Something is Rotten in the Neighborhood of East Harlem

Restaurant owners in East Harlem say that rain can be hazardous for their business. The issue is that the sewers are not properly maintained, and this causes them to flood and back up when it rains on major streets.

Orlando Plaza, owner of Camaradas El Barrio, says that he has had an ongoing problem with a sewage back up that occurs below the building that houses his restaurant. Since he opened seven years ago, he noticed the pungent smell of raw sewage that would emanate from the back of his restaurant every so often.

“We call it the mystery smell,” says Plaza. “Who’s going to want to sit down and pay ‘x’ amount of money for that kind of smell?”

Kartik Chandran, an assistant professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, says that the root cause of flooding is the combined sewer system that New York City is built on. This means that both rainwater and sewage together are conveyed through the same pipes.

“During times of severe rain it’s a big problem,” says Chandran. “This is a problem where the sewer capacity is exceeded. It happens quite often.” When the capacity is exceeded, water can’t be conveyed quickly enough and the streets flood, according to him.

East Harlem’s problem with flooding might be comparatively more severe than the rest of the city because parts of it are on low-lying land, Chandran says. “I can see the streets going down towards the East River,” he says.

However, for Plaza, it’s emblematic of the city’s disregard for poorer neighborhoods like East Harlem, which he why he never contacted them in trying to solve his problem.

“That the sewage problem doesn’t receive the attention it should from the city agencies doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “That’s always the way it’s been in this neighborhood.”