The Streets in Bay Ridge Are Collapsing Again

64th Street Sinkhole
The 64th Street Sinkhole. Via the Wall Street Journal

A massive sinkhole opened two weeks ago, just over the Bay Ridge border, on Fifth Avenue and 64th Street, but in the meantime smaller sinkholes have also been spotted: a crew was seen repairing a chunk of collapsed asphalt on 78th Street, near Third Avenue, for days last week, and a woman on the BAY RIDGE Facebook group reports seeing cave-ins around the sewer drain on the corner of 75th and Sixth. It recalls this time three years ago, when the famous 79th Street sinkhole was only the biggest; don’t forget the sizeable one on 92nd Street before it, and others reported by locals.

I asked Josephine Beckmann, district manager of the local community board, by email if she’d heard about any other sinkholes recently. “Well, other than the 48 sinkholes along the Shore Road Promenade, from the 69th Street Pier to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, that are being fixed in an emergency contract by NYC Parks?” she wrote back (ha!), and then supplied a list of 17 other recurring sinkholes and cave-ins in the district, most in Dyker Heights but several of which are in Bay Ridge, including one on 76th Street, between Fifth and Sixth, another on 78th Street, between Fourth and Fifth, and a third on Third Avenue, between 78th and 79th streets—all within a block or so of the two minisinkholes that we already heard of ourselves in the last 10 days! (The list was forwarded to the department of transportation, which will investigate and determine their eligibility to be repaired as part of an appropriate capital project.)

Sinkholes form when water gets below the surface of the street, wearing away the rock, creating empty space until the street no longer has a foundation to rest upon—which explains why the most are on a wave-beaten road adjacent to the waterfront. It’s believed our recent sinkholes are usually caused by aging infrastructure—leaky or busted pipes. “Sewer system is 100 years old,” State Senator Marty Golden wrote on Facebook in response to the post about the Bay Ridge Parkway hole. “infrastructure needs to be replaced. We had a meeting with DOT commissioner and now requesting a meeting with DEP commissioner the city agencies that deal with these issues.”

Developing sinkhole on 78th Street
78th Street, just west of Fifth Avenue. A sinkhole waiting to happen? Photo by Hey Ridge

But locals have their own ideas about why it seems like our streets are always falling apart. “It seemed every Bay Ridge resident had become a sinkhole expert,” the Times reported three years ago, after the 79th Street sinkhole. “Some speculated that the soil had been weakened after utility repairs earlier in the week. [One man] advanced another theory: because the neighborhood was originally built into a hillside, he said, the soil was never stable to begin with.”

Others have suggested to me in the past that it could be geological-political in origin—that perhaps development policies could have worn away the bedrock. Still others point to underground water sources. “Seaside cities like ours aren’t naturally devoid of small waterways,” I once wrote for Brooklyn Magazine: “dock your ship in 1492 near present-day New York and you’d encounter creeks, ponds, streams, springs, marshes and more that have long since been built over, drained or filled in, making the coastline the definitive boundary between water and dry land.”

This is true of Bay Ridge; the entire Fort Hamilton army base area was once marshland, and the Van Brunt family had a pond on their property near the present-day Brooklyn Market. (You can see Otto Heinigke’s 19th-century watercolor paintings of it reprinted in Matthew Scarpa’s book Old Bay Ridge and Ovington Village.) In the 1980s, PS 185 closed briefly for boiler repair, which, the story went, had begun to sink because the school was built atop a vestigial stream, a waterway I also once heard complained about by a member of the Salvation Army up the block from the school. (And these are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head!)

These theories haven’t been lent credence by any officials, but doesn’t it seem like there must be some cause that makes our streets more susceptible to sinkholes (or super sinkholes), or at least to broken water mains, than most other neighborhoods’? After all, the Sunset sinkhole this month is the Greater Bay Ridge area’s fourth in less than a decade to make citywide if not international headlines.

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2 comments on “The Streets in Bay Ridge Are Collapsing Again

  1. Much of this can be attributed to New York City’s old and deteriorating underground infrastructure. Everything underground – all the things we never think about – but rely on every day – are well over 100 years old and operating far beyond their useful life expectancy. While this may be the nature of the aging infrastructure situation in many large cities, we cannot simply sit on our hands; I think we need to be more proactive to prevent this from ever happening again by addressing the integrity of our city’s underground infrastructure. Problem is, for the past 20 years in New York City we’ve built up and never once thought to look down. When I was working for Councilman Gentile, we asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – the lead agency in all beach erosion projects, which are generally financed 65% by the federal government, with state and city paying the rest of the tab – to conduct a study of this area and its relationship to the sewer system and the soil, formed by the glacial moraine, which is like a harder version of clay. CoE denied our request citing astronomical costs and unavailable resources. I wouldn’t be surprised if that had something to do with the amount of sinkholes we see around here.

    1. Well said, Justin. As a history teacher in the neighborhood, I focus on our local History as it ties in with a more global perspective. One of the things that plagues our neighborhood is overcrowding and overuse. It’s rampant in our schools, in our dwellings and on our streets. On top of the natural historical topography, which I know has something to do with these sink holes, we have a neighborhood built up during a time when geological surveys weren’t nearly as comprehensive as they are now. Those three things combined contribute massively to this recent phenomenon. It’s probably even worse than it appears on the outside…I know PS 104’s basement/cafeteria has been leaning more and more as the years pass, and its taking it’s toll on the rest of the building with cracks (structural and cosmetic) appearing on all the floors. While private homes may not be as dramatically affected because of lighter use, many public buildings (like schools and the 68) and apartment buildings built (mostly pre-war during the period Bay Ridge has shown the most growth) will be. Let’s hope the city takes care of these issues before it becomes more than just property damage.

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