Real Places

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


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.

Last summer, for a romantic getaway, Peter and I drove up to Gloucester, on nearby Cape Ann—a location we chose for the bedrock allure of its traditional maritime community, and so that we could tour the Pigeon Cove fish plant. We treated ourselves to a stay in the historic Brick House. Presided over by two hospitable cosmopolitans, Nadia Rosenthal and Alan Sawyer, The Brick House has fireplaces, fine espresso, a garden, and an airy room from which we could watch the fishing fleet powering out to sea at dawn. Only a stroll from the harbor, the inn is also close by Caffè Sicilia, which is a wormhole to Italy, and the Boulevard Oceanview Restaurant, treasured for its mussels and Portuguese kale soup. On a Monday morning Peter and I set forth early, walking to the fish plant, located at the head of the harbor. (We bypassed Gloucester's slime-eel plant, which freezes and ships eels to Korea, where they are made into fancy boots or fertilizer, but you can delight eight-year-olds merely by saying "slime-eel plant.") "We are jamming by six a.m.," Steve Parkes, the manager, said, easing around a stack of farmed mussels and onto his loading dock. Elton John was tearing it up on the radio; fish processors hustled about in orange overalls, white rubber boots, baseball caps on backwards. I first learned about Pigeon Cove when I asked a fishmonger at our local market the provenance of the good-looking arctic char he was wrapping up. All his fresh fish comes through this plant, owned by the Whole Foods chain, which pays admirably careful attention both to product quality and to the overall health of fisheries. That morning fish were streaming into the plant from land and sea—arriving by truck from the Boston fish market and being offloaded from a local trawler, the Katherine V. On the trucking platform skids rolled by draped with huge silver-gray Australian swordfish. Headless and tailless, the fish were still six feet long, plump, and gleaming, their cavities packed with shaved ice. The sword buyer, who referred to these creatures as "the chosen fish," demonstrated the core-sampling technique that helps him choose and then held up a cylinder of pale flesh. He said, "With this, I can tell you the whole biography of a fish." As Parkes led Peter and me to the cutting room, we passed a sign that read WELCOME TO GLOUCESTER—A QUAINT DRINKING VILLAGE WITH A FISHING PROBLEM. The fishing problem that haunts Gloucester these days shadows the entire Gulf of Maine, once famously laden with shellfish, cod, and sole. Over the past twenty-five years this richest of fisheries has collapsed, so these days a trip to Pigeon Cove is a chance not only to marvel at the world-class tattoos sported by crews offloading the daily catch but also to tiptoe into the intense, nearly epistemological conundrum swirling over the diminished North Atlantic fisheries. Is the Gulf of Maine overfished? Yes. And there agreement ends, with the fishing community believing that stocks are rebounding more quickly than fishery managers—the "fishcrats"—have been able to determine, and with discord over harvesting regulations, ways of counting fish, and even what counts as fact. A modern fish plant is an efficient, technological operation. And it is a liminal zone, a place where one life form begins to be alchemized into another. In Pigeon Cove's chilly cutting room four people were turning the enormous swordfish into pale, rosy steaks. These are the stations of the fish: descaling, filleting, skinning, rinsing, candling, packing. No shaman stood by to give ceremonial thanks, but the glossy wet beauty of the marine world was everywhere present, and Pigeon Cove has an aura entirely different from that of a factory working with an inorganic substance like plastic or metal. The top cutter is a slight, wiry man named Hieu Van Do, who makes fillets his co-workers call "little masterpieces." At the candling table a young man wearing heavy gloves and layered sweatshirts studiously reviewed Van Do's fillets through an intense light, scanning for tiny bones, bruises, and parasites. "Yep," he said cheerfully, "they're sometimes in there—but not when they leave my table." Outside, on the warm, sunny dock, fish were still flowing from the trawler. It's a rugged blue vessel owned by Matt Vitello, a Portuguese-American fisherman whose hard work typifies this endangered community. A winch lifted bins of whiting from the hold and swung them onto the dock, where they were weighed, smothered with fluffy ice, packed onto pallets, and hefted onto a conveyer belt that trundled them into the plant. The fishermen offloading the Katherine V wore foul-weather pants, high boots, and the omnipresent baseball caps on backwards. One of them was going for, and mostly achieving, the Fabio look—ripped biceps, gold chain, a mane of streaky blond hair. "Watch out," he called, as some fish goo sloshed toward my open-toed sandals. He actually took my elbow to escort me to drier ground, and I felt like a female reporter on her first day in the Lakers locker room. Parkes grinned. "You know," he said, "the scientists were screaming about the fishery for a long time, and they were right. At the same time, the regulations are killing the small inshore guys like Vitello. Can they hang on until the fish come back? Man, I hope so, because without these guys the port of Gloucester would be unrecognizable."

