A Year After Sandy, Brighton Beach Struggles To Get Back on Feet

Storm and Weak Economy a One-Two Punch

Punch in the Gut: Yuksel Pece’s gourmet store lost $15,000 in inventory when Superstorm Sandy struck. That turned out to be only the tip of a devastating iceberg for him and other Brighton Beach merchants.
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Punch in the Gut: Yuksel Pece’s gourmet store lost $15,000 in inventory when Superstorm Sandy struck. That turned out to be only the tip of a devastating iceberg for him and other Brighton Beach merchants.

By Lisa Amand

Published October 26, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
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New York City’s Small Business Storefront Improvement Program is currently accepting grant applications from storm-impacted areas such as Brighton Beach; it will be able to provide 50 merchants with up to $20,000 apiece to rebuild their businesses. Immediately after the storm, the city offered low-interest emergency loans with matching grants; 56 loans were approved in Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach totaling more than $1.2 million. Still, with the summer rush over and beaches officially closed, business owners wish more people would recognize the year-round appeal of Russian restaurants, excellent food shopping and old world, arm-in-arm strolling.

On a recent Saturday, half of Cafe Restaurant Volna’s boardwalk tables were filled for late lunches. A mix of guidebook-toting tourists, ethnic families celebrating special occasions, and New Yorkers (including guitarist Lenny Kaye, best known as a member of the Patti Smith Group) were people-watching and enjoying the ocean air, noshing on borsht, beef stroganoff or smoked fish, and sipping beer and vodka.

Locals flock to an al fresco nook owned by and adjacent to Tatiana Grill for open-face sandwiches and $4 plastic tumblers of Smirnoff chased with cranberry juice. This casual counter was able to open long before Tatiana’s two restaurants following Sandy because its simple operation is upstairs and was relatively unscathed, while the larger Tatianas’ kitchens had suffered considerable damage. Today the lunch specials lure hungry joggers, bicyclists and fishermen with a $15 prix fixe of soup and stew, and pelmini or crepes.

After Sandy, Brighton Beach’s boardwalk was covered with sand drifts. The beach collected trash, including refrigerators and couches that were swept away from decimated houses. The New York City Department of Sanitation gathered more than 200,000 cubic yards of displaced sand, which was cleaned, sifted of debris and then returned to borough beaches. Steeplechase Pier on Coney Island was completely rebuilt and only reopened this October. The main comfort station and stone gazebo (where backgammon is played, regardless of the weather), near Brighton 4th Street, stood up to the storm’s wrath. Yet a pair of new, raised, modular lifeguard stations are a permanent reminder that structures in flood zones need to be upgraded.

Immediately after Sandy hit, the Shorefront YM-YWHA on Coney Island Avenue transformed into a relief center. Donations poured in and storm victims dug through boxes of clothing set out in front of the building. The Shorefront’s website cites almost 1,000 volunteers who have reached out to isolated residents, and the distribution of 3,500 electric heaters, 62,000 blankets and 22,000 food packages to the homebound elderly.

Days following the storm, the first street parallel to the beach, Brightwater Court, was piled high with black garbage bags and discarded furniture awaiting pickup by sanitation trucks that struggled to keep up with demand. Now the FEMA trailers are gone, the thoroughfare cleared.

Pece says some people are scared to stay put and prefer to move to higher ground.

Axelrod, too, fears another hurricane hitting Brooklyn. “Of course I’m afraid, but what can I do. I’ve lived in this apartment for 20 years.”

Lisa Amand is a James Beard Award-winning writer. Find her on Twitter @Imnofoodie

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