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Superstorm Sandy speeds changes in New York's Rockaways

What was once a vibrant, close-knit Jewish community is dissolving as many longtime Rockaways residents decide not to rebuild their beachfront homes.

August 05, 2013|By Alana Semuels
  • A new seawall is being built to help protect the homes in Rockaways, a beach community in New York, after Superstorm Sandy hit last fall.
A new seawall is being built to help protect the homes in Rockaways, a beach… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Inside the Tudor house one block from the beach in the Rockaways, Susan Fruchter's world is much as it has been for decades.

Oil paintings on the walls depict studious rabbis, framed Hebrew prints commemorate special events, elegant wooden furniture is tastefully spaced through the rooms. But outside, on the blocks of modest brick and wooden homes and tree-lined streets, everything is changing.

It had started before the storm — people picking up and moving nearer to their grown children, Jews who had lived in the neighborhood for decades moving closer to kosher markets or Jewish schools. But then last fall Superstorm Sandy flooded the Rockaway Peninsula, a thin strip of land delicately perched between the ocean and Jamaica Bay, and the changes accelerated.

Up and down the blocks, older homeowners decided not to rebuild, put their homes on the market and left. Some beachfront homes destroyed by the storm were sold and are being rebuilt into something bigger, newer, better.

Now the neighborhood is changing from something that might be found in a Woody Allen movie ( "Radio Days" was set in the Rockaways) to something else entirely as elderly homeowners decide they don't want to grapple with the headache of rebuilding from a once-in-a-lifetime storm.

"It's definitely on people's minds — I got to get out, why am I staying here, the community's changing, I don't want to be the last one here," Fruchter said, walking down the block to point out a house once occupied by a Jewish physician and his wife. The new resident is a tattooed younger man.

Neighborhoods change quickly in New York as property values rise, but the storm that flooded nearly every house in this neighborhood has sped the turnover. Some residents hope that the changes will be good for property values, and may even make this end of the Rockaways more similar to the upscale Hamptons, New York's play land for the rich. But others say they're sad to see what was once a vibrant, close-knit Jewish community dissolve.

"Sometimes, we've been having trouble getting the required number of people to do group prayers," said Joyce Semel, whose sons attended a Yeshiva, or Jewish school, that was flooded during Sandy and has announced that it is not returning. "I'm not sure where everyone went."

Semel glances down the block at a three-bedroom shingled house surrounded by scaffolding. It was sold earlier in the year, and the new owners are retrofitting it, replacing the shingles with cedar and making it more energy efficient.

The new owner, Cathy Petrosino, 47, rides up to the house on a lightweight Trek bike, dressed in spandex, an Asics hat and big sunglasses. A clothing designer, she's training for the New York Marathon and says she rides her bike everywhere in the Rockaways. She is excited to start living the beach lifestyle.

"It is an older house. We are actually fully redoing the house," said Petrosino, who is moving her family from Brooklyn. One retrofit being done is to waterproof the home in anticipation of another big storm.

Petrosino and her husband aren't going to move into the house for another year. However, many older homeowners have decided that rebuilding isn't worth it.

They include Ruth Kogut, 84, who recently sold her spacious 6,000-square-foot, four-bedroom oceanfront home for $2.5 million, 20% less than what she could have gotten a year ago.

Waves from Sandy knocked off one of the home's four sides, and it appears like a dollhouse to people walking by with furniture still in place. But she and her husband paid just $80,000 for the house in 1967, so Kogut, a widow, has still made a handy profit.

"After the storm, she decided that she didn't want to rebuild the house, she might be better off living in apartment," said Rene Roth, Kogut's daughter.

Others are moving because they can't afford to rebuild. Homeowners insurance doesn't cover much flood damage. Many people didn't have flood insurance. New FEMA flood maps require people to either raise their homes higher off the ground or face high flood insurance premiums.

"People are really financially strapped," said Rabbi Marjorie Slome, who leads the reform West End Temple a few blocks from Fruchter's house. And "it's a full-time job to fight the insurance companies."

According to real estate site Zillow, about one-third of the homes in the 11694 ZIP Code have decreased in value over the last year. About 1 in 5 owners have cut their listing price as a glut of homes enters the market.

In many cases, buyers are snapping up older homes — some built in the 1920s — only to knock them down and build more modern dwellings. That's what's driving much of the demographic change, since most of the longtime Rockaways residents can't afford to rebuild.

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