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Am I Clean Yet?

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Perceptions of Sanitation and Cleanliness in Colonial Systems

by Revathi V. Machan

Revathi (she/her) is a first year Master of City Planning student concentrating in Housing, Community, and Economic Development. Prior to coming to Penn, she studied landscape design and environmental policy. Currently she is exploring the intersection of data and design to drive connection between communities through human-centered infrastructure and greener public spaces. When not lost between lines of code and/or plans, you can find her working on tattoo commissions, upcycling her clothes (or wrecking them – depending on your perspective), and exploring new places in the city.

[1] “Causes of Illness and Disease - The Effects of Industrialization.” BBC News. Accessed March 11, 2024.

[2] Troen, Ilan. “Urban Reform in Nineteenth Century France, England, and the United States.” Tel Aviv University, 1988, 1-18.

[3] Ibid

[4] Hosagrahar, Jyoti. “Sanitizing Neighborhoods.” In Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, New York: Routledge, 2005. 83-113

[9] Hosagrahar, Jyoti. “Sanitizing Neighborhoods.” 

[10] Ibid.

[11] Anderson, Warwick. “Excremental Colonialism.”

[12] Wright, Gwendolyn. “Tradition in the Service of Modernity: Architecture and Urbanism in French Colonial Policy.” Journal of Modern History (1987): 291-316.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[27] Sen, Arijit. “Architecture and World Making: Production of Sacred Space in San Francisco’s Vedanta Temple.” South Asian History and Culture (2010): 76-102.


[29] “That Rotten Spot.” Distillations Podcast, Science History Institute. Accessed February 20, 2024.






Cleanliness is next to godliness, or so they say. In a post-pandemic era, where hand sanitizer is our holy water, and Clorox wipes our sacrament, there has been a renewed effort to build cleaner cities. Beneath these seemingly noble intentions, however, lurks a dark history rooted in racial prejudice and social control that has codified our urban planning ideologies. Exploring the intertwined history of sanitation and planning, this piece delves into the story of how sanitary reform reshaped not only our cities but also our perceptions of cleanliness, citizenship, and belonging. 

Let’s start at the beginning (of urban planning). Sanitary reform essentially birthed urban planning, making sanitation theorists the first iteration of urban planners. The concept was a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth it brought to cities with no regulations for sewerage, housing, water systems, and other aspects of public health. When people are packed together like sardines in poorly constructed buildings with no established sanitation systems, diseases, such as tuberculosis and cholera, like to run rampant [1]. And death generally follows. 

Enter, the filth theory – the idea that filthy physical conditions associated with the urban informal settlements fostered diseases [2]. At the time, it was also believed that poor living conditions created individuals of poor constitution, i.e., the poor, the sickly, and the disabled suffered those conditions because of the physical environments they lived in. European health officials took this unique opportunity to remove a city of all its ills – physical and social – through spatial reorganization. This particular concept refers to a collection of different practices that would sanitize an area of physical congestion and environmental ills by removing informal settlements, creating a grid street system, and establishing waste management practices [3]. After all, it’s much easier to sanitize a city than it is to tackle systemic inequalities, right? So, off the sanitationists went, clearing out those pesky informal settlements and creating grid street systems like some sort of urban Marie Kondo, tidying up our cities one eviction at a time. This implementation of sanitary measures spatially cleansed history, systems, and power. And by proxy, cleansed people of their cultures, identity, and agency.  


"Cleaning" the Colonies


The Progressive Movement entered the scene shortly after the filth theory era, sweeping across Europe and the Americas in the early 1900s. Orderly and efficient planning principles based on the “scientific” principles of sanitation were believed to be the most efficient way to cure all physical and social ills. In spaces already established like Europe and the U.S., there was a lack of opportunity to put these theories into practice. Although there were still areas of Europe that underwent demolition and reconstruction, like Paris and Manchester, these changes paled in comparison to those implemented in the colonies. Sanitation theory maintained that a limited physical space caused social ills in a population – if you were white and living in Paris.  

In colonies, it was a different story. It was believed that the only way to manage the “cesspools of filth” was to sanitize the lands, in which “sanitizing” meant completely destroying and “lands” meant the settlements of the poor, minorities, or colonized (which in a colony means all of the settlements). Colonial cities were “laboratories” for much more extreme versions of sanitary reform [4],  but also stages for shows of socio-political and economic power over colonized populations [5]. As is standard to colonization lore – these demonstrations of colonial power and sanitary environments were rooted in racist ideologies.  

