By David Kurlander
On “New York, New York,” this week’s episode of Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman marked the twentieth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 with a paean to New York’s continued resilience, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You can’t survive in New York without the assistance of people,” Joanne said. Seldom was Joanne’s maxim truer than in the mid-1960s, when a recurring deadly smog threatened New York’s collective health and led to a series of novel political and scientific solutions to clean the air.
On June 7th, 1966, Norman Cousins, the chairman of the Task Force on Air Pollution for the Mayor of New York City, appeared before the Senate’s Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. Cousins had served as editor of the left-wing periodical The Saturday Review since 1940. He was a vocal social critic not only on smog, but on Vietnam, nuclear warfare, and civil rights. “It’s the same thing, a fight to preserve the human environment,” Cousins told the New York Times. Cousins led the public fight for the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban and arranged the transport of 25 female radiation victims from Hiroshima and 35 Polish victims of Nazi medical experiments to the United States for treatment.
He had become concerned with air pollution as he looked out of his apartment window at Park Avenue and 35th Street each morning at the smoke billowing out of nearby stacks. “I became increasingly infuriated at this,” he said.
In Washington, Cousins recounted the 14-point checklist that his Task Force had developed, which included forcing New York’s Con Edison to use cleaner fuels, a full overhaul of waste disposal protocol, and further regulation of home heating oil.
Cousins also rattled off the staggering statistics on just how much pollution New Yorkers were breathing. Each Big Apple resident, Cousins said, was inhaling “730 pounds of dirt and poison” per year—sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, soot, and fly ash. “More poisons per square mile are pumped into the air in New York than anywhere in the United States,” Cousins said. “Every New Yorker is an expert on pollution. Everyone who has encountered the back of a bus knows as much as there is to know about pollution.”
Cousins told the Subcommittee Chairman, Democratic Maine Senator Ed Muskie, that New York had to play a central role “cleaning its own house.” Cousins highlighted a local innovation that he thought could make a difference: the installation of electrostatic precipitator devices on gas pipes, which could in theory catch smog-guzzling vehicles before they caused too much damage. He paused to highlight the device’s inventor, Meredith “Flash” Gourdine, who Cousins called “one of the most interesting Americans I have met.”
Gourdine was a Black man who was raised working-class in Brooklyn. In 1952, while studying Engineering Physics at Cornell, he won the Silver Medal in the long jump at the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. While working on his Ph.d. at CalTech, Gourdine developed Incineraid, a technique for removing smoke from buildings. He eventually set up his own lab in Livingston, New Jersey, where he crafted his precipitator.
Muskie asked Cousins how New York was testing Gourdine’s innovation. “We are taking the oldest, smelliest cars or taxicabs we can find,” Cousins responded. “Those are the ones I usually ride in,” the wry Muskie quipped.
Cousins closed his appearance with a fortuitous paraphrase from H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History: “The human race today is engaged in a race between responsibility and catastrophe. Our industrial civilization has been developed by human intelligence. The same human intelligence now has the obligation to make this world safe and fit for man.”
Four months later, on the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, November 23rd, 1966, Cousins’ warnings came to fruition. A heavy smog settled over the city, triggered by a pressure front of high-altitude warm air that trapped the pollutants below. This brand of “temperature inversion” had happened before, in 1953 and 1963, but this time the visual of the city enveloped in noxious gas spread across the nation’s front pages. “The view of Manhattan yesterday looked like a fleet of single-masters berthed by an autumn fog,” wrote British correspondent Alistair Cooke in The Guardian on Thanksgiving. “It almost seems like a conspiracy of natural phenomena,” wrote New York Times science reporter Stuart Loory.
The smog lingered for four days. New Yorkers donned hospital masks and local emergency rooms filled up with wheezing patients. A Times Square traffic patrolman told the Times that he had “the worst sore throat I’ve had in about ten years—and I don’t smoke.” A 1967 study showed that 168 deaths were directly caused by the smoggy plumes, though later estimates have ranged as high as 400.
In Washington, Muskie and President Lyndon B. Johnson followed the situation closely. On January 30th, 1967, Johnson issued a special message to congress entitled “Protecting Our Natural Heritage.” The first section, “The Pollution of our Air,” opened with a remembrance of the Thanksgiving episode: “Two months ago, a mass of heavily polluted air–filled with poisons from incinerators, industrial furnaces, power plants, car, bus and truck engines–settled down upon the sixteen million people of Greater New York…Polluted air corrodes machinery. It defaces buildings. It may shorten the life of whatever it touches–and it touches everything.”
Later in the message, Johnson urged passage of the Air Quality Act of 1967, which would beef up federal funding for state air pollution boards and for research into cleaner fuel alternatives. Johnson signed the bill in November 1967, offering a literary take on the achievement: “I would like to begin this morning by reading you a little weather report: ‘… dirty water and black snow pour from the dismal air to …the putrid slush that waits for them below.’ Now that is not a description of Boston, Chicago, New York, or even Washington, D.C. It is from Dante’s “Inferno,” a 600-year-old vision of damnation. But doesn’t it sound familiar?”
By 1969, spurred by the new federal support, New York cut its sulphur dioxide emissions in half, mainly by implementing Cousins’ suggestions. Cousins stayed on the front lines, issuing a report advocating for computerized traffic lights to address the pollution from slow-moving traffic and for cracking down on apartment incinerators. Gourdine’s innovations helped lead to the widespread adoption of the catalytic converter, which directly detoxified car exhaust and was standard on most cars by 1975.
The ultimate path to clean air for New Yorkers, however, was still a long one. The last apartment incinerators didn’t close until 1993. The last municipal incinerator operated until 1999. And the toxic fumes that emanated from the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of 9/11 led New York Times writer Kirk Johnson to pen a 2002 piece on the possibility that the resultant public health crisis could spur further environmental reforms: “Watch for those moments when knowledge hits the wall, then stand back. Things will change.”
The specter of climate change shows that the work of New Yorkers like Cousins and Gourdine is still far from done. The ongoing pain of the pandemic continues to haunt the city and cause symptoms not unlike those triggered by the toxic smog of 1966. But, as Joanne suggested, the solutions—as they did 55 years ago—will come from the impassioned citizens who make up the nation’s largest metropolis.
For more on the political history of smog, read Scott Dewey Hamilton’s 2000 Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945-1970. And check out the late Jim Dwyer’s fantastic 2017 New York Times meditation, “Remembering a City Where the Smog Could Kill.”
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