Real Places

A wastewater-treatment facility, a fish-processing plant, and other prime tourist attractions in and around Boston

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The newest aid to navigation along the New England coast is a cluster of ovoid structures that loom 130 feet tall, and rather perkily for such giants, on the tip of Deer Island, in Boston Harbor. The eggs, as they are commonly called (and there are a dozen), cut a dashing, futuristic figure against the blue-green Atlantic: Rem Koolhaas meets the Jetsons meets Faberg´. One warm summer morning last year I was zooming to the top of one egg in an industrial-strength elevator along with six visiting Sri Lankan engineers. As we stepped out onto a catwalk, a process engineer, Jeff McAuley, said of the egg below us, "This could blow up anytime." He was kidding. We were perfectly safe—I think—but McAuley was getting our attention about conditions deep inside the structure. Sometimes mistaken by passing mariners for a luxury condo complex, the eggs are habitable only by microorganisms. "They are like your stomach," one of the engineers explained, adding in a polite fluster, "not like your personal stomach, Madame, but the stomach of the human body." Technically anaerobic digesters, these Big Berthas are the most dramatic feature of a new state-of-the-art plant that treats and dispatches the effluents of metropolitan Boston, handling the task so well that for infrastructure cognoscenti Deer Island is all the rage—a must-see. The Sri Lankan engineers were almost bubbly with excitement about the facility. Me too. The operation room rivals the deck of the Starship Enterprise; there are monster pumps, and in the dome of each egg a lovely oculus, a functional cousin of that calm, all-seeing eye in the Pantheon. But what really sends me is the transformation this plant is working on Boston's once sullied harbor, restoring it to a sparkling realm clean enough to please bluefish and seals. And people, who are rediscovering the harbor islands—a sapphire necklace of tide pools, wild roses, swimming coves, and ruins of, for instance, the Asylum for Indigent Boys. From the catwalk windows now the view was of sailboats and water taxis, the Boston skyline ghostly in the distance, and, directly below, the plant itself—a sprawling Rube Goldberg number with Corten-steel stacks, clarifying ponds, and pipes galore, all of it surrounded by the Atlantic and coursed by fresh sea breezes. The Deer Island plant was but one stop on a continuing journey I have made through some of greater Boston's finest infrastructure. From the egg I could almost see three other sites I have recently explored: the Pigeon Cove fish-processing plant, up the coast on Cape Ann; venerable Boston Light, at the harbor entrance; and, near the city's waterfront, the vast Central Artery highway-construction site.

