Clement Bailey didn’t know what to expect when he moved from Flatbush just as the city shut down in March 2020.
He’d bought a two-family house in The Hole, a low-lying neighborhood wedged between South Conduit Avenue and Linden Boulevard that straddles the border lines of East New York, Brooklyn, and Lindenwood, Queens.
Some call it the “Jewel Streets” neighborhood, for thoroughfares with sparkling names like Sapphire, Emerald, Amber and Ruby. But the area sits below the city’s municipal sewer network. With swampy flooding, septic seepage and illegal dumping, the atmosphere is lackluster.
“I can’t stand these conditions, honestly. I’m not used to living like this,” said Bailey, 29. “Everything inside the house is pretty peaceful, but when you step outside the door, you have to deal with all the water issues, the garbage issues. It’s not really appealing.”
A construction worker, he bought the house for his mother and sister to live in. But his mother died last year, and so he’s been living there with his sister.
In The Hole, many homes aren’t serviced by the city’s sewers and instead use septic tanks, which tend to overflow when there’s rain. There are no stormwater drains, so Bailey and his neighbors often navigate lakes of standing water in the streets. Abandoned vehicles sit in empty lots. Paved roads are inconsistent. Strewn trash abounds.
And it’s been this way for decades.
Plans to address the issues have long been stuck in the muck: Twenty years ago, the Giuliani administration proposed elevating the streets and installing sewers in the area. The plan’s been included in the city’s capital budget for at least two decades. Yet nothing was ever done. The most recent “request for proposals” on the project went out in 2019, but remains on hold, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Now local groups, like one formed at the start of the pandemic, East New York Community Land Trust, are working with residents to renew a push for an adequate sewer system in the area.
The deadly aftermath of Hurricane Ida also shined a new spotlight on the inadequacy of the city’s drainage system in general, the importance of managing flooding and the limitations of infrastructure interventions to fight climate change.
‘We Shouldn’t Have to Live Like This’
Bailey pays a service $200 at least once a month to empty his septic tank. He’s got a sump pump to keep water out of his basement, but using the pump results in the septic tank filling up faster. He said it’s difficult to walk or drive in the streets when they’re flooded, like when Ida waterlogged the neighborhood for weeks.
“On one hand you’re a young person, trying to do something better for yourself and for your family. On the other hand, it’s just another stress,” Bailey said.
David Lopez, a retired postal worker, has owned a four-unit home on Dumont Street on the Queens side of The Hole since 1987. He has lived in one of the apartments for over a decade, after having moved from Ozone Park during the 2008 recession, and rents the other three to tenants.
“I’d like to see, in my lifetime, some sewers,” Lopez, 71, told THE CITY. “It’s not right, here in the richest country in the world, and one of the richest cities in the world, in the country, we still don’t have sewers,” he said. “It’s disgusting that we should have to live like this.”
The city’s 2019 request for proposals envisioned reconstructing eight streets in the neighborhood, as well as install storm and sanitary sewers and water mains in nine areas.
‘As a historian of coastal land, I am never surprised when water returns to places that it used to go.’
But when the Department of Environmental Protection changed the scope of the project to possibly include more nature-based designs, it stalled.
A spokesperson for the city Department of Design and Construction confirmed the agency has no projects in design or scheduled for the area.
Since as early as 2002, the city has included in its capital budgets a project to improve the streets of The Hole and add sewers. The project was first created in 1999, according to information from the Independent Budget Office. Each year, funding rolled over for the project, which was originally estimated to cost about $37 million.
DEP spokesperson Ted Timbers did not directly clarify why the project has been delayed for so many years. “The challenge with rebuilding roadways and creating a drainage system for the area has always been the topography – because the area lies below the surrounding roadways and sewers, the entire area would need to be raised, which would be very costly and would require funding from several different sources,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
The city already spent over $2.6 million — and possibly as much as $3.1 million — on the project for work on street reconstruction and water mains, records show.
Lopez heard from the city about that project back in 1999, when he says he was told it would result in new storm drainage systems and sewers. But the project— presented again to Queens Community Board 10 in 2013 — never materialized.
Timbers said engineers are exploring alternative long-term solutions for the area that incorporate both nature-based and traditionally constructed designs, and the department will unveil new plans in the coming months.
Lopez is hopeful but not convinced. Since he’s lived in The Hole, he’s seen other efforts to organize the neighborhood and push for sewerage ebb and flow as neighbors moved away or died.
“I’m an optimistic skeptic. When the shovels are here and the disruption begins, then I’ll believe,” Lopez said. He later added, “I don’t believe it’ll happen in my lifetime.”
Up Out of the Mire
Community groups and some residents see potential to develop the area in a way that maintains its affordability, given that it is close to an express subway stop on the A train and not far from Kennedy Airport.
