By 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 10, all the free tours of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant were full. The tall chain-link fence gate was open, and there were families and couples and single people standing around. Many of them had different-color neon stars stuck on their jackets or tshirts, which indicated both that they had secured a place in an Open House New York tour, and what time the tour departed.
It was windy but not cold. Inside a long, white tent, tables were set up with some brochures on them. These turned out to be a walking guide to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk and an accompanying booklet called the Newtown Creek Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt, with lines to fill in “Name” and “Class” and “school.”
The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant was built in 1967. A few years ago, it was made, very consciously, into a “new” kind of sewage plant. It acquired “the eggs,” several large, architecturally striking steel bulbs that are lit up at night, giving off an ethereal purple glow. Their actual function is to “digest” solid waste. “You may say the modern renaissance of New York City is complete,” wrote David Dunlap in The New York Times on June 3, 2008, the night the lights at Newtown went on.
There were dozens of people standing near the white tents. There were several families, one with two smartly dressed toddlers who looked out of place standing next to a sewage treatment plant in the middle of industrial Brooklyn, a fifteen minute walk from the nearest subway station, the Greenpoint G.
There was a man in this 40s in faded jeans, an N.Y.U. sweatshirt and jungle mocs. There were several lesbian couples. An older man with grey hair was wearing an orange fleece vest and a Hooter’s baseball cap. There was a man in his 20s with a beard, wearing a purple zip-up sweatshirt from American Apparel. There were several girls in their 20s in galoshes. There was a guy that looked like George Carlin wearing a black pleated cotton kilt (really, it was skirt), a pink sweater, thick tall black socks, and black sneakers. He had a grey pony tail and was carrying a black laptop bag. There were a couple of adults in LL Bean who might have come in from Nyack.
An unusual number of the visitors wore protective footwear—galoshes, hiking boots, Merrils—maybe because of the walk from the subway, or the rain that morning, or just because visiting a sewage treatment plant seemed to a number of people to require shoes fit for getting dirty in.
Behind the white tents were double doors with a steel overhang leading into the visitors center. The outside wall was covered in square red tiles, glazed, and the path outside had inlayed blue lights. The interior was improbably elaborate. A curving concrete walkway, painting white, lead to a sitting area. The slope that ran down from the upper level, and on the outside of the walkway, were sides with rough stone over which water flowed constantly. It was very Disney.
A scale model of the treatment plant, which covered, in all, 25 acres, sat under Plexiglas in the middle of the upper level. Beyond it were bathrooms, and a water fountain that no one drank from.
The Department of Environmental Protection was taking the event extremely seriously. Beside the tours and the white tents and the nature walk brochures there were dozens of people wearing official looking navy blue windbreakers with NYC DEP printed in white on the back. The press check-in under the white tent seemed aspirational at first, with only a clipboard holding a pristine sign-in in sheet. Then within minutes a windbreakered woman holding a Blackberry in one hand appeared and, typing messages as she spoke, introduced herself as Ann and hustled me around the back of the facility, where the digester eggs, made of curving steel, dramatically soared from walls covered in glazed blue tiles.
The vertigo-inducing glass-and-steel walkway above the eggs had an astounding view of the bleak industrial grounds of the plant, and of Brooklyn and Queens and the Manhattan skyline. Looking down there was the steep slope of the eggs, and on the ground there were sets of enormous blue stadium lights that, at night, give the impression of a U.F.O., or at least something much grander than a waste water treatment plant.
Jim Pynn, the director of the facility, was in the middle of speaking to the third tour group, standing on a raised round platform on which there were several complicated-looking chest-high instruments. Pynn, wearing a pale-purple collared shirt, sounded like a high school coach on game day. He is is broad-shouldered and tan and has thick silver hair. “This is our third pressure device,” he said, one hand on one the instruments. “In the event that something happened to these two? This is a weighted cover. And I’m going to burp it for a second.”
“You going to be ready for that? I’m just going to burp it for a second. I’ll pick it up.” He did, and there was a “poof,” like the sound of opening a bottle of soda that’s been shaken.
“You’re going to smell it in a minute,” he said, and we did. It was a terrible, putrid smell, but not particularly surprising. It was a diluted version of the smell in some places outside the plant.
Toward the end of the tour someone asked about the architecture. The eggs were designed by the Polshek Partnership; their shape helps silt and solids to fall to the bottom while gases rise to the top. The lighting design, by L’Observatoire International, just won an award from Architecture Lighting magazine.
“Function is what I’m interested in,” Mr. Pynn said. “Not that I’m not interested in form. They take the function that we have to have here, dress it up, position it, light it, and it’s a beautiful way.”
“We’ve had four films. Angeline Jolie in Salt. Naomi Watts in Fair Game. We’re going to have Wall Street 2, with Michael Douglas, in this treatment plant. And we’re also going to have Keeper of the Pinstripes. ”
“We have a lot going on here, besides waste-water treatment,” he said. “The interest in the architecture is allowing the public to have more of an interest in what we do.”
“We can’t hide it,” he said. “We have to flaunt it.”
The group was invited to look through the thick, clear plastic over the top of one of the manholes. Hands cupped over eyes to block out the glare as, one by one, members of the tour leaned over and looked down, and then came up looking somewhat sickened from the sight of a roiling black lake far below.
“We entertain the community about once a month, about issues about the plant, ever since we started the design and the reconstruction, since 1998. It was first under Council member Fisher, who started it. Councilman Yassky continued it, and whoever is going to replace Councilman Yassky, I’m sure, will continue it too.” (Steve Levin will replace David Yassky.)
“You’re up here on top of the plant, and I’m asking you candidly, can you smell anything?” There were murmured noes. In fact it did smell, although not a lot, considering the circumstances. Pynn quickly went on, “It really doesn’t smelll most of the time. There’s an occasional upset, but for the most part, the treatment plant under construction, with the odor measures in place, are counteracting the nuisance and the unneighborliness that we had in the past, given the Greenpoint community. The technology’s advanced so we can have these types of facilities in places close to the residing public, and not be noticed. Today we welcome the opportunity for you to notice us. And I think what most of you were brought in to see, was the amazing look of the facility—the angles and shapes and the colors and the stainless steel.”
“But to be able to show it off to you and have it clad in all these beautiful types of colors and textures is what I think has drawn you. And because of that we have a captive audience now, you’re going to learn about the wastewater treatment process.”