Painting a Pretty Picture of Sewage

Maira Kalman has a new illustrated (and reported!) blog on the New York Times Web site today, extolling the virtues of…the city’s sanitation and sewage departments(!).

Kalman, the artist behind the whimsically illustrated version of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, marvels in childlike wonder at the efficiency and non-stinkiness of the whole endeavor—and then makes a plea to fellow New Yorkers to volunteer for the city’s new service initiative by pitching in to beautify New York in their own way.

It’s gorgeous work—and to Kalman’s credit, she actually traveled to City Hall and took a field trip to the city’s sewage treatment plant in Greenpoint to research the “column.”

Unfortunately, though, the whole thing is also a bit tone deaf. Kalman, in her charmingly wacky, artistic way, is overly enamored of superficial details, like the “adorable” condensation pot at the sewage treatment center and the mayor’s ability to hire “young, good looking” people who manage to conduct business without running around as if their “hair is on fire.”

She shares some interesting statistics about the city’s daily garbage output, but those are leavened with “let them eat cake” statements like this: “The containers are placed on flatbed railcars pulled by locomotives. And voila! Au revoir, garbage!” With lines like that, Kalman comes off like someone’s slightly daffy, bohemian, socialite auntie holding a living room campaign fundraiser for the Bloomberg administration.

It’s all a bit off-putting. And it leaves me slightly confused. What exactly does the city’s sewage treatment facility have to do with my civic duty? Should I flush less often?

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.