Colonists developed the delightful notion that people of color were considered inherently dirty because of any variance that othered them – different waste management practices, resource distribution systems, and spatial organizations. In fact, colonists that entered tropical territories would often “[turn] their new tropical frontier into a desolate human-waste land, imagining everything “brownwashed” with a thin film of germs” [6]. Lovely. All these variances were in one way or another inferior to the systems that had been developed by the colonists. The systems that existed in colonial cities were simply different from what Europeans had established in their cities, such as the grid streets in Paris [7] and sewer system in London [8]. No matter how well-built any of the native systems were, their status as “other” belittled them and sullied them in the eyes of colonizers. Of course, this demanded colonial interference to civilize and cleanse those systems.

Colonial Interference Strategies

Strategy #1: Demolition

In Delhi, colonial officials tore down nearly three-fourths of the city to remove the “[congested area’s] evil influence upon civilized society” [9]. What was really removed were spatially established social systems for markets, healthcare, and sanitation. These clearances were meticulously regulated, observed, and calculated, but were determined entirely by colonial administration. The demolitions did offer a solution to the health and safety concerns of the city, but the lack of distinction between areas of disease and areas that presented political challenges (rebellions and disloyal factions) is telling of the true purpose - to establish dominance over the Delhiites [10]. Because nothing says civilization like destroying indigenous systems and imposing your own, right?

Strategy #2: Preservation

When the French colonized Morocco in 1912, Protectorate Hubert Lyautey wanted to develop the colonizers’ settlements around the established city. “The vulnerable, formalized bodies of the American colonialists demanded sanitary quarantine” [11]. The French quite literally drew lines in the sand between their new establishments and local settlements, tastefully referred to as “sanitary corridors” [12]. All of the “dirty” Moroccans were clustered together away from the development and technology that the French brought into Morocco – but only for sanitary reasons [13]. Black Moroccans could and were encouraged to live within the white settlements but only if they assimilated wholly to the French ideologies and culture. Of course this was just an option and Moroccans could make their own choices. I guess “preservation” and sugar-coated assimilation tactics also say civilization. 

Though colonialism was implemented differently across the world, one of the main recurring themes was that colonizers were entering dirty, congested, unplanned spaces that were directly due to the nature of the natives. I’m not sure if you, my Reader, are aware of the basic tenets of statistics, but let me inform you. Cause and correlation are not the same thing. Whether or not colonizers knew this, they didn’t care. Their main goals was to establish power and control in these spaces, using whatever guise they could use.  

The violent spatial reorganization [14] and the establishment of a racial hierarchy reinforced ideas of social differentiation and segregation between the Indians and the British [15]. The system of preservation in Morocco established segregation and hierarchies where Europeans obtained infrastructural benefits in the name of creating a safe, hygienic space for themselves. Through many similar repeated processes across the world, sanitary reform took the ideology of “race is tied to cleanliness” and institutionalized it. Creating a clear precedent “based in science” for all those who came after to refer to as a blueprint for colonization and urbanization.


Immigration to the U.S.

Apart from the legal codification of sanitary reform, the idea of race being dirty became codified into the identities of many colonized cultures over time. Cleanliness wasn’t just next to godliness, but also next to whiteness. The way sanitary reform was implemented blurred the lines of what was being sanitized.  It wasn’t just the physical environment or lived practices that were dirty. Every group that looked different from the ruling class began to hold a warning sign of being filthy. Minorities were considered sullied by the act of existing. The connotation of their unrefined, and irrational, and uncivilized ways followed their identity regardless of where they went, especially in their immigration to the United States. As people of color began migrating to the U.S, one thing was made clear: the only way to address this dirtiness was to assimilate completely to Western (read: white) ideologies or forever be marked as dirty, uncivilized, and unworthy. This was seen throughout the entire immigration process, from before an immigrant even stepped into the country all the way to several generations of assimilation later.

Before an Immigrant Even Stepped into the U.S

The 1880’s saw a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants arriving on U.S. shores [16]. People were coming from all corners of the globe for the land of opportunity and fresh starts. If those immigrants had been able to get those opportunities as easily as I was able to write that sentence, we could’ve ended the paper here. Alas. 


