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Rat Kings of New York

Will the war against rodents ever end?

Some say New York City lost the War on Rats with the invention of the plastic bag. Others point to global warming and the fact that a few more warm breeding days is enough for untold thousands of extra litters. In reality, we never stood a chance: we were doomed the moment the first pair of rattus norvegicus came ashore with the Hessians. For generations, city officials have tried to fight the furry tide. Mayor O’Dwyer convened an anti-rodent committee in 1948. Mayor Giuliani formed an Extermination Task Force—part of his controversial purge of feculence of every kind. All have failed. This time, vows Eric Adams, things will be different.

To get a sense of New York’s reinvigorated campaign, declared in November of 2022 with a tranche of anti-rodent legislation, the Rat Academy is a good enough place to start. There we were—young and old, landlords and tenants, rodenticide enthusiasts and professional rubberneckers—huddled in the basement of a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene building in East Harlem on the last day of May, getting to know our enemy. Their impressive birthrates, their stupendous gnawing strength, the trigger hairs on their heads that give them a feeling of safety under bricks and in cramped burrows. Kathleen Corradi, the city’s Rat Czar, was there to bless the proceedings. A good-looking blonde guy seated in front of me with a notepad turned out to be a reporter for a Danish newspaper. The presence of the Scandinavian media at this humble seminar is what’s known in the pest control business as a “sign”—that New York is at least winning the public relations side of this latest War on Rats.

The tactical session had the zeal of a new crusade, but the Rat Academy dates back to 2005, during billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor. He called it the Rodent Academy, a three-day crash course for property owners and pest control pros. At some point in the last decade, the city added two-hour sessions for the uncredentialed and the curious. They give good practical advice, like how rats view a paver over their hole as an amenity and the importance of mixing wire with concrete when plugging cracks. And they’re good PR, a chance for a company like Infinity Shields to advertise its dubious miracle spray, and for city councilmembers to show they’re dedicated to taking action—the evening’s PowerPoint bore the logos of Manhattan Community Boards 9, 10, and 11, as well as councilmembers Shaun Abreu, Diana Ayala, and Kristin Richardson Jordan.

What you quickly learn is that the rat problem is really a trash problem. Alone among great cities, New York City residents and businesses drag some forty-four million pounds of garbage to the sidewalk every evening, providing the rats a situation that evokes Templeton’s binge at the fairgrounds in Charlotte’s Web.

Elected officials, boxed in by competing interests, tend to prefer superficial change. It’s much easier to deliver.

One of the first salvos in Mayor Adams’s renewed campaign to take back the city was the announcement that set-out times for this black-bagged waste would be rolled back four hours, to 8 p.m. Of course, rats don’t mind dining on a European schedule. The mailers and bus ads promoting the new rules featured a morose grey rodent dragging a big, gaudy suitcase. “Send Rats Packing!” it announced. A T-shirt ($48) offered by the Department of Sanitation proclaims: “Rats don’t run this city. We Do.”

This and other rhetoric of the War on Rats comes uncomfortably close to anti-immigrant sloganeering and racist cartoons of the not-so-distant past, whipping up public opinion against “enemy populations” to justify corrective regimes—from the rodent abatement industry’s latest traps and poisons to advanced garbage receptacles. Nobody but the rats wants trash-strewn streets. But the patently absurd and endless war on these maligned creatures obscures the fact that any real gains will require systemic changes in urban infrastructure. The sanitation department’s first detailed study of the viability of containerization concluded last year that a complete overhaul of residential garbage collection—made possible by as-yet-undeveloped bins and trucks—could keep 89 percent of the city’s household refuse out of rodents’ reach. Promises and press releases abound, but the chance of such an overhaul actually coming to pass is slim.

Elected officials, boxed in by competing interests, tend to prefer superficial change. It’s much easier to deliver. Giuliani, the mayor famous for controversial “clean streets” initiatives, brought us the Extermination Task Force and (recent branding aside) hired the first Rat Czar. But he’s better known for cleaning up the streets another way: through “broken windows” policing. Popularized in a 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, “broken windows” argues visible signs of crime and disorder are a primary cause of more serious crime. “Outside observers should not assume that they know how much of the anxiety now endemic in many big city neigh­borhoods stems from a fear of ‘real’ crime,” Wilson and Kelling wrote, “and how much from a sense that the street is disorderly, a source of dis­tasteful, worrisome encounters.” Accordingly, the unhoused and the loiterer alike are considered a blight and should be duly penalized for their violation of the standards of civil behavior.

The theory of broken windows comes down to aesthetics—a taste for the appearance of order. In this way, the government acts like a neighborhood association with a monopoly on lethal force. And indeed, Giuliani’s tough-guy talk encouraged a level of racist brutality in the enforcement of a program that, on paper, is less a crime-busting blueprint than a way to strengthen the self-regulation of subjective community norms. Like Giuliani’s vendetta against Squeegee Men, the fight against the Murine Menace demands quick, visible busts, producing the feeling of safety, security, and cleanliness while conveniently downplaying the roots of the problem.

