Pinny Dembitzer bounced his SUV past the “For Sale” signs lining Sea Gate’s Atlantic Avenue, slamming his way through potholes in this gated community on the western tip of Coney Island.
Dembitzer apologized for the rough ride. His car, like most cars in the neighborhood, replaced one that was destroyed in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy pushed monster waves through Sea Gate. He seemed resigned to the beating the road was giving his shocks.When the water flushed out of the neighborhood after the storm it took with it the sand underneath the streets, opening sinkholes and shuffling the sewers. A mile and a half down the road from Nathan’s Famous and the Cyclone rollercoaster, Sea Gate’s pavement is as rough as a dirt track.
It’s not the roads, though, that are troubling Dembitzer. A leader of the Hasidic community here and a former president of the neighborhood association, Dembitzer is more worried about the waves. A year after Hurricane Sandy, Sea Gate has yet to rebuild the sea walls washed away during the storm. The neighborhood is less protected than ever.
“I don’t think a day goes by people don’t worry,” Dembitzer said. “Right now, if… [the] water goes up a little bit, the water goes into Sea Gate.” In part, that’s Sea Gate’s own fault.
Surrounded on three sides by water, Sea Gate is privately owned, with a wall separating it from the rest of Coney Island. When it was offered federally funded storm protection in the 1990s — as long as it was prepared to open its private beach to the public — Sea Gate chose to keep its gates shut.
Today, the city wants Sea Gate to reconsider a large-scale beach reinforcement project. Sandy, however, doesn’t appear to have changed the neighborhood’s mind. All that’s changed in Sea Gate is the carpeting in the basements.
“We’re a private community,” said Barbara Garofalo, a life-long Sea Gate resident who serves on the board of the association.
Orthodox Jews make up a tenth of the population in Sea Gate, but their presence feels larger than that. Hasidic families can be seen strolling on the beach and sitting by the water. A shirtless, tattooed man looking out over the ocean from his second-story porch said that when an apartment was open in his building recently, it was mostly Orthodox men who came to inquire about renting it.
When Dembitzer moved to Sea Gate as a newlywed in 1980, there were just 100 ultra-Orthodox families living on this narrow point sticking out into Gravesend Bay. Today, there are 300 such families and seven shuls. Dembitzer, whose red beard is graying at the end, is a member of the Boro Park-based Bobov Hasidic sect. He owns a store in Boro Park, but seems to spend much of his time dealing with the business of the neighborhood out in Sea Gate.
The Sea Gate Association, which collects dues to pay the neighborhood’s private police force and to maintain the roads and sewers, is largely controlled by the Hasidic community. Russian Jews and non-Jewish old-timers live here, too, but Dembitzer has rotated in and out of the presidency for years, dropping out when he hits the term limit and jumping in again after a break. The governance structure is byzantine, involving a board and a nominating committee and an annual meeting at which members of the nominating committee are elected. Hasidic representatives attend those sparsely attended meetings armed with proxies from hundreds of their Hasidic neighbors, using their organizing prowess to exert heavy influence on the election process.
In October 2012, when the city gave the order to evacuate, half of the people here stayed put. In 2011, many had left to escape Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be a dud. The second time around, people figured evacuating wasn’t worth the effort.
It’s a mistake they won’t make again.
“At about 8 o’clock in the evening, the water from the ocean just decided to invade us,” Dembitzer said. “I was standing outside and just all of a sudden we see the waves coming in and the water went from zero to about four or five feet in no time.”