Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats

Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats

by Dawn Day Biehler, William Cronon
     
 

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From tenements to alleyways to latrines, twentieth-century American cities created spaces where pests flourished and people struggled for healthy living conditions. In Pests in the City, Dawn Day Biehler argues that the urban ecologies that supported pests were shaped not only by the physical features of cities but also by social inequalities, housing policies,

Overview

From tenements to alleyways to latrines, twentieth-century American cities created spaces where pests flourished and people struggled for healthy living conditions. In Pests in the City, Dawn Day Biehler argues that the urban ecologies that supported pests were shaped not only by the physical features of cities but also by social inequalities, housing policies, and ideas about domestic space.

Community activists and social reformers strived to control pests in cities such as Washington, DC, Chicago, Baltimore, New York, and Milwaukee, but such efforts fell short when authorities blamed families and neighborhood culture for infestations rather than attacking racial segregation or urban disinvestment. Pest-control campaigns tended to target public or private spaces, but pests and pesticides moved readily across the porous boundaries between homes and neighborhoods.

This story of flies, bedbugs, cockroaches, and rats reveals that such creatures thrived on lax code enforcement and the marginalization of the poor, immigrants, and people of color. As Biehler shows, urban pests have remained a persistent problem at the intersection of public health, politics, and environmental justice, even amid promises of modernity and sustainability in American cities.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
08/19/2013
In straightforward fashion, University of Maryland geography and environmental studies professor Biehler produces a lively account (not for the squeamish) of our oft-unseen, unwanted household companions, and what our interactions with them reveal about humans. With a foreword by William Cronon, the book educates the general public about some of the smaller organisms who share human habitations: house flies, bedbugs, German cockroaches, and rats. Both common and annoying, these creatures enjoy the repasts provided by humans, repaying them by spreading disease and filth. Biehler charts the growing efforts to control these pests, and shows how such efforts, in the long term, produce even more robust pests. The struggle to control and shape the domestic environment also illuminates class and race barriers; as the author demonstrates, the consequences of cohabitation with vermin often fall most heavily on the poorest, a fact that doesn’t seem to trouble the upper classes. For readers who want even more detail, a detailed bibliography is provided. 27 illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"This valuable book will stir readers' consciousness as it forces them to look at urban histories that have largely been less than savory….Highly recommended." -Choice, March 2014
Library Journal
12/01/2013
Biehler (geography & environmental studies, Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore) has written an environmental history of the relationship among houseflies, bedbugs, German cockroaches, rats, and urban development in 19th- and 20th-century America. Her discussion includes the development of waste management, public housing, and pesticide usage to combat urban pests. These developments, driven by campaigns for economic and social change, were influenced in part by the growing understanding of vector-borne disease. Biehler asserts that the campaigns, with their emphasis on personal vs. community responsibility, often stigmatized racial minorities and the poor and contributed to class warfare. Later chapters describe the movement away from pesticide usage following Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, pesticide resistance, and the recent reemergence of bedbugs. Biehler's exploration of urban pests complements other histories on agricultural pest management and mosquito control while successfully arguing for how pest management contributed to class and racial politics. Her image of urban life and the success of some species in urban environments reminds the reader how horrific living conditions were before pest management. VERDICT Recommended to those interested in social issues and American environmental and urban history.—Scott Vieira, Sam Houston State Univ. Lib., Huntsville, TX
Choice

This valuable book will stir readers’ consciousness as it forces them to look at urban histories that have largely been less than savory.... Highly recommended.

Science - Frederick R. Davis

In her meticulous and thoughtful analysis of urban environmental injustice, Biehler deftly illustrates how these pests continue to undermine aspirations for modern and healthy living conditions for all.

H-Net - Julie Urbanik

As long as you do not read this book in your kitchen, your bedroom, your bathroom, or really anywhere that you actually live or work, you will be fine. All kidding aside, Dawn Day Biehler’s Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats is not for the squeamish or for those prone to the heebie-jeebies; what it is, though, is a fascinating exploration of the entanglements between urban life, class, race, and gender identities, and nonhumans classified as pests.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Joanna Dyl

[This] exemplary work of interdisciplinary history... demonstrates how the ecologies of these pests and the efforts to eliminate them were intertwined with social tensions and political struggles throughout the twentieth century.

Human Ecology - Mia Renauld

Biehler demystifies how pest populations have been systematically mapped onto marginalized populations and illustrates a history that has been largely neglected...the book is accessible to non-professional readers as it is a quick and simple read that is nevertheless extremely informative.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780295993010
Publisher:
University of Washington Press
Publication date:
09/26/2013
Series:
Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series
Pages:
360
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Linda Nash

We live with these species on a daily basis, yet no one has told their story before. This fascinating book shows us that while the homes and neighborhoods of twentieth-century America destroyed the habitats of some species, they also created new habitats for others. Biehler has given urban history a whole new set of actors.

Chris Sellers

Re-centering the narrative about the origins of Rachel Carson's famous book, Dawn Day Biehler successfully opens a new perspective, less about the pesticides - a history we assume we know - and more about the pests themselves. In so doing, Pests in the City illuminates critical points in the twentieth-century interaction between ecology and public health. Its original and compelling blend of themes and questions make it likely to join environmental history's most innovative ranks.

William Cronon

The environmental history of people and animals has for too long focused on charismatic megafauna - wolves, grizzlies, cougars - when in fact the day-to-day lives of a great many people are much more intimately involved with less fearsome but rather more troublesome creatures. In this fascinating and important book, Dawn Day Biehler brilliantly demonstrates how much we can learn about environmental politics and social justice by studying the animals who share our urban homes with us.

Meet the Author

Dawn Day Biehler is assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She lives with her family in Washington, D.C.

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