Monday, October 12, 2009


Open House New York is a fun annual event that opens the doors of the city's most interesting places to the public for tours and educational events. This year, I went inside the nation's largest waste water treatment plant, and one of 14 in New York. The Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant was designed by the Polshek Partnership and is undergoing the finishing stages of a $4.5 billion upgrade project to increase capacity and effectiveness to meet Federal Clean Water Act standards.

The design of the plant is interesting. The architects color coded the different functions of the facility: orange for administrative, blue for water treatment, green for crew access. The entire project was designed to actually stand out in the neighborhood instead of hide from it. It actually harks back to the days when civic architecture was meant to educate the public, inspire trust in government, and foster interest in the technical workings of one's city.

These are the huge "digester eggs" that are actually modeled on the human stomach and detoxify the waste water. Kind of gross, but also totally fascinating.

The view from the top of the eggs down at the facility and Greenpoint beyond.

The original treatment plant was built in 1967 in what was then a declining industrial neighborhood on the shores of Newtown Creek. Since mid 19th century glue factories, oil refineries, ship builders, rope manufacturers, and tons of other industries also worked on the banks of the creek, making it one of the most polluted waterways in the entire country. There is an effort to clean it up, and part of raising awareness of the creek's plight (or just its existence) is the natively planted park along the shores of the treatment plant.

Here is a sculpture of the outline of the creek and surrounding watershed before it was developed. Today all of these inlets and creeks are channelized, filled with 80 year old toxic sludge and seeping oil, and can often be smelled from miles away. The good news is it is moving toward being cleaned up, slowly. Someday more parks like this one will exist along the forgotten, abused waterways of New York and people will marvel that we ever treated our own city, our home, with such disrespect.

Access for kayaking, which I someday hope to do to explore further up the creek, like these guys. No swimming yet though.