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Tour 'The Hole,' NYC's Rundown Brooklyn-Queens Border Town

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Living in New York City may mean life in a bubble, but for residents of one neighborhood, it's life in a hole—literally. The Hole, whose history was first explored in an original 2009 photo essay by Curbed columnist Nathan Kensinger, is a five-block triangle straddling the Brooklyn-Queens border, arguably a part of any number of neighborhoods from East New York to Howard Beach to Ozone Park to Lindenwood. Serviced only by the Grant Avenue A train stop and various buses, the area's borders seem to change with each local you ask, although most agree it is more or less located in the sunken five blocks northwest of the intersection between Linden and Conduit boulevards. The boundary between Brooklyn and Queens literally runs right through it.

"Most people call it Howard Beach," said local Nikulus Favorite, sitting on the front stairs of one of the few occupied single-family homes in the area. "But yeah, it's on the borderline." He had never heard the area referred to as The Hole.

One block over, police were stationed. "What are you doing here? You shouldn't be here by yourself," they warned. When pressed, they decisively stated the area was not Howard Beach, but East New York. "It's a triangle," they explained of the neighborhood. They acknowledged its nickname: yes, The Hole.

On Sapphire Street, resident Bruce Gene was kind enough to offer a brief tour of the area while speaking about his experience living there. "I used to hate it, with no corner store. When I call a cab, they never know where I am," he said of his early impressions. But now: "It's nice. It's quiet. There's no noise, just birds. It reminds me of the south."

Detached from the municipal sewer system, one of the The Hole's signature sights is murky pools of water—because the liquid has no place to drain. Plus, no sidewalks. Some more wisdom via Kensinger's piece on his 2009 visit: The Hole sits 30 feet below grade, the homes built just barely above the water table. "When I was a kid, my friend's house was so underground we used to stand on the sidewalk to put Christmas lights on his roof," recalls one lifelong Hole resident in a short film about the neighborhood by local filmmakers Courtney Fathom Sell and Billy Feldman. On some street, underbrush and vacant lots are more plentiful than homes, giving the area an appearance of a marshy Detroit.

Notorious for mob activity, the Hole's far-out, overgrown characteristics have made it an opportune dead-body repository over the years. The year 2004 saw the FBI's unearthing of two suspected mafia men at the same spot where a Bonanno crime family captain had been discovered two decades prior, in 1981, dead and wrapped in a carpet, according to the New York Times.

Beyond that, a 45-man volunteer organization of local horseback riders called the Federation of Black Cowboys rents homes in the area and, until recently, kept their horses at the 26-acre Cedar Lane Stables nearby (though not in The Hole proper). A series of evictions in response to allegations of animal abuse and other problems over the past decade have forced them to move their broncos elsewhere, but their presence in the community remains strong.

Half-complete housing developments and a mountain of rubble are recent additions to the historical landscape of horses and corpses. Today, one sad white house sits at the lowest point on a trash-ridden street, runic graffiti painted on its facade, the contents of its two floors trashed beyond belief. The inside rooms tell the story of its former resident, who had a once-wonderful book collection. Pill bottles are strewn on countertops, hypodermic needles sit unused in their trays, and family heirlooms sit near datebooks in puddles of plasterboard and possessions. The scene elicits a shudder.

A lost neighborhood indeed, some have said the area is reminiscent of the Wild West, but there's no culture of frontier and exploration, and there's little romance in the ramshackle houses. This is an area that needs and deserves public funding. It's not a "border neighborhood," it's an underserved community. Strange, isn't it, how holes can crop up unnoticed, and remain open for decades, even in one of the world's biggest cities.

—Hannah Frishberg
· Watch The Hole, a 9-Minute Documentary About Brooklyn's Lost Neighborhood [The L Magazine]
· Meet 'The Hole,' Rugged Brooklyn/Queens Border Town [Curbed]