In the muggy beginning of last Saturday afternoon, Leonard Shoulders was waiting for the bus on Third Avenue in the Bronx, directly across from St. Barnabas Hospital. He’d just asked a passerby for a light when suddenly the sidewalk beneath his feet ceased to be. A moment later, he hit the floor of a basement vault, 12 or maybe 15 feet down. He lay there with a broken arm and leg, rats crawling over his bloodied face, until firefighters disinterred him half an hour later and rushed him across the street to the emergency room. The reason he did not scream, the Daily News reported, was that he feared the rats would enter his mouth.
Just in time for Halloween, Mr. Shoulders’s plight reinforces another infrastructural nightmare on New Yorkers’ long list of the possibilities: alongside crane collapse, subway derailment, rat skeletons raining down on your head, and falling into one of the cellar doors that speckle walkways in older parts of the city — yes, the sidewalk can end.
It’s happened before. In 2017, a woman in Washington Heights broke her leg when the sidewalk collapsed and she was thrown into a vault below. A decade earlier, two construction workers jackhammering a Midtown street were injured when they suddenly found themselves underneath it. “It has occurred many times,” says Kerby Beggs, a contractor and concrete specialist at Brooklyn Sidewalk Repair and Installation Pros. “It just doesn’t always make the news.”
Though tabloid headlines would have you believe otherwise, this horror is not a sinkhole, an entirely different and relatively common land ailment that last year engulfed an entire Chevy in Bushwick. Usually that happens from ground erosion or falling groundwater. This kind of collapse involves the caving in of a sidewalk built over an empty basement void. These spaces, known as sidewalk vaults, are common in the densest, oldest parts of town, especially in Manhattan and the near areas of the outer boroughs. “The more commercial the area is, the more likely that there is a basement underneath or the subway going through,” says Don Morcelo, the owner of Brooklyn Sidewalk Repair, which lays concrete all across the city.
Elsewhere, most sidewalks are laid right on top of the soil. But when a basement extends below the sidewalk, sheet metal called decking is laid over its roof beams, and that’s typically topped (these days) with two layers of concrete separated by a rubbery waterproof material. Beggs says that these vaulted sidewalks are generally pretty reliable — but nothing lasts forever. “Maybe it’s rotting out, or the beams just give way over time,” he told me. “Some of those things are very old, you know. So I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what happened [in the Bronx].” Trucks and buses climbing the sidewalk can hasten a sidewalk’s death as well, cracking the concrete and weakening the vault. That’s why you often see “HOLLOW SIDEWALK, DO NOT PARK” warning signs in neighborhoods like Soho, where the vaults sometimes have glass cabochons set into the concrete to admit sunlight.
While this sort of disaster of decay isn’t exactly common, it can be difficult to predict. New vaults, like all structures, are inspected by the Department of Buildings when they’re new. But after that, unless there’s something obvious like a water leak (a giveaway for rot), structural damage is often hidden. “Let’s say you’re in a basement. You look up and everything is finished — maybe there’s stores or restaurants or something in it. You cannot see if the material is degrading, you cannot see anything at that point,” he says. “If it’s good or bad, you have no clue.” Building owners are supposed to keep track of sidewalk that’s moving, cracking, sinking, or otherwise showing signs of possible deterioration beneath, but of course they don’t always. Beggs says the Department of Transportation periodically checks for these signs, issuing violations if the owner fails to repair the problem. If they don’t, the city steps in and makes repair itself, billing the landlord at top rates.
“New York infrastructure is so old, and we have so many streets, so many sidewalks, so many driveways.” Morcelo gripes, clearly with love. “And congested areas like that take a lot of abuse from construction, people walking on it. In, say, Manhattan, constantly they’re digging things out, they’re fixing something, they’re repairing something, there are roads everywhere.” In other words: Watch your step.