous efforts of erstwhile street sweepers, though, cities have probably become much cleaner, in general, since they were rendered obsolete. In November 1911, New York’s sanitation workers — including street sweepers — went on strike. Some garbagemen unceremoniously dumped their fully-loaded trash carts onto the city’s streets and sidewalks in protest. The city faced a public health catastrophe; on the third day, the New York Times’ headline announced, the “streets [were] clotted with rotting refuse, in which children play unhampered”.
The cavalry soon arrived in the form of the “White Wings”, a group of smartly-dressed volunteers and sweepers who refused to join the strike. Under police guard as they proceeded up and down New York’s streets, where they were the target of bricks and stones flung by strikers, they cleared heaping piles of waste. Garbage strikes still cripple cities, as they have long before — and since — the introduction of the mechanical street sweeper; most recently, Naples was paralyzed by one in 2007 and 2008. But they’re a much worse problem when human street sweepers are the only resource available to deal with them. Strike or otherwise, they tend to take awhile.
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