Upper East Side Rat Hunt

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Investigating claims of a rodent invasion

By Ben Heckscher

Who would have guessed that a story about rats and the Second Avenue subway would be part of the Wall Street Journal"s metro section launch?

Andrew Grossman"s April 26 article, “Rats Mob The Upper East Side, reported that “an army of rats had invaded “a stretch of the Upper East Side. The primary area of interest apparently is a one-block section of East 93rd Street, between First and Second avenues.

Later that day, WABC-TV followed the Journal"s lead with the broadcast piece, “Are rats taking over the Upper East Side? and Fox Channel 5 put their spin on the story with, “Rat Infestation on Upper East Side? Not to be outdone, radio station 1010 WINS aired this piece, “Upper East Side Residents Blame 2nd Ave. Subway Work for Rat Problem. And Ben Kabak, over at the blog Second Avenue Sagas, ended the day with a posting, “UESers blame rat infestation on Second Ave. Subway. By April 27, a reprint of the Journal story ran in The Australian, a daily newspaper.

I decided that this story clearly had legs (sorry for the pun) and set out to do my own investigative reporting. I started at the New York City Department of Health"s Rat Information Portal. Using the official New York City Rat Map, I was able to produce several renderings of the neighborhood around the Second Avenue subway tunnel boring machine launch box construction zone. Note: before looking at the maps on page 6, study the legend. For reasons that I can"t explain, the color yellow means that the area passed inspection; yellow does not mean that there is a problem. I added the thick blue line on the map to show the approximate location of the tunnel boring machine launch box site.

Map 1 indicates that the Department of Health has inspected most of the properties east of the launch box over the past year. And the map appears to confirm that there have been rat problems on East 93rd Street between First and Second avenues. But Map 2,   showing the one-year period before subway construction started (2006-2007), seems to show about the same number of properties with rat problems in the East 90s between First and Second avenues.

In fact, looking at the area near the launch box bounded by First and Second avenues and East 90th to 96th streets, it appears that there was a significant number of properties with rats before subway construction, followed by a dip during the first few years of work, with the number of properties with rats increasing during the 2009-2010 period to pre-construction levels:

2006-2007: 25 (before construction)
2007-2008: 6
2008-2009: 9
2009-2010: 26

This leads to the question, “Has the construction of Second Avenue subway caused rat problems on East 93rd Street, and possibly other areas of the Upper East Side?

Looking back at the rat maps, the data appears to show:

  • That there are (or have been) rat problems on East 93rd Street in the past year;
  • That an “army of rats has not invaded the Upper East Side due to the construction in and around the tunnel boring machine launch box site;
  • In some areas near the work site, rat problems that preceded the start of construction somehow went away after work started. On East 92nd Street between First and Second avenues, for example, there were 14 properties with signs of rats from 2006-2007; between 2009-2010, there was only one property with signs of rats.

I"ve seen that the work site has been heavily baited with rodent traps since construction in the East 90s began. I spoke with an MTA representative and she told me that a health inspector checked the work site a few weeks ago and found no evidence of rats.

So my conclusion is that subway construction has probably actually reduced the overall number of rats in the area due to the high number of regularly maintained rodent traps in and around the work zone. The problems on East 93rd Street appear to be a localized issue that I assume would be resolved with a concerted effort by building owners and the Health Department.

If the New York Post had carried this story I wouldn"t have been surprised, but The Wall Street Journal? Go figure.

Ben Heckscher chronicles construction of the Second Avenue subway on his blog, The Launch Box. Read his work at thelaunchbox.blogspot.com.