Like most successful romantic endeavors, the Valentine’s Day tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant began with a release form.
The more than 30 attendees at the annual New York Department of Sanitation fete were greeted upon arrival at the plant — you’ve surely seen the steel, egg-shaped, silo-like structures while trapped in a cab on the BQE — with the safety release, a complimentary Hershey’s Kiss (because love), and a sewer-themed pin (because of course). They were then given an enthusiastic presentation from community relations director Sivan Schlecter and plant superintendent Zainool Ali that would have converted the staunchest climate-change denier into an ardent eco-warrior.
But everyone was there for pretty much the same reason.
“The shit. Where is my shit?” said one tour-goer, Erin Reddy. The tour was a Valentine’s gift from husband Pranay, who had hoped to surprise her with the excursion but was foiled by the department’s strict registration system.
Most of the attendees were couples and groups of twenty-to-thirtysomethings, but despite the hipsterish demographic and Greenpoint location, the overall mood was one of earnest curiosity rather than ironic bemusement. Despite the legitimate interest in the subject matter, the tour never quite lost the giddy feel of a middle-school field trip — complete with fart jokes and covert hand-holding. “Everybody say ‘SEWAGE,’ ” yelped one of the many ebullient photographers.
With its steely Bond-villain-lair vibe and signs with phrases like SLUDGE MIXER, or GAS DOME AREA, the plant is lousy with internet like-bait. Although many had informed scientific questions, most queries were regarding the weird debris that gets dredged up during the initial filtration stages (the answer: clothing, driver’s licenses, and once, a whole tree). Ali was quick to point out that by the time things get here, they’re generally well past the point of recognition.
After covering the basics (the plant handles around 18 percent of the area’s wastewater, and those “biodegradable” baby wipes you keep flushing are clogging everything up), the real tour began with an elevator ride up to the catwalks that crown the facility’s jewel(s), the digester eggs, which process up to 1.5 million gallons of sludge each day. The views were truly breathtaking — and, as visitors neared the methane processing sections atop the eggs, so was the odor. Ali motioned the group toward a plexiglass porthole affording a view into the burbling sludge. One by one, people crouched down inches from the window, then recoiled with squinched-up faces from a creeping stench best described as “earthy flatus.”
Between the postcard-worthy views and frigid temperature, romance (and methane) was in the air, and several of the group’s couples engaged in a little light PDA. Department spokeswoman Mercedes Padilla noted that in the tour’s history, she’s seen “a lot of people hugging, holding each other, laughing…” Would-be fiances, take note: A proposal has yet to take place on the tour, so you can still stake your claim in the quirky-proposal corner of the internet. Gail Nayowith, who took the tour with her partner, Larian Angelo (and who says she can see the digester eggs from her Manhattan apartment), pointed out that “It’s romantic if you love the city. You can share your Valentine’s Day with two things that you love: your person and your city.”
At the tour’s conclusion, a sampling of attendees all agreed that they would absolutely do it again in a romantic capacity (it beat the hell out of stilted first-date trivia). Several suggested that the plant offer regular night tours to heighten the mood and take full advantage of the views and high-concept illumination, conceived by French lighting designer Hervé Descottes, whose body of work includes New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Miami International Airport.
As Dennis Cheung, a Greenpoint native who was there with girlfriend Danielle, aptly noted, “it was romantic as shit!” — a sentiment that can now be taken literally.
The plant also offers romance-neutral monthly tours of the digester eggs. For more information, see here.