Although infrastructure facilities are, like everything else, steeped in chaos and made of dancing atoms, they tend to be more stable than a lot of other things. To anyone familiar with the mutability of, say, language, it is impressive when something persists in a given shape for many decades. Perhaps the finest local example of this endurance can be found on Little Brewster Island, a windswept, wave-washed outcropping in the outer harbor, where stands the oldest working lighthouse station in North America. For nearly 300 years Boston Light has shone its beam, flashing every ten seconds, to mark the harbor entrance and warn mariners off the treacherous Shag Rocks. Long accessible only to Coast Guard personnel, the lighthouse recently opened its door to civilians. Fans of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse will be glad to know that it took me many attempts to reach Boston Light. My excursion was twice canceled owing to high winds and lightning storms. When, at last, a fine fall day dawned this past October, the toothed, primitive sumacs on the harbor islands were flame-red. Peter and I set out from Fan Pier on a salty wooden vessel, the MV Hurricane, along with ten other passengers. The voyage out took about an hour, during which we threaded among several of the thirty-one harbor islands, widely admired for the adventure and repose they offer so near an urban hive, and for their quirky names, among them Moon, Spectacle, Grape, Gallop's, Ragged, and Bumpkin. Little Brewster is one of the remotest islands, exposed to the wild storms that lash out of the northeast, and yet it is astonishingly orderly—a tidy and freshly painted place that recalls an airbrushed postcard from 1940s Maine. Or a Jungian archetype. We were met at the dock by the keeper (that's what he's called) and led onto a tiny dot of earth dominated by a tall white tapering tower. Several gung-ho members of the Coast Guard auxiliary plied us with facts—as late as 1960 the island had neither electricity nor plumbing, which is to say that as Sputnik was circling the earth, the keeper of Boston Light was reading at night by a kerosene lamp—and organized us into quasi-platoons. There was a whiff of military stricture in the air, but the astonishment was that we were being allowed inside this old lighthouse at all, and welcomed up a winding stair into the tiny, narrow lens room to stand around but not touch an immensely rare optical device called a second order Fresnel lens. Made in France in the middle of the nineteenth century, the lens is a handsome thing, roughly the shape of a pagoda, of thick glass, with many flaring ridges that focus light onto round disks in the center of each lens panel. Rainbow bits of the spectrum colored our faces as we studied its 336 prisms that focus and intensify the light from a 1,000-watt lamp into a two-million-candlepower beam. How strong is that? It can be seen for twenty-seven miles, and if it were improperly angled during cleaning, it would ignite brush fires on shore. This elegant, powerful artifact would be hard, perhaps impossible, to duplicate. Sadly, the Fresnel manufactory did not survive World War II; also lost were the plans and formulas for the lens glass. Anyway, technology has moved on; newer lighthouses are fitted with high-intensity bulbs like those on airport runways. Gazing seaward from the lens room, we could see the hummock of Cape Cod. It was a beautiful day, clear and cloudless, but all local mariners have seen such fair weather vanish in sudden, unpredicted fog banks or violent squalls. From this tiny room issues what is under such foul conditions one of the most priceless words in the navigational language written across the seas.

My admiration for the burly pinions of modern civilization coexists with deep reservations about some of the logic that drives our industrial world. For example, as I roamed the construction site for Boston's new Central Artery and tunnel, I was agog. As every local knows well, the Big Dig is the largest, most complex engineering project in American history. It is one jaw-dropping engineering feat after another, requiring constant improvisation because the construction is located smack in the midst of the old transportation corridor—which continues in full operation. Likened to performing open-heart surgery on a marathoner during a race, the project is the sort of enterprise for which we might wish we had reserved the word "awesome"—once the boss word of the Romantic Sublime, now hanging out with "dude." Moreover, one of the first things I noticed was how many women are working construction at the Big Dig, how totally awesome they looked lugging cables and acetylene torches, and how happy they all appeared. I can't remember seeing so many women in one place looking so happy. They looked almost smug, like new mothers. I'm not making this up. And yet this enterprise, whose praises I sing, is a $14 billion—and counting—highway project that has tragically missed many golden opportunities to include urban public-transit upgrades. The project will deliver some vital communications lines and open space, but only fierce pressure from citizens' groups has brought a few transit felicities to the urban core. I'm for fewer cars and less oil, and no wars for oil. I'm for more trains (with their transporting names) and no vast dams that wipe out ancient villages and salmon routes. And still I cherish the promise of techne, the promise of human ingenuity, which is in such evidence at the Big Dig. If you go, check out the casting basins, and the jack-tunneling operation. Unbelievable.

When we were very young, and full-time disciples of Nancy Drew, my best friend, Ellen Jane, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the adult world. There were many things for which we did not yet have language. One summer afternoon when we were six or seven, Ellen Jane and I lay on the grass in her back yard trying to find a word for the hundreds of enormous, tall, lacy, flared steel things that strode for miles over the hills and valleys of eastern Tennessee. "Giants," I suggested—for the size of the structures. Ellen Jane said, "Ladies' slips"—for their shape. Giants or ladies' slips—those were our best guesses for the ten-story electrical pylons of the TVA that were changing the face of the upper South. And looking back, I have to say those were very good guesses. Between the two of us, Ellen Jane and I mythologized and domesticated the vast new TVA system, and in doing so we got something exactly right. Human infrastructure is at once heroic and ordinary, gigantic and intimate, always a membrane between the great and the small, the collective and the personal, between things as close as our skin and as remote as the distant future.