Every House Has Cracks

[Image: Via English Russia].

In a story seemingly invented for future landscape architecture thesis projects, we find the city of Berezniki, Russia. “In the West,” the New York Times explains, “mines are usually located far from populous areas, to reduce the risks of sinkholes to homes and other buildings. But Berezniki, a city of 154,000 that began as a labor camp, was built directly over the mine—a legacy of the Soviet policy of placing camps within marching distance of work areas.”

With collapsing salt pillars and widespread erosion in the derelict mines below the city, Berezniki is thus “afflicted by sinkholes, yawning chasms hundreds of feet deep that can open at a moment’s notice.”

[Image: Via English Russia].

Incredibly, like a geologically-themed remake of The Truman Show, the city has responded with “24-hour video surveillance.”

On a screen in the command center late last year, one such hole appeared as a small dark spot in a snowy field in the predawn hours, immediately threatening to suck in a building, a road and a gas station. “I looked and said, ‘Wow, a hole is forming,'” recalled Olga V. Chekhova, an emergency services worker who monitors the video… While scientists have so far successfully predicted each sinkhole, the chasms can open with astonishing speed. On Dec. 4, as Ms. Chekhova watched the dark spot on her screen expand, witnesses began calling an emergency number for reporting sinkholes. They had heard a loud swooshing noise.

The town has decided to “fight the holes with science,” putting in place “a panoply of high-technology monitors. These include the video surveillance system, seismic sensors, regular surveys and satellite monitoring of the changes in altitude of roofs, sidewalks and streets.”

While the design possibilities of a town off-kilter with itself are clear, the Times article seems to undersell the incompetence of the city officials, mine engineers, and policy-makers who oversaw the creation of the underground facilities in the first place and who made the idiotic decision to locate a city overtop land that would subsequently be excavated. Having said that, the photo gallery accompanying the original article—unlike the more sensationalist images I’ve chosen here—focuses on the people who actually live there, families who watch as cracks appear in their ceilings and walls, looking around at furniture they can’t afford to move and the neighborhoods that seem on the verge of, in the article’s words, “being sucked into the earth.”

“In my view, we need to move the entire town,” one of the residents says, with what seems like obvious melancholy. He’s not reaching for a sketchbook or planning robotic future cities on stilts. “Every house has cracks.”

7 thoughts on “Every House Has Cracks”

  1. And in the background I hear Bob Dylan singing:

    "Even the butler
    He’s got something to prove
    Then you ask why I don’t live here
    Honey, how come you don’t move?"

  2. why was it built there in the first place. it hurts to see how my home country suffers from decisions that seem good short-term and turn into disasters long-term.

  3. I dont remember the town name. But this happend (on a much much smaller scale) in germany too. The problem there is thought that the mines that cave in are as old as 500 years and not very well documented.

    Most were simply frgotten and cities expanded over them.

  4. We moved to a neighborhood eight miles due north of downtown Pittsburgh, PA in January, 1983 and bought a home. At the closing, one of the documents we had to sign contained, in large type red letters, the "mine subsidence clause." I asked our lawyer, who was present at the closing, about it and he said that it was a standard part of real estate transactions in the area. I expressed my belief that there wasn't much chance that an undocumented coal mine would be under a neighborhood like mine so far from the center of the city and he said that the mines extended for many miles. He was an old codger and the other old codger lawyer who was present for the seller sat and compared their memories of where the extents of the old mines were around the Pittsburgh suburbs. I lived there for six years and once or twice a year you would hear about some part of a house somewhere having the ground start going out from under it. That said, in general the rocky landscape in the area enable many houses to pearch on the sides of hills and not wash away as it seems happens in coastal California. On the other hand, when we went to sell in 1989, we discovered that an estimated 60% of the homes in Allegheny country where Pittsburgh is located were going to fail the test for 4 picocuries per liter Radon in their basement and would require subslab ventilation for remediation before they could be sold. We had to install a then $1,000 system before we could sell because our reading was 4.6. They tell me that that if you spend 14 hours a day every day in that basement at that reading until you are 70, that it is the equivalent of smoking one cigarette a day in terms of cancer risk. So, subsidence is the least of your worries if you're in Pittsburgh. The Radon is gonna getcha in the pocket book. Uh, I don't know too many people who spend 14 hours a day in their basement, do you? John B. in Kentwood, Michigan.

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