An assignment about two years after Hurricane Sandy:
The sun is setting on a nice, warm October night at Coney Island in Brooklyn. A group of kids are playing in the sand. They throw fistfuls of it at each other and laugh so hard they have to grasp at their sides between throws. It is finally the end of the day, the sun is setting over the water, and their parents look relaxed.
As a tourist destination, Coney Island has it all—cheese-covered Nathan’s hotdogs at their original storefront, amusement rides from coasters to Ferris wheels, bars on their boardwalk, the New York Aquarium, Coney Island Museum, and the beach with its soft sand. Known for its “freak shows” and Nathan’s annual July Fourth International Hot Dog Eating Championship, Coney Island has been called “People’s Playground” or “America’s Playground” since the nineteenth century.
“Coney Island is like a tomb—looks good on the outside, but everything on the inside is dead,” says Pastor Constance SanFilippo-Hulla, 65, sitting in her crowded office at Coney Island Gospel Assembly. Hidden behind stacks of books and papers, she is dressed all in black as if she is about to attend a funeral. A portrait of her father, who founded the church in 1957 and passed it down to her, hangs on the wall above her head. Bottles of water and boxed food are stacked against the far wall. She tells me I shouldn’t have walked here alone because there have been a lot of murders in the area, and offers me a ride to the subway station when I leave. She shows me an obituary of a teenage boy who was shot in the head down the street.
At approximately 100x100 feet, the church is one of the largest in Coney Island, and once had two fully operational levels. That is, until Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast on October 22, 2012, taking 285 lives along with it, including two elderly people from Coney Island. The storm raged on during the church’s Founder’s Day.
Two years later, the church is preparing to celebrate another Founder’s Day, but is still without a functional basement which was once used for housing volunteers, youth group meetings, pageant rehearsals, offices for the Sunday school education department, and the annual Founder’s Day banquet. Also in the basement were computers, a TV, a thousand new donated books, filing systems with people’s records, a boiler, and the breaker panel. According to SanFilippo-Hulla, the water was 25 feet high in the lower level when the storm ended. The parking lot and roof were ruined and the cross in the front fell down. In all, the damage amounted to a monetary value of two million dollars, but the emotional drain carries on.
|(Photo: courtesy of Fred Rodriquez)|
“Not something I ever want to experience again,” says Savone James, an assistant pastor who has been living in Coney Island her entire life. Even though SanFilippo-Hulla says that Coney Island lives with a “certain degree of flooding,” James says that most of New York wasn’t prepared for Sandy. “Nobody was anticipating the degree of loss,” James says as she reflects upon the smell of the ocean in the upheaval of her apartment. She had to stay in a hotel and then with a friend for a few weeks.
Brother Fred Rodriquez can’t hide his sarcasm when he says he had to live in a hotel room for seven “glorious” months when his house was leveled. His six brothers and sisters and their six houses were all destroyed as well, he says. Same thing was true for Mary Gangainey, an usher at the church. She says, “they had to tear everything down to the bare bones” in order to renovate her house, costing her $12,000 out-of-pocket and her insurance had to pay even more. Gangainey lived in a high-rise for eight months, a situation she calls “horrific” because there was no heating and the complex was full. To this day, she is still doing repairs to her backyard.
According to SanFilippo-Hulla, the church custodian was in the building when the hurricane struck. He awoke to water up to his chin in his room in the lower level. Since the water had gotten to the electrical cords, he kept getting electric shocks as he fought his way out the door.
Although the Gospel Assembly has only 100 members in its congregation, and the structure was severely damaged, the church cared for up to 3,000 people a day during and after the hurricane with food, clothing, money, and shelter, according to SanFilippo-Hulla. To her, the people come first. “Our church is in an impoverished area so we help the people,” she says, “The building is not a priority. It’s still very important to us, but the people is our priority. In aiding the community, we made this compromise.”
|(Photo: courtesy of Fred Rodriquez)|
And aid they did. She tells me that the Red Cross recognized her after Hurricane Sandy. From a drawer in her desk, she takes out a red-ribboned medal. “HERO” is written in block letters at the top of the bronzed circle. As a gospel choir begins to practice in another room, she says that everyone who works at the church is a volunteer—no one receives a salary. Without the aid of organizations like the Red Cross, Americorps, the DOE Fund, Habitat of Humanity, and Occupy Sandy, SanFilippo-Hulla is not sure how they would have been able to help.
Even with Red Cross stations set up in front of the church and free meals being provided for those in need two years ago, the church could not receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As a religious establishment, it does not qualify. Their insurance didn’t cover them either. As for donations from the community, SanFilippo-Hulla says it’s not possible. “Everybody was digging themselves out,” she says. So even two years later, the church has a long way to go to being fully operational.
Besides the church, SanFilippo-Hulla worries about the residents of Coney Island. “From what I have experienced and observed, there two different planets. There is the corporate planet and then there are the people who live in poverty. They never meet, and nothing is ever extended,” she says.
The amusement parks are doing fine. Many of the rides and businesses have been rebuilt. The new Thunderbolt rollercoaster opened this past summer on June 14th. It costs ten dollars to take the 2-minute ride that took $10 million to make, according to the Coney Island History Project. Even with all the expandsion underway, the Alliance for Coney Island has created Coney Corps and #Coneyrecovers, initiatives to help residents find jobs and local businesses to succeed.
Yet, just two streets away from the boardwalk, there are cracked sidewalks, empty lots, and small markets with minimal lighting. Such is Mermaid Ave—a struggling community street with hardships still to overcome. A new eyeglass store with a “Stronger Than the Storm” sign has just opened up halfway down the block. The owners are giving away free Snapples to people who buy $100 eye-exam. People come in asking for free Snapples all day, but apparently do not have enough money to buy a pair of glasses.
|(Photo: courtesy of Fred Rodriquez)|
SanFilippo-Hulla and James both acknowledge that the city did set up mental health programs for residents, but they see no sense in this when basic needs such as shelter and food go unmet. The pastor says that many of the buildings have not been repaired and still have mold, rot, and leaking pipes. “Hurricane Sandy just compounded the need that was already here,” says James. SanFilippo-Hulla passionately sits up in her chair and says that the programs are, “Worthless, because if you are sitting with no food and roaches and mice crawling all over you and rats. I don’t need to talk to you about what’s wrong. I need to change the situation that you are living in. You’ll get healthy mentally real quick.”
Coney Island Gospel Assembly may have a long road of recovery ahead even two years after Hurricane Sandy, but that is not what worries the church volunteers the most. It is education. SanFilippo-Hulla says, “It is the answer out of poverty. Kids can learn…but we have been let down and dumbed down.” James is worried about the lack of mentors. She says that, “Nobody is telling them that they are good at other things.”
Derrick Brown, a former professional basketball player comes in the office towards the end of the interview. He is there to talk to Sam and Chris, two high school boys who are failing in school (names have been changed to protect identity). Chris is fighting gang members and had to change schools because of violence. Sam has a fractured home that reflects in his schoolwork. SanFilippo-Hulla says that basketball is their escape. Brown says, “They only want to follow people who are famous. They want to live the ‘baller’s life.’” He hopes to open their eyes to what else is out there. For now, they all agree that the church is the only place the students have for support. And with no more resources in their lower level, the fight to keep these kids off the street and out of the obituaries is harder than ever.