Newyork

The Rats Are Absolutely Going to Hate the New Sanitation Commissioner

“The rats are absolutely going to hate this announcement. But the rats don’t run this city, we do.”

When Jessica Tisch, New York City’s recently installed sanitation commissioner, uttered those two short sentences during a news conference in mid-October, while announcing new rules for putting garbage bags out on the sidewalk, she had no idea she was about to become a social media sensation.

But soon, there were thousands of videos posted on TikTok, using her deadpan audio as a winking metaphor for victory over whoever might oppose you: a teenage girl in a hot pink prom dress whose date was reluctant to also wear pink; a dad who donned a fleece hoodie instead of turning up the heat in the house; the Detroit Lions after beating the Chicago Bears.

That Ms. Tisch’s declaration became a viral meme (and subsequently a T-shirt) suggests that this otherwise no-nonsense candidate for garbage chief might actually have been an inspired choice. But can she accomplish what few have ever been able to do?

Can she clean up New York City?

Ms. Tisch, 41, who has worked throughout city government, has a reputation for being a tough boss and for disrupting the status quo. She is a lifelong New Yorker with a famous last name and three Harvard diplomas, including an M.B.A. and a law degree. Her grandfather and his brother founded the Loews Corporation and, thanks to philanthropic donations, their names grace many buildings in New York, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University and the Children’s Zoo in Central Park.

She has taken this job at a particularly challenging moment. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to put the city on a “wartime budget,” slashing various city services, including sanitation. Trash pickup was reduced, street cleaning was cut in half and the rats may not have been running the city but they seemed to have set up a shadow government that commandeered the streets after dark. The new outdoor dining sheds brought even more opportunities for filth.

But long before that, the job was demanding, to say the least. In fact, for over a century, the City of New York has been trying to figure out how to cope with its steadily growing volume of trash.

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The city named its first sanitation commissioner in the 1890s. George Waring created a street cleaning department, ordered horses to be put in stables overnight instead of tied up on the street, and it made a visible difference. The Times raved that once he got to work, “the asphalt pavement was absolutely clean. You could see the epidermis of the street.”

Before Mr. Waring, “the city was pretty filthy,” said Esther Crain, the founder of Ephemeral New York, a website that explores New York City history. “There weren’t a lot of paved roads, and there were free-roaming pigs.” And: “There were no garbage cans,” Ms. Crain noted. “People would just throw it out of their of their tenement window.”

In the 1890s, New Yorkers would often just throw trash from their tenement windows.Credit…Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images
During the pandemic, when city services were cut, garbage collection was among them.Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

In the decades after Mr. Waring’s tenure, the Department of Sanitation evolved into a huge organization with more than 8,100 uniformed employees — including a its own police force — and 2,000 civilian employees. Workers collect about 24 million pounds of trash and recycling every day and are also responsible for clearing snow from 6,300 miles of New York City streets.

And yet, the challenge persists. Huge piles of trash bags routinely clog the sidewalks, and fragrant mystery liquids pool in the streets, giving the city its continuing reputation as a “trash hell.”

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Some might be intimidated by the daunting assignment of cleaning up New York. Ms. Tisch, who was appointed sanitation commissioner by Mayor Eric Adams in April, insists that she views the city’s trash situation as “a very exciting opportunity.”

With her education and background, she could presumably do just about anything she wanted to do. At 6 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, what she wanted to do was meet with sanitation workers in a garbage truck garage in the Bronx.

In black suede boots and a soft gray sweater, she spoke confidently and authoritatively as she emphasized to the workers — mostly men — that Mayor Adams is deeply invested in sanitation and has prioritized cleaning up the city.

Ms. Tisch recently attended the 6 a.m. roll call at a garbage truck garage in the Bronx.Credit…Lucia Vazquez for The New York Times

Two hundred new sanitation workers are being hired, she noted, as the sun rose outside the garage. The city is spending $7.1 million for the sanitation department this fiscal year and more than $6.5 million annually after this year to regularly clean approximately 1,500 “no man’s land” locations around the city that had previously not been considered under the sanitation department’s jurisdiction.

A “Clean Curbs” program, in which trash is placed in containers, is underway. In addition, there is a new litter basket servicing plan for the entrances of bridges and along the perimeters of city parks. The department has already seen a 55 percent reduction in litter-basket complaints since it went into effect in July.

Later, riding in the passenger seat of a car, on the way to have breakfast with her two sons, Ms. Tisch described sanitation commissioner as her dream job.

She said that she is “obsessed” with cleaning up the city, and likes that there is a visible, tangible way to gauge progress.

She is also interested in legislation and policy issues, she said. “This is one of those jobs where you get to deliver on both.”

One example of the tricky problems she faces: A store in Manhattan went out of business recently, and workers left a huge pile of debris on the sidewalk. Ms. Tisch explained that the maximum fine was just $50. “If you are crazy enough to throw the entire contents of your store on the street on Sixth Avenue, a $50 summons is not going to dissuade you,” she said. Figuring out how to adjust fines is “definitely on the legislative agenda.”

