Atlantic Cities

We've Found the Perfect Valentine’s Day Date for Infrastructure Nerds

We've Found the Perfect Valentine’s Day Date for Infrastructure Nerds
NYC Environmental Protection

What could be more romantic than a trip to the innards of New York’s digestive system?

Apparently, for several hundred starry-eyed lovers, nothing. For the second year in a row, the New York Department of Environmental Protection is opening its Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant – a fantastic domed structure on the watery border between Brooklyn and Queens – to the public for Valentine’s Day tours. Last year, 220 people took advantage of the chance to glimpse the inner workings of the plant and travel to the 120-foot-high observation deck, which has spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline.

This year, the DEP initially scheduled two V-Day tours of the plant, but the response was so enthusiastic they added a third, which quickly sold out (the agency holds regular monthly tours as well; email if you want to sign up).

The Newtown Creek facility is located on one of the city’s most notoriously polluted waterways, a Superfund site that is the site of the largest single oil spill in United States history. As much as 30 million gallons of oil leaked into the soil and water here from refineries dating back to the 1840s, a disaster that was detected by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on a routine flight in 1978.

If Newtown Creek is a poster child for old-school industrial waste, the wastewater treatment plant is a model of a new way of doing business. It has a visitor center with exhibits detailing the complex process of treating sewage in a densely populated city, and in the past has been the site of a performance installation in which “participants uncover the invisible infrastructure of New York City by means of interactive video, sound, and movement."

This could be the only sewage treatment plant in the nation to have its own page on Yelp (five-star reviews!). 

The plant first opened in 1967 and has been repeatedly updated since. It is currently in the midst of a $5 billion upgrade that will increase its capacity to 700 million gallons of combined wastewater and stormwater daily. In a city where billions of gallons of pollutants are released into the water during storms in what are known as "combined sewer overflow" events, every drop counts.

The five-stage process used at the plant, which mimics the natural purification process that occurs in wetlands and other waterways,  removes 90 percent of the contaminants from the wastewater generated by some 1 million people in its catchment area. The resulting disinfected and purified water, which meets Clean Water Act standards, is then discharged, while the biosolid left behind undergoes further “digestion” and is used for land reclamation following coal mining and similar projects. Methane produced in the process is piped into the natural gas grid.

The magnificent domed “digester eggs” where all this magic happens, designed by Ennead Architects (Polshek), have won numerous awards and have become an iconic part of the city’s skyline. 

When you think about it, a trip to a well-designed sewage plant makes perfect sense for a Valentine’s date. What is true love, after all, if not dealing constructively with all the sometimes unpleasant realities of life -- and making something beautiful of the mess?  

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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