POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 27, 2012
Matthew Wolfe contributed reporting.
NEW YORK — Sea Gate looks the same as many storm-scattered waterfront communities do. Home after home torn apart by the ocean. Streets filled with sand. Shattered sidewalks and clogged sewers. A sea wall, which had already been inadequate to the task of safeguarding residents, reduced to rubble.
Ordinarily, New York City or other governmental entities might take over the tasks of restoring a middle-class neighborhood like this. But Sea Gate, with its 850 homes on Coney Island's western tip, is not an ordinary neighborhood. It is a 113-year-old private, gated community, where the razor-wire-topped fences and armed security checkpoints that keep outsiders from its streets, beaches and parks serve as a constant reminder that the residents of this community have chosen to live somewhat apart.
Once the gilded retreat of the Vanderbilt family, Sea Gate, like other gated communities in New York, preserved its exclusivity with the promise that the residents would assume the costs of community upkeep, maintaining their own streets, parks and sewer systems and even fielding the distinct Sea Gate Police Department.
The special status endured, through occasional controversy and political efforts to open the streets to the public, because of the community's self-sufficiency.
But the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy to Sea Gate, in Brooklyn, and another gated community, Breezy Point, in Queens, was so monumental that residents who are already struggling to figure out how they will pay to rebuild their homes say they cannot afford to pay the additional cost of repairing communal infrastructure. So neighborhoods that have long held the rest of the city at arm's length now seek the financial embrace of the city, state and federal governments.
That turnaround has been ill-received among some on the other side of the fence from Sea Gate, in historically troubled apartment towers like Sea Rise, where Cesar Catala, 29, picked up some hot food from a relief tent Monday.
"They seclude themselves," said Catala, who has lived in Coney Island nearly his entire life. "We don't have problems with Sea Gate, but they put their noses down at us. We get treated like we're second class, just because they live in houses and we live in the projects and we rent. They say they need assistance and, fine, maybe they do need assistance. But they have insurance on their houses. We don't have insurance. We don't have much out here."
In Breezy Point, a gated community on the western edge of the Rockaways, 111 homes burned to the ground during the storm.
"We'd be foolish not to ask for help," said Steve Greenberg, former chairman of the Breezy Point cooperative's board and a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley. "We would hope that we see something, but if we don't see something we're prepared to go forward to keep the community."
Community officials have long maintained that their enclaves are no different than a Park Avenue apartment house with its own doorman, a horizontal rather than a vertical development. But, to continue the analogy, apartment buildings do not ask the city to retile their hallways or fix their plumbing. The residents of gated communities pay all the same taxes — sewer, water and property — that any city property owner does, in addition to their private association charges.
But the city does not appear to have a formal obligation to provide services, like road and sewer maintenance, for the infrastructure that gated communities agreed to maintain.
"Now, with this unexpected act of God, those same communities, quite ready to point a finger at government shortcomings, are placed in the difficult position of having to reach out to government for a substantial helping hand," said Paula A. Franzese, a professor of law at Seton Hall University who has written extensively about gated communities.
Already city officials have dispatched private contractors with bulldozers to cart away the sand and concrete slabs from Sea Gate's streets and trucks to vacuum the sand out of its sewers. The city's Department of Environmental Protection has supplied drinking water to Breezy Point residents. Yet it is apparent that government officials are improvising for now, not sure what the fine legal boundaries are and whether their efforts will extend to rebuilding the infrastructure.
Caswell F. Holloway, deputy mayor for operations, said City Hall wants all residents, including those living in private communities that were hardest hit by the storm, to have the systems restored that allow them "to get back to normal as quickly and efficiently as possible."
William Korn, 52, a bakery owner who says his house in Sea Gate sustained more than $300,000 in damage, said the city should pay for rebuilding the community even if it is gated because residents pay city taxes.
"I don't pay for water?" he said rhetorically, as if the question were absurd. "I don't pay for real estate taxes — $6,000 a year? I don't pay for services? I pay all those. Just because we have a private community? I pay for that private community."
Charles Brecher, research director at the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, said that obligation should be factored in to any decision.
"We should help people in disasters, but we should hold people responsible for what they've agreed to be responsible for," he said.
The city planning department said it did not know how many private communities that control their own streets were in the city's borders. There are at least eight, though not all are gated, including Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, Edgewater Park in the Bronx, and The Tides at Charleston and Bay Street Landing in Staten Island.
More suburban New Jersey has about 6,000 private communities, Franzese said.
Each gated community has discrete historical origins. In the late 19th century Sea Gate boasted plutocratic property owners like the Vanderbilt and Morgan families, but a real estate company bought the land and then sold it to a homeowners association in 1899. Breezy Point was an informal bungalow colony in the early 20th century, but a real estate corporation bought the underlying land in 1960 and residents — many of them police officers, firefighters and city workers — purchased half of that property as a cooperative that today has more than 3,000 homes. One of the more recent is the Tides, a 6-year-old, 190-house complex for people older than 55.
Developers apply to get the names of any city streets within a purchased plot removed from official city maps, which requires a vote by the City Council. If demapping is approved, that street then belongs to the private community and it can choose to bar nonresidents, although the city can apply leverage during the negotiations over land use to keep the street open to the public — as the streets of Fieldston, a private but not gated community, are in the Bronx. The city may provide limited services, also negotiated, such as fire services in Sea Gate and police services in Breezy Point.
There is in some cases resentment between the enclaves and neighborhoods that surround them, which are often demographically very different. Though these places do not have restrictive covenants — Sea Gate, by some accounts, once restricted Jews but now has a large Jewish population — a vast majority of residents are white and are surrounded by areas with large poor black and Hispanic populations. The median household income in Breezy Point was $83,000 in 2010, while Sea Gate's was $62,000.
Even before the storm, the communities were increasingly turning to the city for assistance. Domenic M. Recchia Jr., chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee, whose district includes Sea Gate, had been working on trying to get the city to upgrade the enclave's sewers because they can't handle the runoff from large storms.
"Just because they're a gated community, they're still citizens and pay taxes," he said. "They won't be able to sustain themselves. Anybody can say what they want, but we can't turn our back on them."
Pinny Dembitzer, president of the Sea Gate Association, said that since the national economic downturn, many residents were unable to pay maintenance charges averaging $3,000, which could jeopardize the solvency of the association. Now, he said, they found themselves in "a Catch-22 situation."
"If they get enough money to build their homes, they can't have enough money to rebuild the sea wall," he said. "But if they don't rebuild the sea wall they can't rebuild their homes."
Even as the communities put together formal requests for assistance, residents like Yidel Lax, 62, an artist whose house was flooded, are unwilling to part with the community's most prized feature.
"The only reason that Sea Gate is what it is because it's private," he said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be Sea Gate."