In 1935, future Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer rented a room in Sea Gate, Brooklyn “for $4 a week. The cold, the snow and the frost had set in. At night the wind howled, the bell of the lighthouse rang, the ocean stormed and foamed with a rage as old as eternity.” The mostly gated neighborhood ‘s 270-degree shoreline has remained untouched—except for a couple of disastrous squalls and a small 2003 oil spill. No property has been swallowed by the ocean since 1992 (when a house virtually disappeared), but it’s possible that Sea Gate, which lies at the western tip of Coney Island (about 80 minutes from Union Square by rush hour public transit), will be among the first communities devastated by a natural disaster.
The isolated, modest community is a world of miniatures—stand-alone three-story houses, tiny community buildings, microscopic wedges of parkland, even little SUVs, as though an entire Florida county had relocated and shrunk itself, jettisoning malls, golf courses, and other luxuries to scrunch up on this tiny, climatically mercurial beach peninsula. Meters from the shore, the largely Russian, Hasidic, and elderly residents enjoy a small-town insularity presided over by the iron-fisted Sea Gate Association. The outwardly comatose neighborhood has made a disproportionate impact on Jewish literature and music, inspiring Singer’s “Escape Civilization,” Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt’s collection Im Si-geyt baym yam (In Sea Gate by the Sea), and a body of lesser-known Jewish folk songs by sometime resident Woody Guthrie, Greenblatt’s son-in-law.
Today, local culture sings a more conservative and rapturous tune. Tiferes Menachem, a messianic Chabad Lubavitcher yeshiva for adult men, draws ba’al t’shuvah (‘returning’ to Orthodoxy) and curious students from around the world. The annual Torah by the Sea and Shabbos by the Shore retreats capitalize on an excellent location. (“God directed us here,” says founder Rabbi Lipskier). Tiferes also reaches out to locals, like the secular Ukrainian family whose 10-year-old was recently circumcised here. During the process, which uses local anesthesia, the boy played an electronic game. “All of a sudden in the middle he stops playing,” remembers Rabbi Lipskier. “[But not from] pain. He says, ‘I feel God with me—how can I play the game’ ” Tiferes Menachem’s activities—instruction, prayer, even breakfast—are available by webcast; remote students can even participate.
Boundaries: Sea Gate is bounded by West 37th Street to the east and the Lower Bay/Atlantic Ocean to the north, south, and west.
Transportation: In a 2003 oral history, late White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler remembered “a trolley that ran from the end of the subway line at Coney Island to Sea Gate—Every now and then the conductor would let you take the controls.” Eighty years later, the B36 and B74 run to the new Stillwell Avenue station.
Main Drags: Residential Surf Avenue sweeps through the main gate (flanked by the police station and Sea Gate Association office) and curls northwest, sending out a raft of spokes (Beach 37th to 51st Streets) to the shoreline.
Prices to Rent and Buy: Although elderly residents often flee the brutal winters and a few new homes are being renovated or constructed, real estate is scarce. Failing a serious storm, though, the price is right. Rentals on the block include one-bedrooms for $800 to $1,000 and a beach three-bedroom for $1,500. Properties for sale include a five-bedroom for $699,000, six-bedrooms for $750,000 to $820,000, a seven-bedroom for $659,000, and nine-bedrooms for $849,000 to $985,000.
What to Check Out: The Coney Island Lighthouse, at Beach 47th Street between Surf Avenue and the ocean, was the last civilian-manned U.S. lighthouse until the death of its (only technically) retired keeper, Frank Schubert, in late 2003.
Hangouts, Parks: The Sea Gate Beach Club lay unlocked and bare on a recent November morning, but it hops in lovely weather, when families pay between $2,195 and $4,495 for access to small-scale cabanas, pools, tennis facilities, kids’ activities, and a glittering Atlantic beach. “Outsiders come here for [the beach club],” says Sam Freund, 58, derisively; locals lay claim to a secluded, no-frills stretch of neighboring shoreline that shrinks and expands depending on which of five beaches are open. Hasidim gather in five shtibelach (tiny synagogues) marked on a useful map by the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath-observant) Committee of Sea Gate. Just outside the main gate, Coney Island’s Surf Solomon Senior Center educates, feeds, and entertains its constituents. Commercial ventures consist of an athletics center and a woman who sells HerbaLife out of her house.
Crime: The quasi-private Sea Gate Police are affiliated with the NYPD’s 60th Precinct, which also covers Coney Island, Brighton Beach, West Brighton Beach, and Bensonhurst. The precinct reports eight murders year-to-date, down 50 percent from last year, sixteen rapes (up from twelve), 309 robberies (up from 289), and 230 felony assaults (up from 189). Sea Gate’s peace is occasionally punctured by major arrests—like those of mobster Eugene Lombardo, sexagenarian alleged batterer-murderer Stanislav Vandenko, and a Sea Gate Police Officer of the Month booked for allegedly sexually assaulting a minor while on duty. Oh, and a murdered baby washed up in 1998. Still, community control is tight, and residents report feeling remarkably safe—a far cry from Sea Gate’s early days of Tammamy Hall domination, illegal amusements, and wealthy excess.
Politicians: Councilman Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, State Senator Diane Savino, and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (who has shown particular concern for local beach erosion) are all Democrats.