Teenage wasteland: Students curate an exhibit about Brooklyn’s sewer system

Teenage wasteland: Students curate an exhibit about Brooklyn’s sewer system
Photo by Jason Speakman

A group of teens have uncovered the secrets of the sewers.

A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society explores the history of the borough’s sewer system, researched and curated by a team of high school students through Ex Lab, the society’s after-school program.

The teenagers discovered no ninja turtles or alligators, but they unearthed a comprehensive timeline of both “above ground” and “below ground” stories told through historical photographs, maps, drawings, and various artifacts related to whisking away people’s waste — including an antique chamber pot.

Student curators were surprised to find that New York is among the few communities still using a combined sewer system, which can allow sewage to overflow into canals during heavy storms, and that Coney Island opts for septic tanks over a sewer system. And they learned to appreciate the modern pipes that separate drinking water from toilet water.

“For most of the history that we were learning about it was so dangerous to be drinking the water,” said Caroline Zuba, a rising senior at Brooklyn Technical High School. “You would be getting cholera and you wouldn’t even know what was going on, just because you wouldn’t think that your doo-doo was getting into the water.”

Their newfound knowledge opened their eyes to the unseen (but not, historically speaking, unsmelled) side of Brooklyn.

“I’ve learned more about the city in general,” said Zuba, who enjoyed harboring new ‘water facts’ discovered through her research. “It’s seeing a different perspective on how the city operates, and it’s cool to know a little more about New York.”

And no mutagenic ooze was required to transform how the teenagers think about using water at home — just knowledge.

“You don’t really notice how much water you’re using and where it’s going,” said Ana Beirne-Meyer, a rising sophomore at Edward R. Murrow High School.

“I don’t take one-hour showers anymore,” agreed Zuba.

Zuba and Beirne-Meyer joined their teammates for two-hour, twice-a-week meetings from February through June while putting the exhibit together. All those hours created tight bonds — the girls in the group call themselves the “sewer sisters.”

The leaders at the society were impressed with the students’ boldness in expressing ideas and collaborating to create a museum-worthy work of art.

“We could actually see everyone’s growth as they did this,” said Shirley Brown-Alleyne, the Manager of Teaching and Learning at the society. “Doing Ex Labs is not just learning about the exhibit and learning about New York City. Each and every one of them had some type of personal growth that expanded them.”

“Brooklyn Sewers: What’s Up Down There?” at the Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrepont Street between Clinton Street and Monroe Place in Brooklyn Heights, www.brooklynhistory.org, 718-222-4111]. On display through May 29, 2016. $10 (free for students).

Reach reporter Allegra Hobbs at ahobb[email protected]local.com or by calling (718) 260–8312.