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.”
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.