Snakes, Spores and Sewage: Life in the Neighborhood Called ‘the Hole’

Snakes are not a typical concern for most New Yorkers. Yet this fall, Julisa Rodriguez nearly tripped over one in her backyard.

“I almost passed out,” said Ms. Rodriguez, 38, a stay-at-home mother of two. The snake’s appearance had followed a rat infestation, a septic tank leak, groundwater pooling in her living room and mushroom-like spores growing on her walls. None of this was surprising, she said, when you live in the Hole.

Sitting along the border between Brooklyn and Queens, the Hole is a poor, sunken neighborhood, about four miles from Kennedy International Airport, with small buildings surrounded by vacant lots, wild-growing reed grass, and streets dotted with potholes and abandoned cars.

Also known as the Jewel Streets (street names include Ruby, Emerald and Amber), the swampy area sits at one of the lowest elevations in the city, about four feet above sea level. For this reason, it is not connected to the sewer system — residences rely on septic tanks and cesspools — and the streets flood just about every time it rains.

Long romanticized as an oddity of a neighborhood, the Hole has been used as a burial ground (possibly by the mob), a de facto junk yard and a hub for people who live out of their vehicles. But Ms. Rodriguez has made her home here, as have as many as 300 other residents, who have learned to navigate the snakes and soaked streets.

Julisa and Carlos Rodriguez bought a home in the Hole 15 years ago. It flooded about a week later.

Perhaps no other neighborhood in the city better illustrates the challenges of climate change than the Hole. “All of those extremes are already happening here,” said Felicia Singh, a community activist who lives nearby.

As rising sea levels elevate the groundwater table, drainage and sewage flooding are becoming more severe here, even though the neighborhood is miles from the ocean. The area has a broader history “not as solid land but as part of the coastal environment of Jamaica Bay,” said Kara Murphy Schlichting, an associate history professor at Queens College.

As such, the Hole is facing a central question that many environmentalists and city planners say other flood-prone regions around the city and country could confront some day: Can the neighborhood be saved or should residents move out and abandon it to the elements?

“From a geological point of view, it’s not an area that should ever have been settled in the first place,” said Klaus H. Jacob, a climate expert at Columbia University who focuses on disaster risk management. But the low-lying neighborhood — tucked between a mega-shopping center, several high-rises and straddling Linden Boulevard — is not likely to be condemned by city officials, who are also contending with a housing crisis.

In June, city officials and local organizers started to hold meetings with residents about how to make the Hole a more livable place, with the goal of publishing a resiliency plan sometime in the spring. Mayor Eric Adams has committed $75 million to the project.

Currently, all ideas for improving the Hole are on the table, city officials said, from elevating the streets, to developing housing on higher ground nearby, to designing green spaces with retention ponds for natural drainage, to buyouts of residents.

A flooded intersection at Blake and 77th Streets in the neighborhood.

Ms. Rodriguez is hoping for a buyout. Fifteen years ago, she and her husband, Carlos, moved into what they believed was the perfect starter home. It was on a quiet street, had a yard and the price was right.

“All hell broke loose” about a week after they moved in, Ms. Rodriguez said.

Every time it rained, they would get a foot of water coming up from the floor, she said. They installed five sump pumps, and placed dehumidifiers and air purifiers around the house. The flooding stopped. Until Hurricane Ida hit the city.

“There was so much water,” Ms. Rodriguez said. Her father, a contractor, proposed a novel solution: installing a French drainage system — usually done outside or in basements — inside the home, on the main floor. The risky project, executed out of desperation, paid off. “It works beautifully,” she said.

But the Rodriguez house is an oasis in this waterlogged neighborhood. The family still must contend with flooding streets and a vacant lot a block away, commandeered by a man who may be mentally unstable and has started swinging a baseball bat around to claim his turf. “I would leave without hesitation,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

She will have to wait. It’s still unclear whether a managed retreat program, with buyouts of homes, will be offered to residents.

Mohammed Doha, another homeowner, wants to stay.

Mohammed Doha, a homeowner, in front of a building he owns in the neighborhood. He said he thinks the city should elevate the streets.

Mr. Doha, 53, a general contractor, believes in the neighborhood’s potential, even though his house seems more like a boat whenever it rains, he said.

Mr. Doha thinks that the city should invest in the area by elevating its streets and connecting homes to the sewer system. “What a valuable piece of land New York City owns just a few minutes from J.F.K. International Airport,” he said.

Rohit Aggarwala, the city’s climate chief, who is helping develop the resiliency plan, said that his office is considering elevating the streets. But doing so would require installing another pump station in the area, which would be expensive. A more practical plan, he surmised, “is probably a combination of green infrastructure and drainage upgrades that use the existing pump station.”

Bianca Bautista in her home on Amber Street. She will be moving soon.

Bianca Bautista, who has been renting an apartment in the Hole for six years, will not be waiting for a possible buyout or for the neighborhood to improve. By the end of the year, she must leave her home.

Conditions there became unbearable, she said, so Brooklyn Legal Services brokered a deal between the landlord and the tenants for them to vacate the property, with a small payout. Ms. Bautista is the last tenant in the three-story building.

Ms. Bautista never goes into her backyard, where the cesspool, prone to overflowing, is. When it backs up, human excrement comes up through her bathtub, she said. When it rains, her street floods and garbage collectors and delivery workers won’t come down it. Mold grows on her children’s clothes.

Ms. Bautista’s apartment building is not hooked up to the city sewer system; sewage is piped out of her bathroom through a system of leaky pipes that is draining directly into the backyard.

Dr. Jacob, the climate expert at Columbia, said that it would be ideal for much of the neighborhood to revert to what it used to be: a green valley with a creek and marsh area. But he also understands the need for housing. He would just like to see it on higher ground nearby, and for city officials to approach the area with sensitivity.

“The neighborhood has a very special character that’s hard to replace,” he said.

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