David Nelson had a Valentine’s Day surprise for his girlfriend. He was so excited, however, he let his intentions slip during dinner the night before.
“He spilled the beans,” said his girlfriend, Heather Weed, a 25-year-old civil engineer who was dressed for the holiday on Thursday in a red-and-pink-striped sweater and red shoelaces. “But we had talked about it before,” Mr. Nelson, an urban planner, pointed out a little defensively.
No, it wasn’t a marriage proposal. It was a tour of New York City’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
The couple, who share a cozy one-bedroom in Bedford-Stuyvesant, held hands during a lecture on the five steps of sewage treatment. (“Here’s the magic,” Jim Pynn, the plant superintendent, said of Step 3: “Biological treatment.”) Afterward, they took in the city views from the observation deck atop one of the giant stainless steel “digester eggs,” where sludge is stabilized during a 15-day process.
Love was certainly in the air on Thursday. Or was that the sewage?
For scores of New Yorkers who wanted to mark Valentine’s Day without the usual hearts and flowers, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection had just the token of affection. For the second year in a row, it offered free tours of the Newtown Creek plant, the largest of its 14 wastewater treatment facilities.
To some, the tours proved as irresistible as a dark chocolate truffle. Citing demand, the department added a third 75-person tour at the last minute; all three were filled to capacity. “It’s a unique way to spend Valentine’s Day, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn about the wastewater process,” a department spokesman, Christopher Gilbride, said.
But the day was not entirely about catch basins and combined sewer overflows. The complex in some ways resembles a gleaming work of sculpture, with its eight egg-like pods visible for miles.
The plant, which dates back to 1967, has undergone a $5 billion overhaul in recent years and was honored by the New York City Art Commission. At night, the eggs are bathed in blue light, the handiwork of the lighting designer Hervé Descottes.
There is even a visitor center where an exuberant fountain courses through the lobby. Those elements appealed to the urban planner in Mr. Nelson, if not the romantic. “It’s not only a great public investment in infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a great public space.”
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Mr. Pynn traced the history of wastewater treatment from the city’s earliest days to the present. Now, the city treats more than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily, from toilets, washing machines, sinks and, when it rains, storm water. The treatment plants, Mr. Pynn said, remove “94 percent of the pollutant load,” far exceeding the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
Talk of sewage works in mysterious ways. As the tour moved up to the observation deck, some couples seemed to stand a little closer.
As Mr. Pynn expounded on the giant propeller that circulates three million gallons of sludge inside each digester egg, Shawn Killebrew, a television editor, leaned in to kiss his wife, Courtenay Kendall, a TV producer.
Knowing that his wife scoffs at Valentine’s Day, Mr. Killebrew had simply asked her to take the day off from work. She still did not know where they were going as he led her from the subway to the treatment plant.
“I told him I would run if there was one ounce of romance,” she said after the tour. “This beats dinner in a restaurant any day.”
Then why all the snuggling? “When it’s an unromantic situation, we get romantic,” Mr. Killebrew said.
For Joseph Szabo, who works as a machinist for the Department of Environmental Protection in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the tour was a way to share something of his occupation with his wife of 20 years, Erika.
She more than rose to the occasion. “It’s gorgeous,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. I would never think this was romantic, but it is.”
Not everyone was so lucky in love. José Fernandez, a 30-year-old filmmaker visiting from Mexico, had arranged to take the tour with his girlfriend, an art student in Manhattan. But she canceled at the last minute, saying she had a class. Jilted at the plant, he went on the tour alone.
Mr. Fernandez was trying not to let his disappointment show. “I’m meeting her for lunch,” he said. “And I took a lot of pictures.”