The federal government established a law around then that required immigrants to undergo medical examinations by U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) medical officers [17]. The goal here was “to prevent loathsome or dangerous contagious disease” from entering the country by conducting these inspections – a goal established by the federal agency [18]. The goal interpreted by PHS officers on the ground was “to prevent the entrance of undesirable people – those ‘who would not make good citizens’” [19]. Of course, the inherent goodness of an individual is easily and immediately visible to a racially-biased, officious government official. Naturally, the origin of the immigrant would determine how violating the medical inspection would be. Standard procedure would dictate that the PHS physician would conduct a visual check of prospective immigrants to find any obvious physical signs of physical or mental illness [20].       


Non-Europeans (Latin American and Asian immigrants) faced many more medical obstacles to gain entry [21]. Stripped, showered, disinfected, searched for lice. At some immigration stations, Mexican immigrants would be required to strip naked, bathe, and then be sprayed with gasoline or other pesticides (sometimes containing DDT) to kill lice before they even underwent the physical examination [22]. You know how it is, get fumigated to get initiated—the real motto of the PHS. DDT, by the way, is the pesticide that was nationally banned in 1972 because it was so toxic and persistent in the environment that it was killing off the bald eagles. Also a known carcinogen. Migrant workers who commuted across the border as part of the 1943 Bracero Program for their work were subject to this kind of treatment daily [23]. Sanitation became a violating and necessary part of assimilation.

After an Immigrant Stepped into the U.S.

Cleanness being the only way to enter and assimilate to the country was hammered in early on and quickly became an involuntarily accepted condition of many different immigrant cultures in the U.S. The large waves of immigration sparked much fear in U.S. nativists – who could’ve guessed [24]. Immigrants either had to assimilate, repent, or be punished. 


German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the early 1800s spent decades seeking respectability by Americanizing their self-image. The construction of their synagogues – the most noticeable representation of the community – exhibited more Christian and cruciform qualities over time. And as their architecture assimilated to the surrounding community, so did their congregations. Traditional practices like chanting, praying in German vernacular, and participatory congregations evolved into singing hymns, praying in English, and observer-based congregations – reformed to Protestant practices of worship [25]. German Jews not only Americanized themselves, but they also distanced themselves from orthodox Russian Jews that entered the U.S. in the 1900s. The “distinctive language, un-American appearance, and ‘backward ways’” of the Russian Jews created a divide formed by the inherited ideology that refusing to assimilate was a threat to the community [26].  


Hindu and Indian immigrants that moved into San Francisco in the early 1900s were simply considered “culturally ‘unassimilable,’” a condition that was determined by a discrete and profound analysis of their homeland: “a land under a ... threefold curse that of the caste system, of gaunt-eyed famine, and of poison-breathing plague” [27]. Maybe I can put down “descendent of land cursed threefold” on my Hinge profile as my fun fact. Accusations like this weren’t always disputed by the community. In public newsletters, some Indians acknowledged the “backwardness and superstitions” that had become ingrained into the Hindu culture through British colonization [28]. These traits were accepted as truth - not a fault of their own but something to be ashamed about regardless. The public nature of these admissions was another indicator of the level of their penitence – maybe if they bowed their head enough in apology, the Americans would look right past them and allow them to exist peacefully. 


Chinese immigrants who entered the U.S. in the late 1800s often congregated in Chinese-only neighborhoods, using these carved out spaces to hold onto their culture, traditions, and systems – power to them [29]. One of the consequences of this non-assimilation was extreme ostracism. During the third wave of the bubonic plague in the 1900s, entire Chinese communities were quarantined or forcibly inoculated on the basis that their living conditions (and inherently them) were dirty, carriers of disease and plague [30]. When the first victims of the plague died in Honolulu’s Chinatown, eight entire blocks went under lockdown, trapping 10,000 Chinese, Japanese, and Native Hawaiian people [31]. After the first German (white) woman became infected and died, the city’s public health officials decided that even more drastic actions were necessary. They burned down every house in Chinatown that they suspected of harboring victims of the plague [32]. The fire burned for 17 days and left 4,500 Chinatown residents homeless [33]. Residents of Honolulu’s Chinatown had refused to assimilate or repent for their otherness and were punished for it.

























































Several Generations of Assimilation Later

Throughout U.S. immigration waves, many immigrants faced overcrowded, underfunded living conditions, a recurring theme for immigrant and minority communities. During the peak of tenement housing, immigrants, barred from various neighborhoods, resorted to living together to save money as rents soared due to predatory landlords. In Los Angeles, male Chinese immigrants bunked together to cut costs [34]. In NYC, Sicilian immigrants played housing Tetris, fitting four families into a four-bedroom apartment to afford rents consuming 30 to 50% of their incomes [35]. Meanwhile, Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants in Chicago struggled for decent housing, often forced into overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, further policed for their plight [36]. 

