Home Second Avenue Subway Living in the Upper East Side’s blast zone

Living in the Upper East Side’s blast zone

by Benjamin Kabak

Residents of 1873 Second Ave., shown here at left next to the now-vacant Century Lumber lot, will have to be relocated for a month to accommodate subway construction. (Photo courtesy of Ben Heckscher/The Launch Box)

Building a subway through densely-populated neighborhoods replete with old buildings and infrastructure is no small feat. Construction involves digging and blasting, detours and street closures, and New Yorkers will still be waiting at least six and a half more years before just Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway is open for revenue service.

Over the last few months, as crews have nearly finished readying the tunnel boring machine’s launch box, we’ve heard a lot about life in the blasting zone. Just last week, Upper East Siders started to bemoan the late, loud blasts, and while the MTA maintained that all blasting was to wrap before 8 p.m., subsequent trips to the launch box site by Ben Heckscher of The Launch Box revealed otherwise. It’s loud; it’s dirty; it’s disruptive; it’s the slow march of transit progress as it tears up and then repairs a neighborhood.

Yet, for millions of New Yorkers, Second Ave. Subway constructive remains just an idea. We live and work far from the construction zones and do not see businesses struggling to compete with construction. Two recent bits of writing — one a news story and the other a narrative — help to shed some light on life in the blast zone.

We start with a report from The Real Deal. The MTA has informed the residents of 1873 Second Ave., a property on the west side of the avenue between 96th and 97th Sts., that they will have to be temporarily relocated for one month as the agency works to shore up the building. Next door, at the former site of the Century Lumber Co. building, the MTA will soon start work on a ventilation shaft.

The MTA in a letter says that it will pay the full cost of relocation and will attempt to do so with “as little disruption as possible.” Still, for Upper East Side residents, this is no small move. “This is devastating,” one anonymous tenant said to The Real Deal. “I don’t want to move. If I move it would have to be for good and I can’t afford that. I have been in this apartment for 10 years and have always paid my rent and I just can’t believe something like this could happen. I heard about things like this happening in Brooklyn, but never thought it could happen to me.” Not everyone, it seems, understands the costs of living on a subway construction site or the fact that the MTA will foot the entire bill.

For those who aren’t moving, though, the blasting — loud, disruptive, scary — has altered life along Second Ave. In a narrative about raising a family in a construction zone set to last for 10 years, Lisa Lawrence of the Upper East Side Moms blog writes about her young son’s reaction to the blasting. On a night of particularly loud blasting as the MTA started horizontal blasting that readies the launch box for the TBM, she writes, “my little guy came running out of his bed into our bed, scared out of his mind! My older two were very nervous and uneasy. After-all, we had begun to get used to the blasting and now this extraordinary boom?!?! My poor little ones. I am almost 31 years old, and I was scared out of my noodle! Imagine what they felt like!”

Buildings shake; businesses close; dust rises and settles; life goes on, stranger than it did for this out-of-the-way corner of the Upper East Side five years ago. One person summed it up best to Heather Haddon. Said Mike Borak, “The neighborhood would be great if it wasn’t for this.”

After the jump, video of a recent blast, recorded at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, March 19. It too comes to us via The Launch Box.

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Tim March 23, 2010 - 7:39 am

People in shody old walkups are experiencing issues with the poor construciton quality of century old buildings? I’m shocked.

I’ve noticed none of these issues seem to be popping up in any of the newer constructed buildings.

Also, it’s not like they started construction yesterday. This project exists in a rather tiny corridor of manhattan (7 blocks along one avenue). There are plenty of other housing options, and a good number of these residences are occupied by younger people (the guy quote in Metro/AMNY was 30). It’s not like people living there now will be living there 30 years from now. The MTA should just cut some checks, help relocate, and just tear down these unsound buildings. Hell, just buy them form the landlords at a fair price and redevelop later. This subway > 30 crappy appartments.

I live on 1st ave near the 72nd st construction site. The sky is not falling. People who are renting up there either need to suck it up or move.

E. Aron March 23, 2010 - 8:07 am

The rather obnoxious nature of the persons quoted above aside, I think it’s easy to be callous, Tim, when you are not directly affected by construction. I’m sure we all know that moving is a generally miserable experience, and being asked to do so by the MTA in the name of extending the Q-line to 96th St. (at a cost of $5B+) just adds insult to injury.

