It Really Does Take a Village to Rebuild After Sandy

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The streets of Sheepshead Bay contain a secret: six pedestrian-only courts nestled in between main streets.

It is one thing to get 30 of your neighbors to decide to throw a block party together. Or to all put your trinkets out of the sidewalk for a rummage sale on the same Saturday. But imagine getting them to decide to raise their houses up on higher foundations. And then, all together, build a boardwalk about four feet in the air that everyone can use to their doors.

And imagine if you need not just a majority of shareholders who have to agree, as happens in a co-op apartment building, but pretty much everyone on your block.

That is the task confronting one bungalow community in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, that was devastated by Sandy more than a year ago. Its geographic features are so unusual that ordinary flood-proofing strategies would come short.

“It’s a real complex process,” said Elana Bulman, an organizer from the Pratt Center for Community Development who is involved in the project. “It is dealing with individual homeowners who are thinking, ‘Okay, what does this mean for me?’ And then you are also trying to convince everyone that this is only going to work if everyone pitches in and has the same vision for their block.”

The homes, almost 200 of them, are arranged along mews near the intersection of Emmons and Nostrand avenues. These are pedestrian passageways, just six feet across, not streets. (They are called “courts” in Brooklynese.) And the mews themselves are four or five feet below the level of the cross-streets on either side.

The bungalows were built as a summer cottages in the late 1920s, only to be converted to year-round use in the 1940s. Sometime later, the city raised the streets around them, but left the courts where they were because they are private property.

In October 2012, Sandy turned the courts into bathtubs, filling them up with six or seven feet of water. They took several days to drain because of the primitive, privately maintained sewer pumps below the walkway. The same problem, to a lesser extent, occurs after storms that are far less serious than Sandy.

But otherwise, residents there like it.

“There’s good and bad, but I’m so used to it,” said Missy Haggerty, who was born and raised there. “To bring out the garbage, you have to bring it up to the corner and put it on Emmons Avenue. You can’t just put it outside and the sanitation men are going to pick it up.”

The courts are hard to find unless you know what you are looking for. The walkway is privately owned. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

On a recent tour of the neighborhood with a reporter, she called out to everyone she passed by name, both on her court and on the other courts nearby, asking after their mothers, spouses and children.

“It’s one big family,” Haggerty added.  

Haggerty and a number of other community leaders have been organizing their neighbors to support plans developed by the Pratt Center that would solve their drainage problems and elevate their houses at the same time. (Higher flood insurance premiums expected to kick in by next year will penalize homeowners in flood plains whose houses are not above flood level.)

The most popular idea to date is to build a boardwalk about four feet above the current pathway that would meet the grade of the surrounding streets. Then elevate the houses as well, maybe as much as eight feet. The boardwalk would reduce the need for tall steep staircases in the small front yards. The sewage system would also be raised.

One Pratt Center design for the courts would raise the houses and add a boardwalk roughly at street level. (Cristina Zubillaga and Sean Gold/Gans Studio)  

“They realize they want it to be an integrated solution,” said Deborah Gans, the architect who developed the plans and has been leading community meetings. “They do want to raise their houses. And they also want to raise how they get to them.”

All of it takes a lot of coordination and community spirit. And while Gans and Bulman are optimistic, some of the most active residents are getting frustrated.

“If you want to see this become the same generational neighborhood like it is right now, somebody has to say something,” said Barbara Berardelli, a grandmother who has been living next to a court (though technically on a regular city street) her whole life. “You have to take a little time out of your life to get involved.”

Barbara Berardelli, one of the community's leaders. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

Part of the problem is funding. No one knows how much the project would cost and how much would be covered by federal Sandy aid, if any. Berardelli and others hope that if the neighbors present a united front, they will be able to make a better case for taxpayer support. But without knowing the details, people are reluctant to endorse any plan.

“Who can? Who can’t? Who’s willing?,” said one resident, Joe Zito. “Who’s going to foot the bill?”

For the time being, the community is planning to ask for up to $100,000 from NY Rising, a state program funding community-based flood-proofing projects. The money would pay for a feasibility plan that would, among other goals, come up with a cost estimate.

But that plan is competing against many other priorities for just $6.7 million that has been allocated for the entire Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, an area of three square miles with more than 100,000 people. A local committee entrusted with coming up with a list of how that money should be spent is expected to report out at the end of March.