Snakes, spores and sewage: life in the neighborhood called 'the Hole'


Snakes are not a typical concern for most New Yorkers. However, this fall, Julisa Rodríguez almost tripped over one in her backyard.

“I almost fainted,” said Rodriguez, 38, a stay-at-home mother of two. The snake's appearance came after a rat infestation, a septic tank leak, groundwater pooling in her living room, and fungus-like spores growing on her walls. None of this was surprising, she said, when she lived in the Hole.

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

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

Long romanticized as an odd neighborhood, Hole has been used as a cemetery (possibly by the mafia), a de facto junkyard, and a center for people living out of their vehicles. But Ms. Rodriguez has made her home here, like 300 other residents, who have learned to navigate the snakes and soggy streets.

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

As sea level rise raises the water table, drainage and sewage flooding is becoming more severe here, even though the neighborhood is miles from the ocean. The area has a broader history “not as a mainland but as part of the coastal environment of Jamaica Bay,” said Kara Murphy Schlichting, associate professor of history at Queens College.

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

“From a geological point of view, it is not an area that should ever have been settled,” said Klaus H. Jacob, a climate expert at Columbia University who specializes in disaster risk management. But the slum neighborhood, tucked between a mega-mall, several skyscrapers and both sides of Linden Boulevard, is not likely to be condemned by city officials, who are also grappling with a housing crisis.

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

Currently, all ideas to improve the Hole are on the table, city officials said, from raising streets to developing housing on nearby higher ground to designing green spaces with retention ponds for natural drainage and resident acquisitions.

Mrs. Rodríguez is waiting for a purchase. 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 patio, and the price was fair.

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

Every time it rained, a foot of water would come out of the ground, he said. They installed five sump pumps and placed dehumidifiers and air purifiers throughout the house. The floods 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 drain system, which is usually done outside or in basements. inside the house, on the main floor. The risky project, executed out of desperation, paid off. “It works wonderfully,” he said.

But the Rodríguez house is an oasis in this flooded neighborhood. The family must still contend with flooded streets and a vacant lot a block away, commanded by a man who may be mentally unstable and has taken to swinging a baseball bat to claim his territory. “I would leave without hesitation,” Ms. Rodríguez said.

You'll have to wait. It is not yet clear whether a managed retirement program, with home purchases, will be offered to residents.

Mohammed Doha, another owner, wants to stay.

Doha, 53, a general contractor, believes in the neighborhood's potential, although his house looks more like a boat every time it rains, he said.

Doha believes the city should invest in the area by raising its streets and connecting houses to the sewage system. “What valuable land New York City owns just minutes from JFK International Airport,” he said.

Rohit Aggarwala, the city's climate chief, who is helping develop the resilience plan, said his office is considering raising streets. But doing so would require installing another pumping station in the area, which would be expensive. A more practical plan, he surmised, “is likely to be a combination of green infrastructure and drainage improvements that utilize the existing pump station.”

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

Conditions there became unbearable, he said, so Brooklyn Legal Services negotiated an agreement between the landlord and the tenants to vacate the property, with a small payment. Ms. Bautista is the last tenant of the three-story building.

Mrs. Bautista never goes to her backyard, where the cesspool is, prone to overflowing. When she backs away, human waste comes out through her bathtub, she said. When it rains, its streets flood and the garbage collectors and delivery people do not go down them. Mold grows on her children's clothes.

Dr. Jacob, a Columbia climate expert, said it would be ideal for much of the neighborhood to return to what it used to be: a green valley with a stream and a swampy area. But he also understands the need for housing. He would just like to see it on nearby, elevated ground, and for city officials to approach the area sensitively.

“The neighborhood has a very special character that is difficult to replace,” he said.

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