Coney Island's Sea Gate Still Defenseless After Sandy — By Its Own Choice

To Get Help, Private Neighborhood Would Have To Open Beach

Still the Same: Pinny Dembitzer walks along the Atlantic Ocean in the Sea Gate section of Coney Island. A year after Sandy struck, the neighborhood is as unprotected as ever, but the reasons for its continued exposure are surprising.
martyna starosta
Still the Same: Pinny Dembitzer walks along the Atlantic Ocean in the Sea Gate section of Coney Island. A year after Sandy struck, the neighborhood is as unprotected as ever, but the reasons for its continued exposure are surprising.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 29, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

Unprotected from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

“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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.