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At a diner on the Upper East Side, Ms. Tisch cut up waffles for 7-year-old Harry and denied 11-year-old Larry’s request for a vanilla milkshake. (She understands that it is hilarious that her sons’ names rhyme; it just turned out that way, because one was named after her deceased grandfather, and the other after her husband’s deceased grandfather. “But if we get a dog, which is not going to happen, we’ll call him Barry,” she said.)

Their mother’s influence was clear: Larry is competitive in sports (mainly soccer); Harry has circulated a petition at school, requesting lunch leftovers be composted.

After breakfast, Ms. Tisch headed to Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she was scheduled to speak with sanitation police recruits. During the ride, she pointed at some trash on the street and scowled. “Look at this!” she said, before making a note of the location in her phone.

Before heading to school, Ms. Tisch’s sons met her for breakfast at a diner on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waffles and milk were ordered.Credit…Lucia Vazquez for The New York Times

Later, while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on the way back to Manhattan, Ms. Tisch directed attention to the empty litter baskets on the pedestrian walkway. Previously, the baskets on the bridge — a busy destination for tourists and a route for commuters — had been emptied twice a week, and were often overflowing. They are now emptied twice a day, she noted with satisfaction.

Before running the Sanitation Department, Ms. Tisch worked for the city’s Department of Operations and Information Technology, where she had a big role in the early months of the pandemic. Her team built the city’s Covid vaccine hubs and vaccine finder websites. She also made it possible to be married by the City Clerk via internet.

Emma Wolfe, who served as chief of staff to the mayor and deputy mayor for administration under Bill de Blasio, described Ms. Tisch as a big thinker and a very hard worker.

“The thing that is going to set her up for more success is that she’s unafraid to be ambitious and unafraid to say that she wants to do something as big as cleaning up the entire city after being the epicenter of a global pandemic,” she said.

There are more than 8,100 uniformed employees in the sanitation department, including sanitation enforcement agents — a police force. Credit…Lucia Vazquez for The New York Times

Before working in the tech office, Ms. Tisch spent 12 years in New York’s Police Department, first as an intelligence analyst and later as deputy commissioner for information technology. Her co-workers there remembered her as tenacious — perhaps to a fault.

“She is not everyone’s cup of tea,” said John Miller, the Police Department’s former deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism. “She will make her voice heard. She will make her thoughts known. And she’s not always terribly concerned whether that hurts somebody’s feelings when she’s moving the ball forward.”

As a student at Harvard, Ms. Tisch walked on to the men’s crew team and became the coxswain, yelling at the rowers and leading the team to a national championship. (She once called the time between two boat race wins “the best hour of my life.”)

Now she is taking her tough approach to the Sisyphean task of tackling trash. And if New York’s sanitation issues are a puzzle to be solved, New Yorkers should know that puzzles are Ms. Tisch’s thing.

“She works on jigsaw puzzles for months,” said Damian Williams, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. He met Ms. Tisch when they were undergrads at Harvard. They both interned at the U.S. Attorney’s office while in law school and have remained close friends.

“Guaranteed, there’s a jigsaw puzzle sitting on her coffee table right now,” Mr. Williams said, adding that in the past he had witnessed her working on “the most insane jigsaw puzzle I’d ever seen, with the tiniest pieces possible.”

To Mr. Williams, Ms. Tisch and sanitation are the perfect fit. “Garbage is messy,” he said. “But Jessie is someone who doesn’t run away from that type of challenge. She embraces it.”

The catch is, of course, that cleaning up the city cannot possibly be a one-woman job.

“It’s a city of 8.8 million people. There is no way for the Sanitation Department to be, like, solely responsible for the cleanliness of the city,” Ms. Tisch said. “A big part of this cleanup push has to involve bringing the public into the fold.”

On the Brooklyn Bridge, Ms. Tisch has ordered the litter baskets to be serviced twice a day; they were previously emptied twice a week.Credit…Lucia Vazquez for The New York Times

So, in addition to fighting illegal dumping, reducing the number of hours trash sits on sidewalks and adding more workers, there is social media.

Ms. Tisch, who does not have Tiktok installed on her phone, is aware that she’s become a viral meme.

“I’ve had people stop me on the street: ‘Excuse me. Are you the rat lady?’” she said with a laugh. “Some people have asked to do videos with me where I say my line.”

“I just think the whole thing is so funny,” she said, before steering the conversation toward the actual work: “It’s gotten a huge amount of attention to an issue that I think is super important.”

Besides the rat clip, Ms. Tisch also appears in a video that mimics the famous ASPCA commercial featuring Sarah McLachlan’s song, “Angel,” except instead of begging for donations to fight animal abuse, Ms. Tisch pleads for New Yorkers to move their cars for street sweeping.

For someone who has, as she put it, “flown under the radar” for years, Ms. Tisch is somewhat wary of becoming a more public figure. But she is determined to do whatever she has to do to achieve a clean New York — or at least a cleaner one.

“Not a lot of things scare me,” she added. “One of the few things that scares me is not making a dent.”

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