I wasn't raised to be the sort of girl who thrills to wastewater-treatment plants. Born southern just as the 1950s got under way, I received a dose of the fading idea that certain things—things with engines, things that shot flames, things that involved lug wrenches or voltage—were not the concern of a lady. It almost worked. But infrastructure lay all around, shimmery and intriguing: those sun-baked gray boxes with electrical coils inside the chain-link fence behind the dry cleaner's; the flying saucer on legs that was the town water tower; even the forbidden, ultra-secret uranium labs of my first home town, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Every time life gave me a chance, I found that I liked to poke around the hefty stuff—the bridges, power plants, shipping terminals, factories, processing plants, and waterworks that make up the bones and muscles, the sinews and spine, and the GI tract of every industrialized community on earth. I like the word "infrastructure," too, a robust double trochee with a slight syncopation. "Infra" is from Latin, meaning "underneath or lower down than." As "infra dig" means "beneath one's dignity," "infrastructure" means "beneath the structure." It is a word that colludes with Western culture's poignant old hope to, by golly, figure out what's really going on. When I looked up "infrastructure" recently, I found that the way I am using it here—to mean the public works and subservices of an industrial economy—evolved from more specific meanings. When it entered English, in the 1920s, it was generally used to describe military installations (naval bases, cavalry barracks, and the like), as it had been in its original French. It promptly was applied to the tunnels and culverts of railroad lines. Once linked with the railroad—presto, "infrastructure" was free to travel. Soon it could be found signifying the subparts or underlying system of just about anything, even something as ephemeral as sound, as the metrical frame of jazz. As a partisan of physical infrastructure, I have noticed that if the entity in question is ancient and lying in ruin, if it is a Roman aqueduct or the Great Wall of China or the cistern at Mycenae, it is considered highly visitable. But with a few notable exceptions—the Parisian sewer system, the Golden Gate Bridge—most of our latter-day infrastructure is ignored by travel guides and rarely figures in the traveler's portrait of a place. How odd. A whole genre of monuments to human ingenuity and nature's forces exists in our very midst, as big as life, laced with miracles and wonders, and yet so little remarked as to be almost invisible. Do we overlook these places on purpose, because they make up a shadow city on which the fashionable city rests? ("What's landfill," the poet Amy Clampitt asked, "but the backside of civility?") Well, sure. Infrastructure facilities can be raw, noisy, dangerous, messy, or all of the above, and when I first began exploring these bastions of the utilitarian, I wasn't entirely sure why they appealed so to my imagination. I work in words and pictures. I'm afraid of our basement. And I'm fond of irony and play, which are in short supply in infrastructure. (When delivering water for a bath or for putting out a fire, you really don't want an ironic pump. You don't want a playfully subversive or deconstructed pump. What you want—mark me closely—is a pump that pumps.) But I've always been keen to go inside, to ask how and why, for what purpose, at what cost; and I soon realized that an expedition to an ordinary electric plant or marine terminal is a terrific way to get behind the scenes fast—that a few hours at a lock or toll bridge, chatting up the operators, invariably reveals truths about a city or an area that you simply cannot discover in its cafés, shops, and museums. That must be because infrastructure is essentially nesting on a grand scale, embodying power, creativity, and our current schemes—for better or worse—for conducting life on earth. Visits to infrastructure facilities give the traveler techie info, good shoptalk, insight into the big sustainability puzzles, more fun than you might imagine, and also deep respect for the souls who build and tend these places. At Deer Island, I ate lunch on the seawall with a young mason whose father and grandfather had labored on earlier infrastructure gigs. "My dad built I-93," he told me proudly, "and my granddad built the Boston and Maine railroad." I loved the way this man gave his forebears total credit for the massive transportation projects, as if the two of them were his own personal Paul Bunyans—which, of course, they are. Luckily, my husband, Peter, is something of a public-works hound himself. Together we have toured a windmill power-generating station on a North Sea island; a catfish-farm-equipment manufactory in the Mississippi Delta; a train yard in Tokyo, where we learned that the Japanese have named their fastest train Nozomi, which translates roughly as Wish; a Vermont dairy plant that purifies its runoff by sending it through a bed of aquatic plants that emulates a cleansing marsh; the power station at Niagara Falls, where we touched a turbine the size of a California redwood; and a "wafer fab" in Grenoble, France, one of the rare facilities that make the silicon chips that make the information society go. (Vive la France note: In a French fab high-tech workers do not wear the same shapeless white coveralls, the "bunny suits," worn by their counterparts elsewhere. Horreurs! Mais non! Workers in a French fab wear formfitting numbers in trendy acidic colors.) Fond as I am of such faraway field trips, some of the most moving and memorable expeditions have been to facilities in my own city. Close to home it is easy to connect dots—from a substation to your living-room lamp, from a watershed stream to your bathtub, even from the present to the past. The spring day that Peter and I locked through the local Amelia Earhart Dam in a canoe, we were following the annual spawning route that has been taken for millennia by alewives, the little fish that Squanto taught the Pilgrims to use. In America most infrastructure actually belongs to Us, the People, and we are free to sally forth to review our big stuff and talk with the people who run it. What the heck are they doing in there anyway? Because these are working facilities, a call ahead to request a visit is essential. The managers almost always say yes; they may not have an official tour, but they are usually pleased that citizens have taken notice, and are proud to show their operation. It helps to be enthusiastic, to let them know you come in peace. Of course, if you've got some beef with your power plant (because, say, it isn't a solar power plant, when—jeez, Louise—it could be), that's also an excellent reason to pay a call. Ground rules vary; you may be asked to come on a certain afternoon, to wear sturdy shoes, or to don a hard hat and safety goggles. Assuming you are nicely suited up, mentally, we can head out to three of my favorite sites in and around Boston.

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