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Everything in Queens has a cool story attached to it, if you care to look.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My reason for coming over to the forbidden northern coastline of Queens on this particular day was to gather a few street side shots of the NYC DEP’s Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. I know… who dares to spend a Saturday evening walking over to the local sewer plant? One such myself, that’s who dares!

According to the NYC DEP – “The Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant went into operation in 1939 and is designed to treat 150 million gallons of wastewater a day. The plant serves approximately 850,000 residents in a drainage area of more than 15,000 acres in northwest Queens,” and “At the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, there are four holding tanks that have the capacity to store a combined 550,000 cubic feet of sludge.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Bowery Bay is the fifth largest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, and you’ll find it on Berrian Blvd. between Steinway and 45th streets in Astoria, on the forbidden northern coast of the borough of Queens. Check out that bas relief on the Art Deco building with curved walls and glass brick windows! More on that in a minute, after the sewer story. 

Long story short, by the beginning of the 20th century, NY Harbor was in essence an open sewer which was severely compromised by both industrial and biological waste. Remember, before cars there horses and oxen, and everybody and everything poops at least once a day. They used to just wash into all the sewers, which were open to the rivers and harbor. This is why the rich people lived on the central spine of Manhattan, rather than at the water’s edge where the poor people gathered in tenements. In 1909, a fellow named Dr. George Soper (who was also the guy who identified Typhoid Mary) led the first comprehensive survey of the harbor’s ecology. In 1914, Soper led the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission, which released an 800 page long “Main Drainage and Sewage Disposal Works Proposed for New York City: Reports of Experts and Data Related to the Harbor” document which made recommendations about curatives. 

By 1920, a plan had been drawn up, and in 1929 the Department of Sanitation was designated as the agency which would execute it – digging sewer pipes, connecting existing drainage systems in what was now the five boroughs, and building water treatment or sewer plants. They would also do what DSNY continues to do today, but what’s now the DEP used to be part of Sanitation. Then the Great Depression came along. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

President Roosevelt created the Work Projects Administration (WPA) to jump start the national economy and put the talents of the jobless masses to work on vital infrastructure projects around the country. Hoover Dam, as well a good number of schools, libraries, parks, and post offices got built by WPA in this fashion. WPA didn’t forget about art, and made it a point of including public artworks on many of its projects. The WPA people worked with DSNY to build three new wastewater treatment plants in NY Harbor (between 1937 and 1944) – Wards Island in Manhattan, Tallman Island, and Bowery Bay in Queens. 

The bas reliefs adorning the Bowery Bay plant are by an Italian American sculptor named Cesare Stea.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Bowery Bay plant sits quite low to the water, and is in fact within the current zone you’d expect to flood due to coastal storms. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy did quite a number to the place, I’m told, and if current projections about sea level rise are accurate, the DEP is going to be experiencing a lot of problems at Bowery Bay in the coming decades. 

Two of Stea’s Bas Reliefs depicting depression era wastewater workers are covered (there’s four), along with an Art Deco entranceway to the plant, by plywood. Presumptively, the structure is still being repaired from the walloping it took during Hurricane Sandy. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Having hung around the more modern plant in Greenpoint has familiarized one with the shape of things, and the shot above depicts the settling tanks and high pressure air pipes which aerate the “honey” at the treatment plant. The stuff spends a bit of time in deep concrete tanks with pressurized air being forced into it from below. This causes solids to migrate downwards in the liquid column for post drainage collection, and oils and greases to migrate upwards for skimming. By modern day standards, there’s a lot left to be desired by the Bowery Bay Plant. It was designed with neighborhoods of two story homes and factories in mind, not city block sized fifty story residential towers. 

Given all the real estate activity in Western Queens in recent decades, and the sort of plans being bandied about by the powers that be in Manhattan for remaking the place in their own image… you’d think…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It just isn’t the way people think anymore, I’m afraid. 

What we’re doing, municipal plan wise, is akin to cooking a large holiday meal, not setting up the table with plates and silver wear, and just flopping the food onto the table. You then tell your family and guests to just lick it all up, and that probably next year you’ll go out and buy plates. Or at least, we will leave that to the next Mayor to deal with. 

Dr. George Soper would probably be angry, if he hadn’t died in 1948.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

September 19, 2018 at 1:00 pm

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