Dirty words: New book uncovers Brooklyn’s garbage-filled island

Down and dirty: A new book examines the history of a garbage-filled island that once housed a vibrant community.
Courtesy of Miriam Sicherman

History has never been so trashy!

A new book dives into the Brooklyn’s filthy past, unearthing the story of those who handled — and lived among — New York City’s garbage. The author of “Brooklyn’s Barren Island: A Forgotten History,” said that the immigrant and African-American workers who lived on the trash-filled island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were overlooked even while thousands of them toiled in service to the city. 

“People kind of ignored them — they were seen as part of the garbage,” said Miriam Sicherman, who will read from her book at a Williamsburg bookstore on Nov. 24. 

The historian and elementary school teacher first learned about Barren Island from a book about garbage disposal, and dug through old newspaper articles, city records, and oral histories to bring the island’s history to life. 

Barren Island once floated off of Marine Park, in the area still known today as Dead Horse Bay. Black workers began traveling to the island in the 1850s to process trash, and soon, their families moved with them. Irish, German, and Eastern European sanitation workers followed, and by 1910, about 1,800 residents lived across the locale, census data reports.

Life in Barren Island was not easy — most of the inhabitants worked in garbage and fishing factories, where they processed dead horses, household trash, and fish products, the book describes. Government agencies turned up their noses at the inhabitants, and with no running water or city fire department, blazes would frequently devastate the community. 

Lost history: The book tells long forgotten stories from the island, which housed 1,800 people at its peak.

Courtesy of Miriam Sicherman

There were some upsides to living off the grid, noted Sicherman. Locals took advantage of the lack of government oversight to sell booze without regard for liquor laws, and they owned semi-feral hogs decades after the city had banned the animals, which served both garbage-disposals and a source of bacon — at least, until government officials gunned down most of the porcine beasts in 1909. And the island immigrants had more space than those crowded into tenements in the Lower East Side.

“On the bright side, they had a lot of freedom,” Sicherman argued. 

That freedom lasted until the 1930s, when the water around the island was filled in, connecting the area to the mainland and creating Floyd Bennett Field. In 1936, city planner Robert Moses kicked out the last remaining residents to build the Marine Parkway Bridge, and Barren Island was soon forgotten.

“Brooklyn’s Barren Island” launch party at Spoonbill and Sugartown [218 Bedford Ave. between N. Fifth and N. Fourth streets in Williamsburg, (718) 387-7322, www.spoonbillbooks.com]. Nov. 24 at 5 pm. Free.