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NYC Mystery: Not a Pothole, a “Street Defect”

By October 6, 2011July 8th, 2014No Comments

In a city like New York there is a subterranean world. Pet alligators once flushed down toilets are rumored to roam the sewers – an apocryphal tale – and the drinking water system is said to leak like a sieve (true, as it turns out).

There is evidence of secret tunnels in Queens connecting what once were two forts (Totten and Schuyler). “Invisible New York – The Hidden Infrastructure of the City” by Stanley Greenberg (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and “Invisible Frontier: Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York,” by L.B. Deyo and David Leibowitz (Three Rivers Press, 2003) each treat these realms with respect, awe, fear and no lack of humor. The movie, In Search of the Mole People, documents an underground world of people squatting in the tunnels adjoining the subway system as a follow-up to the book, “The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City” (Jennifer Toth, Chicago Review Press, 1995). Both revisit the theme created by a 1950s B movie, The Mole People (which includes a character played by Hugh Beaumont, who later starred as dad Ward Cleaver in the “Leave it to Beaver” television series).

The books, movies and urban legends all suggest one thing: something unknown and possibly dangerous lurks beneath our feet and car tires.

So it would seem when mysterious holes appear on a street, people would get nervous. That more or less happened in August and September 2011 in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, on Flatlands Avenue near East 38th Street (the Marine Park neighborhood). But the question is, were they nervous about the right things?

As first discovered, the local citizenry mistook two pavement defects for potholes. Engaged in keeping the neighborhood functional, several reported the “potholes” to the city’s 3-1-1 number. One of those complainers was actually a former city commissioner who oversaw the taxi and limousine department. He ominously described it as “movie-monster-type-big.” (A coincidental choice of words? We think not.)

But the city’s Department of Transportation responded to complainers by telling them they could not fix the faux potholes because in fact each was a “street defect.” Not their department, the department explained, pointing out how a pothole has a “definable bottom.” This, the NYCDOT contended, is a “cave-in…[with a] jagged hole and a deep void.”

Deep void indeed. Note that the street defects were both large divots, with center holes allowing people to peer into them to see if there were definable bottoms – if they dared to get so close. City inspectors had looked and apparently saw no definable bottom.

So the NYCDOT kicked the problem over to the Department of Environmental Protection, under the assumption the fissures are related to crumbling sewers (what has been found to be the cause of many such street defects in the past). For future reference, New Yorkers should visit the “What Street Defects Look Like” page on the NYCDOT website, where such features as potholes, cave-ins, hummocks, utility cuts and “ponding conditions” are described. The more people know, the more accurately they can report problems to the city.

In The Mole People, the population of people living underground perceived a source of light – a hole joining them from their subterranean world to the sun-exposed earth’s surface – to be a deity they call the “Eye of Ishtar.”  Has no one in Brooklyn seen this movie??

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