- Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats by Dawn Day Beiehler
Dawn Day Biehler has made a major addition to the field of urban environmental history with publication of Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats, a book that is particularly timely considering the resurgence of a bed bug problem in recent years. The publication of studies in urban environmental history has been growing rapidly in the last decade and a half with a focus on a variety of themes including infrastructure, examinations of air, land and water pollution and control, landscape alterations, demographic [End Page 269] and spatial change, racial dynamics, environmental justice and, more recently, animals in the city. While articles and books have also appeared on various pesticides and their environmental effects as well as on the history of past pest control, Biehler’s book provides the most comprehensive and deeply informed view of urban pests and the tensions they created in the social and political fabric of the city.
Biehler’s study of urban pests and the response to them by various actors and institutions is based on deep research into a variety of sources including urban archives, records of social movements, public health and ecological materials, and the literature of pesticide science. She has formatted her book in an imaginative way: the four opening chapters provide sketches of urban scenes from the pests’ perspective; chapters in part two provide contemporary cultural expressions about the relationships between pests and people and their relations to social inequities; and the final chapters focusing on the actions of infested communities to control pests. Biehler also uses literary and cultural references to provide insight into the meanings and experiences of people who lived with pests. The book illustrates the various themes she discusses with a display of pictures showing the conditions that encouraged urban pests, posters suggesting strategies of control, and the pests themselves. The result is a book that provides us with a detailed and often richly descriptive perspective on flies, bedbugs, cockroaches, and rats in the city, the health and nuisance issues they created, and the various tensions that resulted in attempts to control them.
Three themes in urban history provide a framework for the book: the position of homes and domestic space in the city and women’s responsibility for maintaining the home and its health; racial and class social injustice in regard to the prevalence of pests; and the promise and failure of various urban reform projects such as housing improvement and public housing. Biehler discusses these themes in great and insightful detail, exploring in depth major tensions between what she calls “reductionist techno-science” and “ecological thought” throughout the history of twentieth-century American pest control. In addition, she notes that the struggle between pest control as a private responsibility as opposed to a public responsibility ignored the ability of pests to migrate across the urban environment. As she reiterates throughout the book, even well intentioned reformers misperceived the extent to which pest ecology was communal and political. What she labels as the ecology of injustice illustrates that “racist housing markets, central-city disinvestment, and state neglect account for infestation at least as much as do household garbage disposal practices.” While Biehler makes this generalization in regard to rat control, it also applies, as she shows, to other urban pests. Thus, she maintains, ecological change can only occur with a community-wide approach to improving living conditions and a realization that urban politics as well as social inequality are the source of the pest problem. [End Page 270]