Tim March 23, 2010 - 9:26 am

Ok, I was a little harsh.

Still this plan has been in the pipe for 80+ years, with the go ahead being authorized at the beginning of the last decade.

I know moving is miserable, havign just done so in January, but if the MTA steps up financially (which is sounds like they are), then it’s really not them being at fault for a landlord’s inability to maintain his building properly.

Cap'n Transit March 23, 2010 - 9:58 am

“It’s not like people living there now will be living there 30 years from now.”

WTF, Tim? Sure, some people move around in their thirties. Others are looking for a place to settle down. Why can’t you imagine a thirty-year-old guy who decides that he’s going to live the rest of his life on Second Avenue?

Aaron March 23, 2010 - 2:27 pm

I’m in my 20s, but being disabled, moving is an enormous prospect that usually involves family flying cross-country to help. I’m not saying “omg stop construction” but these folks are going to be legitimately miserable until things are fixed up, and I hope that the relocation assistance will be the actual (reasonable) cost of relocation rather than a lump sum – a recent college grad with a futon and a small TV will have a vastly different scope of need than a disabled professional.

A poorly-built apartment building is a little different than a poorly-built house. Apartment dwellers don’t (and can’t) obtain a home inspection prior to move-in, and you have to count on NYC BIS to hold owners’ feet to the fire. If this were a private home, I would say “caveat emptor” without regret, but apartment dwellers don’t have access to the same scope of knowledge.

I have less sympathy for the folks dealing just with the noise from blasting – this is New York, afterall, and I actually have more trouble sleeping when I leave urban areas and don’t have ambient noise – there’s something magical about being in the part of Crown Heights along the Franklin Av. Shuttle and waking up early to hear the Muslim call to prayer. Still, I hope there aren’t folks with PTSD who are being badly affected by this, and blasting sure as hell isn’t an adhan.

petey March 24, 2010 - 3:06 pm

er, tim, i’ve been living on 84th and 3rd for 50 years. not a few of my friends are also lifelong yorkville residents. i intend to leave here in a box.

and i’d like to see you say to my fixed-income 96-year-old mother’s face that she should ‘suck it up or move’, you ignorant fuck.

Benjamin Kabak March 24, 2010 - 3:09 pm

Watch the language a bit please, petey. We can debate comments, but let’s stay civil about it.

Scott E March 23, 2010 - 8:18 am

I’m reading the mother’s description of her horrified children in one window on my computer as, coincidentally, a smiling picture of my three-year old son, set as the wallpaper on my computer, peeks through next to it. I can understand and sympathize with what she and her kids are dealing with.

But continuing in her blog post, I see where the worker explains everything to her, and she explains it to her kids. To all, the work becomes more fascinating and less scary. It would be helpful if the community were informed as to the what, when, and why of the blasting – and I don’t mean a stuffy, argumentative Community Board meeting. Circulate a flier to each apartment in the affected block a day or two prior to each blast with the precise time (within 15 minutes) it will happen. Kids have a short memory and need to be prepared so they aren’t scared. The time between the first horn and the second is too short to explain, or go to a window to watch.

On another note, I know Ben H. isn’t out to incriminate anyone, but I’d like to see that video used by the city to enforce and reinforce the rules on blasting times. It’s too bad there is no view of a clock in there.

Aaron March 23, 2010 - 2:29 pm

I’m no expert, and I could be citing California law by mistake, but doesn’t someone from the Department of Buildings have to be physically on-site during any blasting for safety purposes and to have immediate municipal response if you accidentally blast a water main?

Gregg March 23, 2010 - 8:21 am

Any chance you could track down some video of what this looks like underground? Someone with the MTA or one of the workers, somebody has got to be documenting this. And after hearing it and feeling it every night for the past week or so, I would love to know what it actually looks like.

Josh K March 23, 2010 - 8:57 am

Watch the History Channel series “Sandhogs”. It was broadcast last year, so it’s not SAS blasting, but it is the same bunch of NYC tunnel builders in a dark hole, blowing up rock. I think most of the work on that show was #7 Extension and the NYC DEP’s new filtration plant and aqueduct project in the Bronx.

