River of Fundament: Turns Out, Brooklyn’s Streets Used to Be Full of Poop

Photo: Rob Zand/Flickr Creative Commons

Over a century ago, before New York City was home to 7,500 miles of plumbing infrastructure and 13 wastewater treatment plants that process 1.3 billion gallons of human waste on a daily basis, Brooklyn’s streets were often covered in raw sewage. It makes sense, really, since 19th century New Yorkers didn’t often have the benefits of toilets at their disposal. They frequently tossed whatever refuse they deposited in their chamberpots right out the window into the alleyways and streets below. This is what life was like when indoor plumbing was a luxury, not something available in your corner coffee shop.  

A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society reminds us of those dark days of absentee plumbing in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn Sewers: What’s Up Down There? a group of Brooklyn high school students were tasked with curating a display dedicated entirely to Brooklyn’s sprawling sewer system, from its nascent beginnings as a politically charged movement aimed at improving everyday life, to its vital place in the city’s infrastructure today.

Curating the exhibit helped students and Historical Society staff put a few things in perspective, mainly concerning the much improved quality of life we presently enjoy. “Most people do not think about what happens once we flush the toilet or how it could affect our health. Realizing how sewers play such an important part in our daily health has made us think carefully about the aging sewer infrastructure in our city,” says Shirley Brown Alleyne, Manager of Teaching and Learning at Brooklyn Historical Society.

The research process, which partnered students with a local scholar, illuminated a bunch of weird factoids and lesser-known things about Brooklyn’s history, like the fact that Coney Island still relies heavily on septic tanks today. Shirley Brown Alleyne says that BHS staff and students were “shocked” to hear that.

Brooklyn Historical Society's student curators. Photo: Lita Riddock

The exhibit, which is on display until May of next year, combines a bunch of primary source documents, like original court papers dating back to the 19th century, with photographs and diagrams of the rural Brooklyn landscape from long ago. It tells the story of how sewers came to fruition from the vantage point of four neighborhoods: Bushwick, Fort Greene, Coney Island and Flatlands.

As for actually building the exhibit, that was primarily up to students, all of whom partake in the BHS Exhibition Laboratory program, an after-school endeavor that teaches kids the art of museum curation.

Erik Walter, a 9th grader  at Brooklyn Millennium High School, said, “Even though the BHS library is extensive, we did lack a few artifacts we were interested in displaying. These were the chamber pot and pipes, the chamber pot was found by one of the exhibit designers on eBay, and not much was known about it. In order to create the pipe going down the wall, we bought PVC pipes and painted them with a metallic paint, then fitted them together.”

Artifacts bought on eBay or not, the whole curation process planted some very important ideas in Walter’s mind, along with his fellow students: “Most if not all of us, knew about the sewage overflows before hand, what I and others did not know is on what scale it was, and what the government did to stop this problem,” he says.

Brooklyn Sewers is on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society from June 9th 2015 to May 29th 2016.

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster 

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