This February, about 40 residents and other stakeholders sent a letter to local officials and the city Departments of Transportation, Environmental Protection, and Design and Construction calling for the city to install sewer and stormwater drainage systems in the neighborhood, include community feedback in the design process and incorporate into the plan green infrastructure, such as a park with a retention pond.
They also asked for a reassessment of property taxes for homeowners who don’t receive sewer services and for the city to take action against illegal dumping in the neighborhood.
“This community has been waiting too long for very basic services,” said Meredith McNair, a community planner for Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, one of the organizations that has been engaging the residents and looking to develop the area. “They are living in conditions that one would never expect to find in New York City, and climate change is only going to make it worse as more severe rainstorms and sea level rise worsen the flooding in this neighborhood.”
‘A Place Where People Probably Shouldn’t Be Living’
Other than adding proper sewage and drainage systems, Lopez said he’s open to the city rezoning the area for commercial use in the hopes of being able to turn a profit from the space.
He also floated the idea of the city purchasing the homeowners’ properties with the aim of redeveloping the area in a more resilient way or returning it to nature.
City Hall is eying instating such a program for flood-prone areas, THE CITY previously reported. A buyout or acquisition program would run counter to investment in sewers, and could make sense for a community like The Hole, experts said.
“I’m sad to say this is just yet another example of a place in New York City where probably people shouldn’t be living because it was built on top of an old salt marsh,” said Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Given climate change, the long term success here is actually probably to restore these areas and the adjacent areas back to being nature, marshes and streams that can collect the stormwater and then take it out to the bay,” he added.
Climate change will result in more rain, more intense and frequent storms and a water table that rises as the sea levels do — all factors that curtail the effectiveness and longevity of gray and green infrastructure solutions, according to Sanderson’s research.
The Hole’s conditions, even with its history of disinvestment, may signal what’s to come for more areas of the city as the climate crisis worsens.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developers filled in local marshlands to allow people to live in those areas. About 150 square miles of estuary — roughly half the size of New York City — has been filled in, said Kara Murphy Schlichting, an associate professor of history at Queens College.
“As a historian of coastal land, I am never surprised when water returns to places that it used to go,” she said. “Neighborhoods like The Hole force us to realize that we live in a city built on an estuary and that tendency [to become soggy] is there whether or not it is convenient to the real estate market, or the city’s infrastructure.”
But the success of a buyout or acquisition program requires near full community buy-in and adequate funds to allow residents to move elsewhere, experts and housing advocates said.
“People who live here and want to stay here should be able to stay here,” said Izoria Fields, vice president of the East New York Community Land Trust. “Once you move, where do you go? You can’t go anywhere at the same cost of living.”
‘This Fits Right In’
In the meantime, Lopez and his neighbors have been making do.
He added a sidewalk around his property, which allows him to stand on dry land while on a flooded street. He said the flooding in the neighborhood worsened when a vacant lot across the street from him was paved with asphalt. He had to gut his waterlogged first floor, move wiring to the ceiling and fill in a crawl space so his living area begins about a foot higher, he said.
Lopez said he and his neighbors installed a series of makeshift pumps in a pothole to keep water out of the street, but the latest iteration of the pump system gave out in the winter and the street has remained flooded ever since.
“I spent sleepless nights thinking, how do I solve this problem?” he said.
Now that’s a question some residents are trying to get local politicians to seriously ponder.
In early March, the East New York Community Land Trust led a briefing for representatives of several elected officials, including from the Queens and Brooklyn borough presidents’ offices, city comptroller, Councilmember Joann Ariola, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, State Sens. Roxanne Persaud and Joe Addabbo, and Assemblymembers Stacey Pheffer Amato and Nikki Lucas.
The local electeds were also invited to tour the neighborhood, which Councilmember Charles Barron, who represents the Brooklyn side of The Hole, did on a recent Sunday. He shook hands with residents and promised them to get the work done.
“We got to be committed to doing it this time because this is a damn shame,” said Barron, who has represented the area in either the Council or Albany almost continuously since 2002. “We’ve known about this for years.”
Barron chalked up the potential to break the decades-long pattern of delay to the newly increased community pressure and the recent changing of the political guards.
He will have to come together with Republican Councilmember Joanne Ariola, who represents the Queens side of the neighborhood, to figure out a strategy that breaks through decades of inaction.
In 2002, Ariola was a member of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s community assistance unit, and at the time called for a multi-agency task force to address the problems in The Hole.
Twenty years later, she told THE CITY she’s still pushing for the city to take action.
“The dream project would be to see this community brought up to grade and receive the necessary sewers that they need,” Ariola said. “I will try my hardest to help them in any way that I can to make sure that they can have an area that is flood-free. We’re all about resiliency and mitigating floods, so this fits right in.”