This cycle didn’t end with tenement housing’s decline. Cue the American suburbs post-World War II, where government-backed mortgage programs like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) touted homeownership as a path to prosperity—reserved, of course, for white folks! [37] These policies explicitly excluded people of color, perpetuating segregation, and limiting opportunities [38]. White families fled to the suburbs faster than you can say “white flight”, leaving minority and immigrant communities stranded in disinvested, impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. 


Notice the parallels between early immigrant struggles and those of later inner-city dwellers, blamed for their living conditions while facing systemic barriers. Ever hear someone criticize a city for being “unclean”? Maybe it’s time to ponder why it’s unclean in the first place. 

Today, the legacies of discriminatory housing policies endure, shaping America’s spatial wealth distribution. Communities of color still confront barriers to safe, affordable housing, perpetuating cycles of poverty and segregation reminiscent of past injustices. 


So, as we embark on yet another quest to build cleaner cities, let’s not forget the lessons of the past. Cleanliness might be next to godliness, but it’s definitely next to a whole lot of racism and social inequality. The historical connection between sanitation, urban planning, and racial prejudice underscores their enduring legacy today. Sanitary reform has been tainted by racism and social control, reshaping cities to the detriment of marginalized communities. As we strive for healthier cities post-pandemic, we must confront this legacy head-on. Environmental justice, equity planning, and dismantling systemic racism must be at the forefront of urban planning. Immigrants and minority communities have long been stigmatized as “dirty,” perpetuating discrimination in policies from immigration to housing. Understanding these issues’ roots is key to building truly clean, equitable, and inclusive cities.

Image: “Bracero workers being fumigated at Hidalgo Processing Center,” photograph by Leonard Nadel, Texas, 1956. 

Source: Smithsonian Museum of American History
OB12511-md (1).jpg

[5] Njoh, A.J. Urban Planning and Public Health in Africa: Historical, Theoretical and Practical Dimensions of a Continent’s Water and Sanitation Problematic. 1st ed. Routledge, 2012. 

[6] Anderson, Warwick. “Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (1995): 640–69.

[7] Chapman, Brian. “Baron Haussmann and the Planning of Paris.” The Town Planning Review 24, no. 3 (1953): 177–92.

[8] Otter, Christopher. “Cleansing and Clarifying: Technology and Perception in Nineteenth‐Century London.” Journal of British Studies 43, no. 1 (2004): 40–64.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Archer, John. “Colonial Suburbs in South Asia, 1700-1850.” In *Visions of Suburbia*, edited by Roger Silverstone, 26-54. London: Routledge, 1997

[15] Hosagrahar, Jyoti. “Sanitizing Neighborhoods.”

[16] “Medical Examination of Immigrants at Ellis Island.” Journal of Ethics, American Medical Association. Accessed February 26, 2024.

[23] Nadel, Leonard. Bracero workers being fumigated at Hidalgo Processing Center. Photograph. Washington DC, 1956.

[24]Moffson, Steven. “Identity and Assimilation in Synagogue Architecture in Georgia, 1870-1920.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, 151-165.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Library of Congress, “Building Communities: Chinese Immigration and the United States Capitol,” Classroom Materials, accessed March 2, 2024.

[34] Gabaccia, Donna. From Sicily to Elizabeth Street: housing and social change among Italian immigrants, 1880-1930. (Texas Tech University, 1984), Chapter 5.

[35]Rodríguez, Alexa. “‘Imperial Circuits’ and the Boundaries of a City: Puerto Rican Migration during the Mid-Twentieth Century,” Journal of Urban History 0, no. 0 (2023).

[36] Gioielli, Robert. “The Tyranny of the Map: Rethinking Redlining,” The Metropole, 2022, accessed February 10, 2023.


[38]Scott Markley, “Federal ‘redlining’ maps: a critical reappraisal,” Urban Studies 61, no. 2 (2023): 195-213.

Honolulu Fires (1).jpg
The first step toward lightening the White man’s burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness., 1899.

Source: US Library of Congress
Image: Fires in Honolulu's Chinatown

Source: Hawaii State Archives
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