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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, and ideas about domestic space.
Community activists and social reformers strived to control pests in cities such as Washington, D.C., 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.
Foreword by William Cronon
Introduction: History, Ecology, and the Politics of Pests
The Promises of Modern Pest Control
1. Flies: Agents of Interconnection in Progressive Era Cities
2 . Bedbugs: Creatures of Community in Modernizing Cities
3 . German Cockroaches: Permeable Homes in the Postwar Era
4 . Norway Rats: Back-Alley Ecology in the Chemical Age
Persistence and Resistance in the Age of Ecology
5. The Ecology of Injustice: Rats in the Civil Rights Era
6. Integrating Urban Homes: Cockroaches and Survival
The Persistence and Resurgence of Bedbugs
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.
"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."
"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."
– Frederick R. Davis, Science
"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."
– Julie Urbanik, H-Net
"[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."
– Joanna Dyl, Journal of Interdisciplinary History
"Dawn Day Biehler treats readers to a surprising, engaging, and compassionate look into the changing lives of pests in urban America. In so doing, she reveals the deep and enduring economic, social, and racial inequalities that plague the human inhabitants of cities and enable these unwanted companion animals to flourish."
– Gregg Mitman, author of Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes
"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."
– Linda Nash, University of Washington
"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 makes it likely to join environmental history's most innovative ranks."
– Chris Sellers, Stony Brook University
"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 pests who share our urban homes with us."
– William Cronon