Adams has stationed cops on the subway platforms to make people feel “safe”—that is, if you’re the kind of person comforted by cops. He has gathered the unhoused into shelters, partly for their sake, partly for appearances. “The mayor has depicted the city’s rat situation much as he has portrayed its crime and homelessness issues,” writes the New York Times. “He says all illustrate a sense of disorder that Mr. Adams hopes to tamp down.” Indeed, “distasteful, worrisome encounters” certainly describes the experiences of New Yorkers who complain of rodents scampering over mountains of trash and between disused dining sheds. One spokesperson at the Rat Academy compared chasing rats from their nests to illegal evictions—presumably something both landlords and tenants could relate to. If you came home and your locks had been changed, would you give up? No. But if it happened every day, for two weeks . . .

It’s cute to think of rats as little people. But this metaphor mostly underscores how an unfair system, in which lockouts sometimes work, treats people themselves like rats.

The War on Rats, like Giuliani’s multifront struggle against blight and decay, calls for top-down strategizing, with a mix of official enforcement and vigilantism. That spirit is alive and well in groups like the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (RATS) or Sterling’s Committee for Rat Awareness & Mitigation (SCRAM) or Prospect Heights Rat Task Force (no cute acronym). They’re taking the law into their own hands. RATS, for example, hunts rats with dogs, a modern version of blood sports held in nineteenth century taverns. Top-down attention has been ably conveyed by Mayor Adams, who has tussled with the Murine Menace before. As Brooklyn Borough President, he famously held a press conference to show off dead rats rotting in a bucket of alcoholic swill. He also happens to be a landlord who has repeatedly been cited for failure to correct a rat infestation at one of his properties.

Enforcement is where things get messy. Here, “laws” and “rules” and “respect for life” overlap. Part of the reenergized Sanitation Department’s broad approach to rat control is a renewed crackdown on illegal dumping, picking up where Operation TrashNet left off in 2018—bad news for the Rats of Nimh, and for the litterbugs who might be handed a four-figure fine, a summons, and have their vehicle impounded. The Sanitation Department’s tactics include hidden cameras and plainclothes officers stationed near dumping hotspots. The dragnet has the added benefit of catching other sorts of criminals: a sanitation spokesman told a reporter in 2021 that a recent “enforcement period” had already snagged someone with an outstanding warrant. In June, as the city neared peak hot garbage season, Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch said her department had issued forty-five thousand summonses and warnings related to trash set-out since April 1. Supposing enforcement is distributed equally across the boroughs—a big if, historically—a $50 ticket or a court date is far more punishing for poorer residents.

The problem is not just our overwhelming failure to sensibly dispose of our garbage, it’s that we produce too much of it.

Who benefits from this forever war? The political sugar rush is already hitting. It’s an aesthetic contest, after all—the trick is visible change, a feeling that there is less trash and fewer rats. You may not necessarily notice a lack. You do notice a shiny new container with a tight-fitting lid where once there were mountains of seeping, rustling bags. But the problem with this style of perpetual, piecemeal warfare is that containerization must be consistent, covering residential and commercial, from house to house and block to block—or else the rats will simply adjust their habits. And here, the problem is not just our overwhelming failure to sensibly dispose of our garbage, it’s that we produce too much of it.

In the meantime, one winner is Big Trashcan. New truck and stationary bin designs must be tailored to the city’s needs. New rules will require food-related businesses to use sealed containers instead of bags and have city residents separate their tasty organic waste. The four areas selected for the current phase of the enhanced rat mitigation campaign—Chinatown, the East Village, the Lower East Side; Grand Concourse; Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights; and Harlem—were the first to see pumpkin orange BigBelly trash cans marked for compost along select thoroughfares. They’ve since spread across the five boroughs. The bins are accessible only by app, via a QR code on the front. This extra checkpoint, the city reckons, will keep the wrong kinds of trash out of the mix. You can watch the BigBellys fill up and get emptied on the app, like a rough heat map of gentrification.

BigBelly, a private for-profit company based in Massachusetts, was happy to enlist in the War on Rats. The firm launched in 2003 with a solar-powered self-compacting front-loading can, but it now offers recycling variants, anti-terrorism features, and integrated Wi-Fi hotspots. BigBelly is walking into this bright new rat-free future hand in hand with New York’s many business improvement districts (BIDs), which pick up where the city falls short with the grunt work of sanitation. It’s BIDs, for instance, that have undertaken the project of replacing New York’s “iconic” overflowing trash baskets with BigBellys (retail price: $4,000), with the help of city grants. From Chinatown to DUMBO, the cans all encourage civic pride: “Show some Love. Keep it Clean”; “Pardon us while we buff our blocks!”; “Where should we eat?” In Times Square, they can be rented as adspace.

Yeah, this is our city! Our forty-four million pounds of trash per day! Send them packing! But who exactly gets to stay? Repressing visible signs of the rat infestation, insofar as that’s possible, won’t save us from rising rents or hold back the ocean. The War on Rats is cute, as far as wars go. But more than a technocratic campaign for clean streets—with the historical precedent of overburdening the city’s poor and non-white residents—we need a war on waste.