HARLEM — Before he moved to West Harlem from Lower Manhattan a year ago, Johnny Moreno knew there was some sort of facility at Riverbank State Park.
He just didn't know that it was the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant.
"I knew there was something here but I didn't really, exactly know what type of plant it was," said Moreno, who came to the park for a stroll with his wife Ximena Ambriz and his 1-year-old son Thursday, only to find it closed because of a fire and explosion at the plant Wednesday afternoon. Thousands of people had to be evacuated from the park.
Moreno was one of many neighborhood residents and other parkgoers from around the city who were unaware of the massive sewage plant's existence, hidden beneath the sprawling, $100 million park.
Department of Environmental Protection officials said that raw sewage continued to pour into the Hudson River a day after the fire. The park is expected to remain closed Thursday and it is not clear when it will reopen.
"It doesn't surprise me that people look up at the [plant's] smokestacks and say, 'What's that?'" said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a group that fought to prevent the plant's construction.
It's been 26 years since WE ACT sued to stop the plant, located on the Hudson River from 137th to 145th streets. Riverbank State Park was built on top of the facility as a concession to the community seven years after the plant opened in 1986.
The plant treats 125 million gallons of wastewater during dry weather, but can handle up to 340 million gallons during wet weather.
Given gentrification in the area and the number of people who utilize the park from outside of the neighborhood, Shepard said it's been difficult to maintain awareness about the sanitation plant beneath people's feet.
"People don't realize what's going on there," Shepard said. "It's hard for a small community organization like ourselves to educate the hundreds of thousands of people that use the park."
Many of those parkgoers are wowed by the array of services at the facility: There is an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a covered skating rink that turns into an ice rink, an 800-seat cultural theater, 2,500-seat athletic complex with fitness room, and a football/soccer field.
Moreno and Ambriz are now worried about the odor and the safety of their child.
"It smelled like it did downtown after 9/11," Moreno said. "It would be nice if they didn't disguise something that could blow up Manhattan with such a nice park, pool and carousel."
Marcus Simmons, 40, a construction worker from The Bronx, came to the park Thursday with his wife Laurel for a birthday celebration for their son.
"I didn't know there was a plant here," Laurel Simmons said. "It's not listed on any signs that there's a sewage treatment plant here."
Marcus Simmons said he wasn't that concerned about the plant because his family doesn't live in the neighborhood and uses the park infrequently.
"But if we came on a regular basis and had young kids, I would be concerned because you don't know what's in the air," he said.
Longtime Harlem resident William French, 48, a musician, said he was aware of the plant because he joined the fight 20 years ago against its construction. There's been so much turnover in the area with gentrification and condo conversions that French said the neighborhood is filled with newcomers.
But with a young son and not a lot of time to travel to another park, Riverbank is the best option.
French's son wanted to go to through the sprinklers, but they were closed.
"What park are we going to go to?" the boy asked.
"Unless we move, what else are we going to do? You can't keep a 4-year-old in the house," French said. "It's a great facility. It's just sad it has to be over a sewage treatment plant."