Jessica Tisch, the Ex-N.Y.P.D. Official Trying to Tame New York’s Trash

And yet “The Future of Trash” concludes that bags could be eliminated from many of the city’s residential streets, without messing with parking, simply by telling people who live in houses and small apartment buildings that they couldn’t put their waste out in bags anymore. On April 1, 2src23, as a first step, Tisch implemented

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And yet “The Future of Trash” concludes that bags could be eliminated from many of the city’s residential streets, without messing with parking, simply by telling people who live in houses and small apartment buildings that they couldn’t put their waste out in bags anymore. On April 1, 2src23, as a first step, Tisch implemented the first change to the city’s waste-set-out times in decades. Residents would no longer be allowed to put garbage bags on the sidewalks before 8 P.M. (It was a small change, but an inconvenient one: putting the bags out so late would force many co-op boards and management companies to pay their building staff overtime.) Publicly, sanitation officials emphasized that the change would deter rats, by limiting the amount of time that bags sat outside. But the department was also quietly testing whether New Yorkers would containerize themselves, by giving them a nudge. The new rules had a carve out: if the trash was put in a lidded plastic bin, it could go out as early as 6 P.M. Bins soon began appearing on sidewalks all over town. “You never really saw containers on the streets of New York City until April 1st, and now there are lots of them,” Tisch told me last summer. “There’s about to be a whole lot more.”

Tisch believes that she and her aides have developed a plan that will clean up New York City. It’s a program they refer to, grandly, as the Trash Revolution. Bags off the sidewalks. Clean highways. Citywide organic-waste pickup. Beefed-up enforcement of sanitary laws. Tisch has committed her department to implementing these changes, along with other improvements that have eluded previous sanitation commissioners. “At the moment, in New York City, all the smartest people are focussed on garbage,” one of Tisch’s aides told me. “We’re running the Manhattan Project of municipal government here.”

Historically, the Department of Sanitation has been something of a neglected younger sibling among the city’s uniformed agencies. “We pick things up, we put things down, we drive the same route, and traverse the same streets,” Garrett O’Reilly, who recently retired as the department’s top uniformed official, told me. “Some people say that it’s a thoughtless job. I know that it’s not.” Sanitation veterans like to note that New Yorkers call on police officers and firefighters when there’s an emergency, whereas they rely on sanitation workers every day. Yet the city employs thirty-six thousand uniformed police officers, eleven thousand firefighters, and roughly eight thousand sanitation workers. This still makes for the largest municipal sanitation force in the country. New York’s Strongest, they call themselves.

Sanitation work is hazardous. The workers I spoke with mentioned serious injuries and respiratory issues they’d suffered as a result of the job. “I used to have allergies when I drove the broom,” Robert Casanovas, a retired supervisor, said of his days driving a street sweeper. “I don’t have them anymore.” Sanitation workers cleaned up Ground Zero after 9/11, and a hundred and nineteen have since died from illnesses related to that effort. At the start of the pandemic, sanitation workers were forced to work shifts without masks or hand sanitizer. Thousands of department employees got sick, and nine of them died.

The pandemic was a full-blown operational crisis for the department. To help pay for the city’s COVID-19 response, de Blasio cut the nearly two-billion-dollar sanitation budget by more than a hundred million. Litter-basket maintenance was cut by sixty per cent, street-sweeping services by fifty. Between the spring and the summer of 2src2src, the 311 hotline was flooded with complaints about trash, from all five boroughs. Andrew Cuomo, the governor at the time, spoke at a press conference about how bad the city smelled: “Literally, people saying there is an odiferous environment.” Kathryn Garcia, who was then the commissioner of sanitation, resigned in protest of the cuts.

“What if we changed the name to Trail Mix.”

Cartoon by John McNamee

This is the mess that Tisch inherited. (New York magazine proclaimed her first August on the job “Hot Garbage Month.”) But it was also a propitious time to become the sanitation commissioner, she told me, because city officials were finally acknowledging the severity of the situation. Tisch was appointed by Eric Adams, whose mayoral campaign, in 2src21, was all about the new unease that New Yorkers felt on their streets. Part of this unease was about crime—that was the part that Adams, a former cop, talked about the most. But part of it was about trash. “The Mayor came to me with a goal,” Tisch said. “He likes to say—and it’s a good line—that New York streets need to look as good as New Yorkers do.” Given that Adams often wears custom-tailored suits and Ferragamo loafers, this is a high bar.

Tisch likes designer clothing, too, though you’ll more often see her in Chanel. Garcia was known for wearing a department-issued windbreaker and blending in with the rank and file. Tisch, on the other hand, recently took a tour of rat-infested zones in Flatbush, Brooklyn, while wearing a thousand-dollar silk dress from Zadig&Voltaire’s fall 2src2src collection.

