Why is Bay Ridge Collapsing?

08/15/2012 4:00 AM |


Courtesy Reanimation Library

At a bar in Bay Ridge recently, the owner jokes that there are 20,000 sinkholes in the neighborhood: not just the 10-foot-deep one that opened on 79th Street two weeks ago, or the 60-foot-deep one on 92nd Street a month before that, but another one in his buddy’s backyard, which the friend hasn’t reported because he doesn’t want the city—and a swarm of press photographers—descending on his property.

Bay Ridge is collapsing, and no one is sure why. Theories, however, abound.

Some have suggested that it’s National Grid’s fault—or Con Edison’s, or whoever’s! Residents say road work often precedes a sinkhole. The 79th Street one, officials said, was the result of a burst water main. (Sinkholes occur when water circulates below the surface, dissolving rock and forming caverns until there’s not enough support underground to keep the aboveground in tact.) Is it possible shoddy construction practices were to blame? Or was it merely the result of shoddy infrastructure? That isn’t just a New York problem, but a larger American problem: so much of our 21st-century structure is built atop 19th-century infrastructure. The pipes burst, we patch ‘em up, and then they burst again in a different spot.

But others say nobody should have ever built in Bay Ridge. See that “Ridge” in the name? That’s because the neighborhood is on a tall hillside, in two instances so steep that city-planning engineers couldn’t even cut streets through, and put up tall stone staircases instead. (Don’t try to drive all the way down 74th or 76th streets; you’ll be turned around.) One local theorized to the Times that “the soil was never stable to begin with.”

The recent sinkholes aren’t the neighborhood’s first. As recently as 2006, Bay Ridge made international news when a sinkhole opened on Fourth Avenue and nearly snatched an SUV, its rear tires, clinging precariously to the edge, the only things keeping it in the surface-world. Longtime locals interviewed by the Times had their own sinkhole stories from over the years: Cadillacs cruising down 78th Street only to get eaten up, trucks swallowed whole by the streets.

It’s not even just sinkholes anymore. In July, a vacant home on Ovington Avenue collapsed, sparking local activists to petition the city to condemn other vacated homes and preemptively tear them down. In early August, Shore Road Park had been littered with copious tree branches, knocked down during the last storm or two and simply pushed aside; one draped itself over a basketball hoop, like something out of Prypiat.

Sinkholes have become the biggest news in the neighborhood, more talked about than even the heated battle between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants. As the bar closes up, a different friend of the owner’s sticks his head in. “Have you heard about the sink-a-hole-uh?” he asks. “People are coming off the subway asking, ‘where’s the sinkhole?’”

“You gotta stick a Madonna in there,” he says.

One Comment

  • Why is it that no one seems to want to ask about Bay Ridge’s underlying geology? Where I come from, we grew up learning about karst topography and how sinkholes can rapidly form because limestone beneath the topsoil was being rapidly warn away by natural forces and by shoddy agricultural and development practices. Bay Ridge has been the heavily populated, 6-story-apartment-buildings-filled neighborhood that it is today for only about a century. Can we get a geologist interviewed and figure out if our development policies are aggravating a uniquely-vulnerable bedrock or somethin gof the sort?