When David Lopez, 71, bought an apartment building in “the Hole” 35 years ago, the area felt rustic to him.
The neighborhood’s unpaved streets reminded him of the tiny villages in the mountains of Puerto Rico where he spent his early childhood. He was enamored with the trees and open space, and the dogs that would laze around in the dusty streets basking in the sun.
“It was idyllic,” he said. It was also drier. “Back then there was less cement, less asphalt, and the water was able to drain out and we would have large dry spells.”
But a few years after he moved in, the city paved the streets without ever connecting the 20-square block stretch to the surrounding sewer system. It’s flooded regularly ever since.
The neighborhood, home to several dozen mostly Black and brown residents, straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border on either side of Linden Boulevard and is built on top of an old creek bed. Roads into The Hole slant sharply down, roughly a 15-foot decline from the surrounding streets and homes. When it rains it inevitably floods. Septic tanks often overflow as well, and with no sewers for the water to filter into, the roadways are often waterlogged for days with putrid waste. On the fringes of boroughs and multiple electoral districts, The Hole sits as a monument to political apathy and neglect — the kind that would likely be untenable in richer, whiter neighborhoods.
But city officials are launching yet another push to do something about the long-neglected Hole — also known as “the Jewel Streets” for the blocks named after precious stones like Ruby, Emerald, Amber and Sapphire. This week, a parade of city workers from the Departments of Transportation, Environmental Protection and Design and Construction joined a smattering of elected officials to walk through the streets — there are no public sidewalks — dodging gaping potholes and large ponds of murky water that sit stagnant despite it not having rained for nearly a week.
“We’re all trying to work together to come up with a master plan for this whole neighborhood and that’s been very complicated and very expensive,” Vincent Sapienza, the chief operations officer at the Department of Environmental Protection, told Gothamist. “Maybe if we can try to peel off a block here and a block there and get those solved in a shorter period of time, that’s the path forward.”
“There’s certainly a lot of political will at this point and that’s what it needs to get it pushed over the goal line,” he said.
But longtime residents of the scruffy quadrant say they’re deeply skeptical. City officials have been promising them a sewer system for decades. A Department of Design and Construction Request for Proposals that first went out in 2003 was punted year after year, with the current estimate for when the contract should be awarded in June of 2022 and an estimated timeline for completion in 2024. City records indicated $37 million had been set aside for the project. But it’s possible that the original plan, which was to raise all the streets in the neighborhood so they could be connected to the sewer system on either side, will be scrapped altogether.
“Engineers are currently advancing other long-term solutions – exploring both grey and green infrastructure options – which would be less costly and disruptive to the community,” said DEP spokesperson Edward Timbers. “We hope to have more information to share with the community in the coming months.”
During decades of inaction by the city, residents in the Hole have had no other option but to make due. Some homeowners have built moats around their property to keep flood water out and built up their own sidewalks. Others jerry-rigged an extension cord from a power pole to hook up an electric pump to suck water out of one of the intersections and shoot it into a nearby vacant lot. Lopez said he regularly dumps rocks into the ever-widening potholes in front of his house. But many say they’re tired of fending for themselves.
“I’m fed up,” said Julisa Rodriguez, 37, lives with her husband, who works as a doorman in a Manhattan apartment building, and their two young kids. Their home often is surrounded by floodwaters which freeze in the winter. One time she slipped and fell while she was pregnant and the ambulance she called couldn’t make it down the sharp incline to render aid. Even with four sump-pumps in the basement and dehumidifiers in every room, she said there’s no way to escape the humidity. Her 7-year-old son has chronic asthma and she often rushes him to her mother’s house, where the air is clearer, when he’s having an attack.
“I want answers,” Rodriguez said. “Where is the money? When is it going to be done? I hear that they have to elevate the streets. What’s going to happen to my house?”
Beyond the flooding, the neighborhood has other unsavory characteristics. Cat-sized rats scamper around in broad daylight, clouds of mosquitoes hover in the swampy air, come summer. While the area was once an infamous dumping ground for the bodies of enemies of John Gotti and the Gambino crime family, now it’s mostly a regular dumping ground for more mundane trash: broken down cars, abandoned RVs, trucks, construction vehicles and supplies.
“I call it the boondocks, where everybody come and drop their trash,” said Marylin Toro, 68, a Section 8 renter who’s lived in an apartment in the neighborhood for 13 years. She’s been trying for years to secure a place elsewhere with no success. “All these cars and trucks that don’t belong here. They dump all the trash here at night. It’s ridiculous.”
Over the past several months, around three dozen residents, organized by the East New York Community Land Trust, have begun another push to get the city to pay attention to them. They sent a letter to city agencies in February demanding the city install the promised sewer system and ramp up enforcement of illegal dumping, The City reported. When the remnants of Hurricane Ida deluged the five boroughs, parts of The Hole were predictably inundated. The Queens Chronicle reported there was standing water in the streets for weeks.
“It was like you needed a kayak to get from end to end,” said Keron Alleyne, the deputy district manager for East New York’s Community Board 5. Scientists predict wetter, fiercer storms as the climate warms, and a costly sewage project that hasn’t broken ground yet will take years to come to fruition. Some residents are pushing for the city to turn vacant land in the area back into a pond or swamp area to trap excess stormwater that would help mitigate flooding right away.
“In seven years we could be hit with seven [more storms]. So we don’t have time to waste,” Alleyne said, adding he doubted the same type of systemic disinvestment would happen in richer, whiter neighborhoods. “We gotta get action.”
Ida reinvigorated a call from some homeowners for the city to move to buy them out of their flood-prone properties, similar to what it did for some homeowners in Edgemere on the Rockaway Peninsula after Hurricane Sandy. Residents of a section of Hollis, built on top of land that was once a pond, began rallying behind a similar request last fall.
Rodriguez said she’d leave The Hole in a heartbeat.
“I’m fed up,” Rodriguez said. “So why not buy me out? I’ll leave.”
At the culmination of Monday’s tour, Councilmember Charles Barron made city officials promise to bring some kind of plan back to the neighbors within three weeks time, though several city representatives seemed reluctant to commit and indicated they were not sure what they’d have to report back by then.
“I’ve heard it all before. Kicking the can down the road,” Lopez said, walking back to his home after the walking tour. “It’s all same old, same old.”
He added, though, he’d never seen a commissioner or other city officials walking the streets and witnessing the conditions he dealt with on a daily basis first-hand. That, he said, offered him a little hope.
“Could they live like this?” he wondered. “Who knows.”