More than five years after superstorm Sandy devastated the city’s coastal neighborhoods, a Coney Island community center remains without a permanent home.
The staff members at HeartShare St. Vincent’s Services (HSVS) have been struggling to provide much-needed community programming in the years since Sandy’s storm surge heavily damaged their center attached to the Surfside Gardens New York City Housing Authority development.
Known as the HSVS Surfside Gardens Cornerstone Program, the nonprofit organization has been forced to move five times as the staff waits for NYCHA to finish building renovations, relying on the generosity of others in the community to house its programming in the meantime.
“It’s just heartbreaking for this community,” said Brooke Rosenthal, vice president of youth development for HSVS.
Rosenthal said the Surfside Cornerstone team initially hoped to organize their own cleanup effort in the days after the storm, but quickly realized the damage was beyond their ability to repair.
“The center was completely flooded,” she said. “There was water damage. There was sand. It was completely destroyed.”
Since then, Surfside Cornerstone has moved around to various temporary locations, including Liberation High School, the Carey Gardens Community Center and P.S. 288, where it is currently operating.
But running the program out of the school has its limitations.
Parents, children, elderly and low-income Coney Island residents rely heavily on Surfside Cornerstone for services that cover everything from assistance with foster care and health care to housing and youth development.
“Seniors, who found activities with the children the highlight of their day, now have even fewer reasons to leave their apartments. Our program is more than an after-school and summer camp. It’s an intergenerational community space,” explained program director Radayza Montas.
During the week, HSVS is supposed to remain open to community residents until 10 p.m. and until 11 p.m. on weekends. P.S. 288 has allowed the staff to work until 9 p.m. on weekdays but they can’t operate at all on weekends, Rosenthal said.
“For many people, we provide hot food and snacks, and for many participants that may be the only hot meal they get that day,” she added. “We’re missing that critical evening programming.”
A spokeswoman for NYCHA said the $61 million Sandy recovery project at the Surfside Gardens development has been delayed due, in part, to building issues that predate the 2012 superstorm. Barring any major complications, NYCHA intends to reopen the community center in the fall.
“We understand the frustration and concerns the delays have caused, but we look forward to welcoming our residents to a state-of-the-art new venue later this year,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
Without a hard deadline, however, Rosenthal said the Surfside Cornerstone team is concerned the building’s reopening will get pushed back again.
“We’ve been strung along in this manner for the last two years,” Rosenthal said. “Our fear is that fall is going to turn into next year and so on. Our community cannot wait. They need these services.”
City Councilman Mark Treyger, who represents Coney Island, blamed “government bureaucracy and incompetence” for the delayed reopening.
“But we are doing everything possible to hold their feet to the fire,” he added in an emailed statement.
The massive renovation also does not include improvements to the playground, according to Rosenthal.
“So we’re going to hopefully have a beautiful new center but the playground will still be riddled with bullet holes,” she said.
In addition to a reopening date, Rosenthal said the Surfside Cornerstone team needs better communication from NYCHA on the project’s progress and more information on what exactly the renovation funding will cover.
“We don’t know if the money includes any computers or furnishings,” she said. “We had planned on reopening this spring, that’s what we were told. And now spring has come and gone. This is just the pattern.”