The sanitation commissioner comes from one of the richest families in the country. (They rank forty-third, according to Forbes.) Her father, James Tisch, is the C.E.O. of the Loews Corporation, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate whose holdings have included Loews Theatres, Loews Hotels, Lorillard Tobacco Company, the Bulova Watch Company, and CBS. Her mother, Merryl Tisch, was a top state education official for many years, and a prominent supporter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Chuck Schumer. The family’s name is etched all over the city: there’s the Tisch School of the Arts, at New York University; the Tisch Cancer Institute, at Mount Sinai; and the Tisch Galleries, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yet Jessica Tisch, who is forty-three, has known only government work. After receiving a B.A., a J.D., and an M.B.A. from Harvard, she took a job, in 2srcsrc8, in the counterterrorism bureau of the New York Police Department. “My grandmother was incredibly supportive,” she told me. “Everyone else was, like, ‘Really?’ ” Tisch helped develop the N.Y.P.D.’s surveillance-camera networks and set up its officer body cameras. In 2src19, de Blasio appointed her the commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, where she helped improve the city’s Wi-Fi, oversaw the 311 system, and coördinated vaccine distribution during the pandemic. “One of the things that Jessie learned at N.Y.P.D. is all the ways that money, contract, or legal issues can completely fuck up a project,” Ryan Merola, Tisch’s chief of staff, told me. “She keeps a budget expert, a contracts expert, and a lawyer around her at all times.” Adams and Tisch had several mutual connections, including the former police commissioner William Bratton, whom they both consider a visionary. Bratton supported Adams’s decision to appoint Tisch to Sanitation, as did Garcia, Bloomberg, and Schumer.

Many of Adams’s appointments have gone awry—his former commissioner of buildings has pleaded not guilty to bribery charges, and his former commissioner of corrections stepped aside after failing to address the deadly conditions in the city’s jails. Adams’s own phones were seized as part of a federal investigation related to his campaign fund-raising. (He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.) Tisch has managed to skate above this turmoil so far. “As many faulty appointments as Eric has made,” Bratton told me, “he’s very fortunate that he’s got people like Jessie to make up for all the characters.”

At a ceremony on February 1st, Tisch unveiled what she called “a super weapon in the fight against filth.” It’s an automated side-loading garbage truck, which can lift bins by itself, so that sanitation workers can collect trash without breaking their backs. Other cities in the U.S. have mechanized trash trucks, but, according to city sanitation officials, no domestic manufacturer makes a model compact and quiet enough to drive down a Manhattan street. At the ceremony, the department showed off a prototype of a vehicle it had created from a mix of American and European parts. The truck hoisted bins into the air in front of a cheering crowd. The event climaxed with Adams emerging from the truck’s cab, as “Empire State of Mind”—his personal theme song—played over loudspeakers. All this fanfare, one person commented on X, for “technology that places like Akron, Ohio have had since 1973.”

The task of cleaning New York has traditionally been divided among various agencies. The Department of Transportation cleaned the highways, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection enforced food-vender rules, the Economic Development Corporation handled graffiti removal, and the N.Y.P.D. towed abandoned vehicles. But, for these agencies, cleanliness was generally a low priority. With Adams’s blessing, Tisch has absorbed these responsibilities into her department. When Sanitation began removing graffiti, there was a backlog of a thousand requests; the department cleaned eight hundred locations in just one month. As part of a new joint effort with the N.Y.P.D., Sanitation has helped remove more than eleven thousand abandoned cars from the streets.

The Department of Sanitation also has its own law-enforcement arm, the Sanitation Police, which enforces city trash rules. In 2src23, summonses for sanitation violations were up sixty-two per cent. After a snowstorm this January, the NYC Sanitation account posted a warning on X: “New York’s Strongest will be out there en masse enforcing the basic rules intended to keep our sidewalks safe and passable.” The department ended up issuing four thousand citations to property owners who didn’t clear the snow from their sidewalks.

Residential waste accounts for only part of New York City’s trash. Offices, restaurants, shops, industrial facilities, and other commercial enterprises produce another twenty million pounds a day, and must pay private waste haulers to cart it away. A few months ago, Tisch announced that commercial businesses would have to containerize their waste. The NYC Sanitation account has begun publicly shaming establishments that haven’t complied. “MEMO TO @WALGREENS: Jamaica isn’t your damn dumping ground,” the account posted in mid-January. In another post, the account suggested that a Dollar Tree in Coney Island be called the “Two Hundred Dollars Each Day Tree,” because “that’s what they’re racking up in NIGHTLY summonses for failing to follow the chain business containerization rules.” To the Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street: “$2srcsrc per day, every day (except Sunday),” the account wrote, with a smiling emoji.

Law enforcement, as a general concept, is the underpinning of Tisch’s work as the sanitation commissioner. The Trash Revolution is in many ways inspired by the CompStat Revolution, a set of data-driven reforms that Bratton introduced at the N.Y.P.D. in the nineties. Studies suggest that these reforms contributed to an over-all decline in crime, but they also led to the stop-and-frisk era, in which police officers hassled millions of young Black and brown men in the city with little pretext. While campaigning for mayor, Adams said that he wanted every city agency to set up its own CompStat-style system.

On Thursday mornings, Tisch attends a meeting called Trash Dash. Whereas CompStat involves meetings about changes in crime stats—murders, shootings, and robberies—Trash Dash involves Sanitation brass grilling lower-ranked officers about missed collections, dirty conditions, and street-sweeping efficacies. As a uniformed agency, Sanitation has a chain of command similar to those in place at the N.Y.P.D. and the F.D.N.Y. (“It’s a paramilitary organization,” Casanovas, the retired supervisor, told me.) I recently attended a Trash Dash meeting on the eighth floor of the department’s headquarters, in lower Manhattan, where three- and four-star sanitation chiefs sat across the table from borough chiefs and district superintendents. Tisch was the only woman in the room. (Her department is more than ninety per cent male.) During a discussion of conditions in one part of Park Slope, she bolted out of her chair and made her way toward a screen displaying a map. “Tenth Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue,” she said, indicating for an official controlling the screen to zoom in. “Five missed collections in a twenty-eight-day period—what is going on at that address?”

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