The Island that Nobody Knows


For more than three centuries, Deer Island has been the place where Boston has put the things it would rather not think about. It has been a concentration camp for Native Americans, a women’s prison, a fortress against invasion from the sea. When bodies are dumped into Boston’s waters, they wash up on Deer Island’s shores. It is also where the city’s excrement goes, the site of the Deer Island Wastewater Management Plant, a masterwork of infrastructural design that opened in 1995, after a federal court mandated the clean-up of Boston Harbor. On an average day, the Deer Island plant treats some 350 million gallons of sewage; in the event of a storm surge it can treat up to 1.3 billion gallons per day.

The plant is most recognizable for its twelve egg-shaped digesters, each 130 feet tall, which thicken sludge so that it can be converted into fertilizer. Contaminated water is purified over ten to fifteen days as it is fed through a series of “batteries,” or pools, where it is gradually aerated and cleansed before it is returned to Massachusetts Bay by a 9.5 mile, twenty-four-foot-wide, gravity-fed tunnel. Below the plant’s surface is a secret world of labyrinthine galleries, colorful machinery, and electric vehicles that looks like nothing so much as the lair of a James Bond villain. But nobody at Deer Island is trying to blow up the world. It is operated, instead, by a cadre of engineers and tradesman dedicated to keeping Boston’s water clean in times pleasant and severe.

During my fellowship year in Cambridge, I made a photographic project of documenting Deer Island, and those images were exhibited in a show, The Island that Nobody Knows, at Boston’s PinkComma Gallery. This month that show travels to the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture, where it will be on display from February 26 through the end of March.