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Royal Flush

The city’s most awe-inspiring new landmark is a giant piece of plumbing.

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Here we are, at what may well be the peak of a stupendous economic boom, and amid all the branded office towers and condo-hotel hybrids, how many interesting new buildings does New York have to show for it? Most recent construction has made the city appreciably uglier, and you don’t have to be a bleary-eyed, Times Square–was–better–with–homicidal–pimps sentimentalist to agree. Which makes it all the more shocking that a spectacular new landmark has quietly risen on the shore of the humble Newtown Creek, the trickle of contamination that separates Queens from Brooklyn. This is a sewage-treatment plant, and though it’s been there for years (it opened in Greenpoint just as the neighborhood was losing the leaky oil refineries in the sixties), it is now in the midst of a technological and aesthetic transformation. Those bulbous, silver-skinned pods you see in the picture at right are “digester eggs,” and they perform the city’s dirtiest but most essential work, using microbes to reduce sludge (a.k.a. sewage minus water) by half. Most of the design is pure engineering, but the spaceship exterior is the work of the estimable Polshek Partnership, known for the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History, among many credits. Greenpoint is hardly proud to be the city’s waste receptacle, but as opposed to all the other industrial indignities that have been heaped on the area, this one comes with perks. Not only will the digester eggs cut down on “odor events,” but the Department of Environmental Protection is also creating a “nature walk” around the perimeter, including a fragrance garden and, yes, access to the creek. The first phase is opening in the next couple of months, and soon thereafter, the plant will be lit up in blue at night, glittering like the Manhattan skyline.


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