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.
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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.

(page 2 of 4)

One Hasidic man, walking near the entrance to the community, climbed on top of a garbage truck and stayed there for five hours.

“The waves coming they say were about 32 feet,” Dembitzer said. “The water’s just coming and pulling out all the foundations … the houses were collapsing.”

The power was out and the neighborhood was dark. The streets were flooded until after midnight. The next morning, residents stepped outside in raincoats to see what had happened.

“Everybody’s house was damaged,” Dembitzer said. “I don’t think anybody was spared in Sea Gate.”

The streets were covered ankle-deep with sand. Sidewalks were gone. Flooded cars were wrapped around trees. The entire contents of the first floor of one seaside house had floated out through a busted bay window. Down by the beach, the whole side of one house on Beach 47th Street was gone. Water seeped through basement walls. All of the cars were totaled. Pieces of buildings were strewn all over the streets. Men and women walked down Atlantic Avenue, looking at what was left. If they were lucky, the water in their basements was knee-deep. If they were unlucky, their basements were underwater and their ground floors were ruined. The unluckiest lost entire homes.

It took the city sanitation department a month to clear the streets. Electricity took a few weeks to come back. The sewers, despite ongoing work, are still clogged with sand. They work, but just barely.

“There are many, many sewers that are literally, instead of having a twelve inch pipe, one or two inches of water are able to pass,” Dembitzer said. “There’s so much sand in there.”


Whatever the inconveniences of living in the remotest corner of Brooklyn, the benefits are obvious: East Hampton views at Staten Island prices. Plus, a private beach, a gate, and a private police force to keep everyone else out. For Hasidic Jews, it offers a semblance of the sort of inexpensive seclusion available in remote upstate Orthodox enclaves like Kiryas Joel. For everyone else, it’s a beach town within commuting distance of Manhattan.

That privacy, however, comes at a price. In 1991, a storm swamped the bulkhead at the neighborhood’s far end, tearing a wide gap in the wall and letting seawater into the streets. A few years later, in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a project to fix the problem: a massive reinforcement initiative for the whole of Coney Island, with wider beaches and a protective sand barrier that would mitigate the impact of future storms.

For Sea Gate, however, there was a catch. Federal law prevented the Army Corps from doing work on a private beach. In order to participate, Sea Gate would have to allow the public past its gates. Sea Gate opted out.



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