Josh K March 23, 2010 - 8:35 am

The reason they probably did this blast after the 8PM cut off is that there was probably an unforeseen delay at the last minute (like a problem with the detcord) and it isn’t safe to leave the rigged explosives over night, nor is it safe to start unrigging them. Thus, the sandhogs were left with a dilemma: blast after 8PM or leave wired explosives to sit for 11 hours. If they’re pushing it right up until the limit like this more often than not, that’s another matter. Then it’s time to consider adjusting work schedules and such. Maybe shift the drilling crews to start a few hours earlier than the rest of the blasting crew, so that the holes are ready earlier. I’m an electrical designer, so I don’t want to do any more Monday morning quarter backing than what I’ve done.

The History Channel series “Sandhogs” gives a pretty decent view of what these guys are going through and how problems can snowball leaving crew bosses in a bind like this. These guys are doing hard, dangerous, back breaking work, around explosives. I give these guys a lot of credit for doing what they do. Modern Manhattan couldn’t exist without past generations of sandhogs doing what they did.

The blasting at the Launch Box is almost done and the TBM will be on site in just a few weeks (according to the monthly MTACC Committee report). I think that maybe residents on 2nd Ave. would be a little less cranky if they knew the end (of blasting) was within sight.

bob March 23, 2010 - 4:01 pm

I don’t doubt it’s unpleasant, I wouldn’t enjoy living there right now. But in the long term it’s for a real benefit. Ten years from now that lady and her kids will be making frequent use of the subway and barely remember this ever happened.

Take a look at construction photos for the subway construction in the first half of the 20th Century. (A book of photos of IND construction was published, I own a copy.) It was far worse – the street was excavated for almost all of the route.

Marc March 24, 2010 - 1:31 am

One aspect which remains undiscussed is that there are quite a few buildings on second ave which did not have any structural violations prior to the subway construction. I live in a building that has since developed cracks in the foundation and cracks within the interior. The MTA has taken ZERO responsibility and offered ZERO assistance in remedying this. Instead construction has resulted in a constant harassment by city agencies. The MTA removes basement access as part of reducing the sidewalk which of course is quickly followed by the department of buildings issuing a vacate order for the basement and a hefty fine for the building owner. A wedged stone falls from the window frame and hits the sidewalk. The only thing that can cause this to happen is constant vibration from construction to shake it loose. The MTA puts scaffolding up to prevent future injury to pedestrians, then the DOB issues a ticket to the building’s owner saying that the scaffolding doesn’t have the proper lighting.

I’m not against the subway construction, but it is unjust to cause damage to private property and not take responsibility or to offer the owners compensation for their loss.

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Laurie Lombardi January 31, 2011 - 8:53 am

OK, I understand that this subway in 10-15-20 years will be a great convenience, however for us on 75yh and 2nd ave, the drilling starts @ 8:00 AM and sometimes continues until 8:30- 9:30PM!!! Including Saturday’s>>>( It can be maddening!!! Does anyone know how long this will continue on 75th ST.?

Kristen March 19, 2011 - 11:25 am

I know I’m posting about a year after everyone else, but last night I went out to eat around 8:30 at Patsy’s Pizzeria on 70th? and 2nd ave. The first thing we noticed was that Patsy’s is trying to relocate to 1st ave (wonder why?) It’s nice that they have the luxury of moving, many businesses on 2nd avenue don’t, and let me tell you, “shopping” or even crossing the street on second avenue is disturbing and annoying. I’ve been avoiding 2nd avenue for years.

Anyway, about an hour into our meals, our waitress came up to us and said, “There will be a loud blast in 20 minutes.” She pointed to the outside. I don’t live in this neighborhood so, aside from drilling, this would be my first blast. Well, we eventually forgot and continued our conversation. All of a sudden ten INSTENSE and deep blasts began to shook the building. Everyone in the entire restaurant went silent except for me who shouted, ” THIS IS IT!” My friend next to me was scared out of her mind and grabbed my hand with her fingernails. For a split second we considered that MAYBE this wasn’t the blasting, MAYBE this was an after-shock earthquake tremor because it was SO INTENSE. So LOUD and deep and intense.

But no, it was not. The waitress told us that that wasn’t even one of the loudest blasts they’ve heard.

IT WAS TERRIFYING. It doesn’t matter if we were told fifteen minutes prior. My whole body was tensed up and my fists were curled in tight balls for ten minutes. Everybody in the restaurant was looking at each other as if we had just experienced some kind of disaster. I can’t believe THESE were the blasts that residents have been putting up with for years now. I remember when I considered moving into those high rises on second avenue since the prices were so low. Thank GOD I didn’t.


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