Underground garbage: Watch your step
I was walking down Dumaine Street one Saturday night when I noticed something strange under my feet.
But as things to step on in the French Quarter go, this wasn’t that bad. It was a metal manhole cover marked “Garbage,” bolted shut and marked with a patent number. I naturally Googled the number, and found the patent had been awarded in 1947 to an inventor named Charles L. Davis, Jr.
Davis had devised what he called an underground “storage receptacle,” where metal trashcans could be kept out of sight and away from pests until pickup time. It was apparently a local invention: Davis was listed as a New Orleans resident, and the patent explained the device could be put beneath a sidewalk, road or “neutral ground.”
I soon spotted others across the Quarter, but they all seemed abandoned: some were bolted or welded shut, and others were covered with a layer of cement. One on Decatur Street opened, but it seemed to have long been empty. A cashier in the adjacent shop said she had never even noticed it.
Google also didn’t turn up anything about the trash containers besides a stock photo, and historians at the Historic New Orleans Collection and Tulane University said they didn’t know much about them. City officials didn’t respond to my emails, and the city archives at the public library included little mention of the invention.
But the archives did reveal how concerned 1940s officials were with rats—judging by meeting minutes, the rodents were then by far the primary topic of discussion at the Board of Health.
Nowadays, French Quarter rats might be best known for their role in a Hannibal Buress routine. The comedian says he discreetly told a waiter in a Decatur Street restaurant about spotting one, only to be chastised for even bothering to report it. After all, the waiter told him, the restaurant is in an old building near the Mississippi—what did he expect?
But just a few decades ago, rats in New Orleans were no laughing matter. A bubonic plague outbreak struck the city in 1914, and officials rushed to rodent-proof the city, since the fleas that carry the disease are themselves carried by rats. Insects on the rodents also carried typhus, present in New Orleans at least through the 1940s. At the time, public health workers traveled door-to-door with a poison made from red squill, a plant toxic to rats but not to humans or livestock. “Chickens actually thrive on it,” the New Orleans Item reported in 1941, as the city looked to reverse a growing rate of typhus infection.
Less than four years later, the paper covered Davis’s “ratproofing and dogproofing” underground containers, which he had installed outside his own Garden District home. The Times-Picayune also covered its debut. Its article featured a photo of Davis, described as an engineer, Tulane grad and father of two, easing a can into its subterranean compartment.
The containers quickly won praise from sanitation workers. In 1946, States columnist Jim Sharp went for a garbage truck ridealong. As he described it, few households had cans at all, and plastic garbage bags were still years in the future. That left garbagemen to deal with overflowing, waterlogged paper bags and boxes full of sun-ripened trash, all left scattered across the sidewalk.
Many sanitation workers had scars from broken glass and injuries from lye, used to clean metal cans after they sat full of rotting garbage. To them, the buried containers were a godsend, wrote Sharp. Finally, trash would be stored securely, protected from vermin, wind and rain.
“That’s one of the new underground cans,” a garbage truck driver told Sharp. “They’re the best thing ever happened to us.”
The containers also won praise from “housekeepers and restaurateurs all over town,” according to a report in the Times-Picayune that year. At what the paper described as a “well-known restaurant” at 1403 Washington St.—that is, Commander’s Palace—eight of them were installed. House and apartment listings through the 1960s boasted of underground garbage cans alongside features like central air and onsite laundry. Davis took out ads promoting the devices, as did hardware and housewares stores.
“This modern receptacle is always out of sight and odors are eliminated,” said a 1950 ad from The Electric House on Oak Street. “Let us install a modern sunken garbage receptacle now.”
Their success in New Orleans makes sense, given the city’s climate, explains Martin Melosi, a University of Houston historian and the author of multiple books on urban waste management.
“The heat and humidity accelerate putrification,” he wrote in an email. “Early on, several southern cities burned waste rather than dumping it for that reason.”
But it wasn’t long before underground trash cans began to fall out of favor, effectively having outlived their usefulness. In 1964, a Times-Picayune Sunday supplement feature on rats quoted a “city pest control expert” warning that if cans and the outer manholes weren’t properly secured, they could effectively become food dishes for rodents. Two years later, the States-Item ran a photo from a block of Ursulines Avenue in the French Quarter, where vandals stole the cans from their underground compartments, leaving residents to pile trash on the street. Real estate listings and store advertisements slowly stopped boasting of underground cans.
And by 1977, garbage workers no longer saw the underground cans as a safety improvement. Sanitation Department superintendent Tony Stant was even calling for the city to ban them. They contributed to an on-the-job injury rate higher than the police and fire departments combined, he told the Times-Picayune.
“We have had too damn many back injuries lately,” Stant told the paper.
By late 20th century standards, the cans didn’t really do much to control odors, either. In her extraordinarily raunchy quasi-memoir Paradoxia, New York punk singer Lydia Lunch recalls encountering them during a stay in New Orleans.
“Swooned by the intoxicating delicacy of lush gardenias, night-blooming jasmine, and sweet olive trees whose healing aromas and heavenly perfume would subdue even the sourest dispositions,” she writes. “Then, as suddenly as one turns a corner, the olfactories are assaulted by clouds of noxious fumes boiling over the flimsy manhole covers used as trash-can lids for the underground garbage receptacles. Which offer no protection from the gruesome stew of dead fish, bell peppers, and dirty baby diapers left decomposing in the still afternoon swelter, its stagnant humidity and oppressive heatwaves conspiring to produce fainting spells, narcolepsy and shortness of breath.”
And in 1994, underground trash containers reached what was likely their least auspicious moment. A Louisiana appellate court ordered the state to pay nearly $250,000, after a visitor to a state park fell into a poorly maintained underground trash container. She needed multiple operations and was left with permanent mobility issues. By then, the park’s decades-old containers were seldom used or cleaned. Severely rusted hinges meant their lids were no longer secure, and they were difficult to even spot amid grass and debris. The containers, once a valued public health improvement, had become a dangerous booby trap.
“While the testimony indicated that some campers still used the underground cans to hold their trash before relocating it to a centrally located dumpster, we find that the underground trash receptacles had little or no social utility,” the court found. “Moreover, the small amount of utility, if any, was grossly outweighed by the serious risk of harm that the deteriorated cans presented to persons on the premises.
Steven Melendez is an independent journalist based in New Orleans. Originally from the New York area, he’s gradually learning to give directions based on the river and the lake and to peel his crawfish before everyone else is done eating. His work has been published by Fast Company, Newsweek, Al Jazeera America and New York Public Radio’s WNYC.