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Superstorm Sandy speeds changes in New York’s Rockaways

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.
(Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

Ron Wolken, who lives two blocks from Fruchter, notices it. He’s just half a block from the beach, and in recent years wealthy people have bought houses and remodeled them just to have a property near the beach in the summer.

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“It’s ritzier people moving in,” he said. Some of the neighborhood still feels stuck in past decades, though — as Wolken stands watching his sprinklers, a green truck drives by ringing a bell, looking for anyone on the block who needs their knives sharpened.

Susan Fruchter’s neighbor, Bob Sarnoff, has a different idea about who’s moving in.

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“There are a lot of young, whatever you call them — hipsters, yuppies — coming in,” he said. “They wear these little hipster hats, and they’re all over, they’re really adding a verve. It was happening before, but Sandy forced it even more.”

Still, some old-timers are hanging on.

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Lynn Kramberg lives in a house that her father built in the 1930s. She sits on her porch and reminisces about the neighborhood where she grew up, where aunts and uncles dotted every block, everyone knew one another, people dressed up to go walk on the boardwalk and her father would take a swim in the ocean before work.

Of course it has changed since then, but it wasn’t until Sandy that Kramberg really wondered if it was perhaps not a place she could live anymore. Water from the storm flooded her house, and she and her husband had to replace their kitchen and bathroom and redo their walls and floors. It isn’t something she can imagine doing again.

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“It was terrible, terribly difficult,” she said. “I live with it on a daily basis, the idea that this could happen again. My husband feels like we should leave.”

Susan Fruchter and her husband also talk about leaving as they watch friends and acquaintance move away.

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They miss the way the community was and don’t see the point of spending thousands of dollars to redo a home that may be damaged again soon by another storm.

For now, though, Fruchter is sticking around. “I say as long as there’s a mah-jongg game in the community, I’m staying.”

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alana.semuels@latimes.com


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