Two large sections of bulkhead on the Queens side of Newtown Creek collapsed into the water on Sunday during coastal flooding, damaging a sailboat and nearly cutting others loose into the industrial channel.
The damaged bulkhead sits at the dead end of Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City, on the north side of the polluted creek that separates Queens from Greenpoint, East Williamsburg, and Bushwick. The tides were two-and-a-half feet higher than normal early Sunday morning, lifting boats and coursing under the already-crumbling pavement.
“I woke up this morning and saw the high tide and then noticed a big gap in the wall, like it was completely gone” said sailor Phillip Anthony Borbon, who keeps a boat on the creek. “The concrete cut boat lines when it fell, so one of the sailboats had only one rope holding it and it was bumping into another boat where a guy is living.” Borbon added that the boat’s mast, which was used to tie up to shore, was torn off.
The situation was even more precarious for the occupant of a second boat; hers was tied to the mastless boat and another, but not to shore at all. She declined to be identified for this article, describing herself as a 29-year old artist, educator, and writer from Amityville, Long Island. She noted that the damaged boat had been tied to a dead tree and a ladder ashore affixed to the bulkhead. The boats have since been retied.
The occupant said she paid $450 a month in cash to live aboard, but was told that while the toilet works, she shouldn’t use it.
“I just moved in last week. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not bad rent in New York City and I had to move really quickly,” she said. “I paid two months and if it goes well I’ll take it month by month.”
The owner, identified by other sailors as David Hirsch, also has up to a half-dozen more sailboats on that part of the creek, and advertises them on Craigslist and Couchsurfing. One ad spotted by Gothamist this fall offered housing and sailing lessons for $600 per month, but described the location as Astoria. Hirsch did not respond to a request for comment.
Borbon says some fellow sailors contributed to the bulkhead collapse by tying and chaining their boats to it.
“Every time a barge came through the wake would rock the boats and pull on the wall,” he said.
Infrastructure in the area has been decaying for years—311 records show five complaints of street cave-ins within a one-block radius of the bulkhead in the past year. Several were referred to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection while the Department of Transportation reported that it would repair one of the sinkholes. Community Board 2 has also discussed the bulkhead and the concerns about sailboats dumping raw sewage into the creek.
US Coast Guard Sector New York Chief Operations Specialist Steven Allard said that the Vernon street end situation “doesn’t look like it makes a big impact to the waterway itself, so as of right now it’s a city issue. They should be the ones looking into it.”
Yet it's unclear who exactly is responsible for repairing the bulkhead. The NYC Sheriff’s Department is responsible for small vessels sunken along shorelines but has yet to take action. A spokesperson for the Department of Design and Construction suggested it was the DOT's responsibility.
A DOT spokesperson said that the bulkhead is not under the agency's jurisdiction.
A spokesperson for the DEP said the bulkhead isn't their issue, but suggested that a local team would check to see if the fallen cement blocks are blocking the sewer outfall at the end of Vernon Blvd. The DEP spokesperson said they believed the DOT is responsible for the bulkhead.
"The lack of attention to this important part of Newtown creek is sad and shows a failing of City Agencies to properly maintain our Infrastructure," said New York City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer.
Van Bramer represents Hunters Point in District 26, and wrote to the NYC Sheriff’s Department and the NYC Department of Design and Construction in October about the sunken boats and failing bulkhead.
"The bureaucratic morass that tied up this issue is unacceptable," Van Bramer added.
Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman proposes that the city create a real marina somewhere on the Newtown Creek.
“Unidentified people have tied unidentified boats off to a concrete block on the shoreline that’s above the G train and the Buckeye pipeline, which is strange in the age of terror if you ask me. But again, welcome to Queens.”
Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, several boats sank on the Queens side of Newtown Creek, including one where part of the same bulkhead fell into it. Earlier this year the NYPD Harbor Unit arrested a sailor who the Newtown Creek Alliance reported was attempting to scuttle his boat.
“This is now a hazardous condition,” Waxman said. He requested that Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan’s office put in a request with the NYPD today for barriers to prevent accidents at the newly naked edge.
The crumbling two-block stretch where Vernon Boulevard meets the Newtown Creek is cut off from LIC’s restaurant row by Long Island Rail Road tracks and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel entrance, and has grown increasingly active in recent years. Anchor QEA, a major contractor in the US Environmental Protection Agency-directed Superfund cleanup of the creek is on the west side of the dead end, while the Circus Warehouse is on the east. A man also rents his trailer as a mobile Airbnb crash pad.
HarborLAB, an environmental group on the Circus Warehouse property has lobbied for the street end to be repaired and improved with a sitting park that absorbs rainwater and supports Monarch butterflies. [Disclosure: The author of this piece is the director of HarborLAB.]
In 2006, when the street end was already becoming dilapidated, New Yorkers for Parks produced a Vernon Boulevard bulkhead redesign in cooperation with residents and creek stakeholders. It was never implemented. In early 2015 the Parks Commissioner for Queens, Dorothy Lewandowski, disowned the issue in correspondence with HarborLAB.
After Sunday's collapse, a DEP spokesperson said the agency is "investigating the feasibility of installing green infrastructure at this location."
[UPDATE // January 12] This afternoon, Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for the mayor, emailed us this statement:
The Mayor’s office has ordered all relevant agencies to quickly secure the damaged section of shoreline along Newtown Creek in Queens. On Sunday, a section of bulkhead fell into the creek during a heavy rainstorm that coincided with high tide, damaging a private boat. In the interest of public safety, the Department of Transportation has deployed a barrier to deter pedestrian traffic and vehicle parking at the end of Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City and to prevent further deterioration of the area. The Department of Small Business Services is also working with boat owners to remove vessels tied to the wall to reduce the risk of injuries and property damage. Divers are currently in the water assessing the damage so we can quickly repair the bulkhead and restore public access to this section of the Queens waterfront.
Erik Baard is a native New Yorker and freelance writer. The New York state government designated him the "Greenest New Yorker" for his environmental volunteer projects.