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Photo by Bill Parry
Rev. Lisa Jenkin’s basement is rendered uninhabitable after decades of sewer backups in her East Elmhurst neighborhood.
By Bill Parry

Rev. Lisa D. Jenkins, and several of her East Elmhurst neighbors, were in shock when they learned the city plans to invest $3.2 million to upgrade Overlook Park and build the neighborhood’s first dog run. When the project was announced in October, the city Parks Department said it would improve green space and the quality of life for area residents.

The minister said $3.2 million to renovate a park was not what the residents and homeowners had asked the city for.

“For decades we have asked for the sewer system and piping in our streets to be replaced,”Jenkins said. “For decades we have had sewer backups and water damage. Our homes have consistent water damage and permanent mold because the problem will not go away.”

Every time it rains, the system that was built in the 1930s and 1950s is overwhelmed with raw sewage and stormwater run-off, she said, bubbles up through toilet and floor drains into her basement. Black mold is a fixture on the floor and walls and the door to the basement is covered with plastic sheeting.

“Professionals who have done remediation work have told me that no one should go down there because of the mold and the mildew,” Jenkins said. “I’ve spent over $7,000 on French drains and it does nothing to stop the raw sewage from coming in.”

Jenkins has suffered respiratory problems from the mold and mildew left behind by frequent flooding.

Marjorie Clark, a homeowner on 96th Street, and Cosby Smiley of 94th Street, say the same thing happens to their basements and years of complaints have gone unheeded.

“It’s actually getting worse the more people move into the neighborhood,” Smiley said. “The first thing they do is rip out the vegetation and pave it over for driveways. The water table is already high here, but now nothing soaks up the water. The infrastructure is just overwhelmed.”

Before LaGuardia Airport was built on the other side of the Grand Central Parkway, the area was known as North Beach and the surrounding area was largely marshland. The city Department of Environmental Protection has studied the problem for years.

“I was at a town hall meeting with the DEP at the First Baptist Church last year,” Clark said. “They said in order to put in bigger piping they would have to go through the Grand Central and they didn’t have that kind of money. Other communities like Jackson Heights and Bayside are getting the new piping but we’re being overlooked.

All three said state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) had been the most supportive of their elected officials.

“It is imperative that the DEP improve the sewer system in this section of East Elmhurst, an area which is in dire need of infrastructure upgrade because current sewer lines are obsolete,” Peralta said. “This dilapidated system poses dangers to the neighbors and their property. These are projects that the community really needs to improve its health and quality of life.”

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (D-East Elmhurst) has been writing to the DEP asking them to find more creative solutions. The DEP, meanwhile, does not see a problem with its system.

“DEP engineers have reviewed the sewer system in this neighborhood and confirmed that it is functioning properly,” a DEP spokesman said. “The review included how this neighborhood fits into the drainage plan for all of northern Queens, engineering standards, zoning requirements and 311 reports of sewer backups and flooding. DEP currently has approximately 100 curbside gardens, or bioswales, under construction in the neighborhood. The bioswales absorb stormwater naturally and keep it out of the sewer system. Geo-technical analysis continues to determine if additional bioswales can be built in the neighborhood.”

Jenkins, Clark and Smiley shook their heads at the notion that bioswales are the answer, even though each can absorb up to 3,000 gallons of water that would otherwise flow into the sewer system.

“Look, don’t get us wrong,” Smiley said. “It’s not like we think the $3.2 million for the park and dog run would fix our sewer infrastructure problem. It just seems like there’s some kind of disconnect.”

Jenkins, the senior pastor at St. Matthew’s Baptist Church of Harlem, got right to the point.

“It’s bananas, it’s really hard to wrap your head around,” she said. “My parents made that basement my own when I was growing up and now I can’t even go down there without a breathing apparatus. I’ve got no more money to make repairs. As a single mother with a kid in college, I can’t even get insurance anymore. What happens if there’s a fire? I’ll be homeless. We’re told they don’t have the money to replace the pipes in our streets, but they have $3.2 million for a dog run? Our houses are deteriorating and nobody is concerned. Who will hear us?”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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