by Brennen Jensen (Baltimore City Paper, 9/19/2001)
“…Now, I don’t mean to denigrate the folks in this fine eastern-Baltimore County community, but there’s no escaping the fact that for more 80 years (thanks, in part, to the intractable laws of gravity) Essex has been on the business end of the city’s toilets. The Department of Public Works has run a sprawling wastewater-treatment facility on the shores of the Back River since 1912.
One hundred years ago, Baltimore had the dubious distinction of being one of the largest cities in the world without a comprehensive sewer system. What we did have was some 90,000 cesspools and a hodgepodge of private sewer lines that drained without fanfare into the nearest body of water. The never-reticent H.L. Mencken wrote in his book of boyhood reminiscences, Happy Days, that summertime Baltimore “smelled like a billion polecats.” Making matters worse, the cesspools would often overflow, requiring a visit from a brave crew of workers operating a wagon-borne pump-and-hose contraption called an “odorless excavating apparatus” (which, old accounts suggest, was a bold-faced bit of doublespeak on par with anything in 1984.)
Cruise east on Eastern Avenue today and, just after you pass beneath North Point Boulevard, a pair of gold, ovate domes come into view. This is the modern face of sewage treatment. Each 150-foot-tall “egg” holds 3 million gallons of sewage being “eaten” by an army of poo-loving bacteria. While waiting at a stoplight near Eastpoint Mall during a recent visit, I couldn’t help making an uneasy link between these golden structures and the nearby Golden Corral buffet restaurant. (But then, the Golden Corral’s parking lot was full, so perhaps I’m the only one who makes the rude connection.)
In any event, informal interviews with folks at a shopping center in the shadow of the plant reveal that it’s far less stinky here than it used to be, before the cutting-edge eggs went up in 1992. A pair of Ames cashiers taking a smoke break told me it only gets unpleasant on particularly humid days, or after a heavy rain. The affable bartender at the Blue Lagoon, a colorful bit of Caribbean escapism overlooking the Back River, echoed these sentiments. She said the “shit plant”–apparently the colloquial term for the place–actually benefits her tavern, as the plant’s workers often take their happy hour there. (And, she says, regale her with giggly slogans suggested by their daily toil: “Your number twos are our number one priority”; “When you flush, think of us.”) I myself strolled along the banks of the mighty Back River without detecting so much as an unwanted whiff. (I did get a nostril-load during an earlier stop at the Public Works Museum at Eastern Avenue and President Street, housed in an ornate vintage pumping station that sends 22 million gallons of used toilet water eastward to Essex every day.)”
Read “You Smell That? An Olfactory-Bulb Tour of the City That Stinks” in full at the Baltimore City Paper.