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New York City's Poop Train

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Most of us don’t give a second thought to what happens after we flush, but our daily leftovers have to end up somewhere. In New York City, where residents create approximately 1200 tons of sewage every day, this is not an issue to poo-poo—and for 20 years, the answer was a train loaded with our refuse that left the city and traveled 1600 miles out west, where farmers made the best of a stinky situation. New York City's Poop Train, and the controversy surrounding it, were featured in a 2013 episode of the podcast RadioLab.

Thirty years ago, the treated remnants of a city’s sewage—known as “biosolids” to those in the industry—usually went into the ocean. But in 1988, the government realized this wasn’t the best idea and gave municipalities three years to figure out where else their sludge could go. In addition to finding a new place to put it, the EPA ruled a portion of the biosolids had to be used in a way that would benefit the environment.

New York City, which already had a population over 7 million, had been dumping its sewage 106 miles out in the ocean. (This was an improvement on the 12 miles out it was dumping sewage in 1987, but still not ideal.) A solution needed to be found, and fast.

So the city decided to turn the sludge into fertilizer. The EPA ruled that, after treatment, biosolids are perfectly safe to use on plants, and often, are better for the plants than chemical fertilizers. They are rich in nutrients that help plants grow, and the application of biosolids to the soil has been known to stimulate root growth and help the soil better retain water.

This wasn't a new idea—the city of Milwaukee had been selling their biosolids as a fertilizer called Milorganite since the 1920s—but there was something about putting big city sewage on their crops that made farmers pause.

Although they accepted sludge from other locations, states feared the material from New York City would be disease-ridden and toxic. Alabama outright rejected the biosolids, and in Oklahoma, even after farmers begged for the material, a plan to ship 1150 tons of biosolids to the state was defeated due to public outcry. “No part of Oklahoma will be sacred,” wrote Tim Cagg, the chairman of Concerned Citizens for a Clean Environment. “These profit seekers will not be around when we must clean up the damage in years to come.”

Eventually, some farmers in Colorado said they would try it. Just before before Earth Day 1992, 17 train cars filled with several thousand tons of big city biosolids left the station and headed to a new life on Lamar, Co. farms. “At first people wanted to flee the land when they found out New York’s sewage was on the way,” farmer Douglas Tallman said at the time. Tallman’s enthusiasm for the product got him nicknamed “Sludge Judge” in local politics.

Initially, only three or four farms volunteered to take the waste. But then the farmers started to notice some changes. One farmer’s wheat crop yield increased by a third after using biosolids. The sludge also appeared to keep away aphids, prairie dogs, and other pests. Soon, there was a waiting list for farmers who wanted to get their hands on New York biosolids.

New York kept producing, and the farmers kept buying. Trains were now running twice a month to Colorado. The longest train the state received was 153 cars of the stuff. At its peak, 10,000 acres a year were being covered with sludge from the big city, but the demand was so great, 50,000 to 75,000 acres could have been covered if there had been enough product.

The one problem, though, was the cost. Shipping waste on a rail line wasn’t cheap, and the city started looking for other options. Despite demand, in 2012, the train stopped running.

Today, New York City biosolids are treated in ways that cost about half as much and are either stored in a landfill or mixed with other substances to neutralize soil acidity. About 50 percent of all biosolids produced nationally are currently being recycled to land in all 50 states. Anyone who would like to use the product can apply through the EPA’s website. However, there are no plans for the New York City poop train to leave the station again.

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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