Community not yet recovered as Coney Island opens for season

By Amity Paye

AmNews Web Manager

On Sunday, March 31, Coney Island’s iconic Luna Park opened for business. Tourists commuted up to an hour and a half out to the beach and waited on line to be one of the first to ride the park’s famed Cyclone roller coaster this season. Sen. Charles Schumer and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz presided over the 29th annual “Blessing Of the Rides” opening and ribbon cutting ceremony, while right across the street, community members rallied to remind the many tourists and politicians that their community, devastated by Hurricane Sandy, has yet to receive all the help it needs.

“People only recognize Coney Island as an amusement area, which is not true,” said Ronald Stuart, the president of the People’s Coalition of Coney Island, a group of residents, organizations, local businesses and tenant associations that came together and began advocating for and working in the Coney Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “We are happy that the rides are open. We are happy that it is providing jobs. But we are unhappy about the fact that in the western end of Coney Island, we don’t have a lot of services.”

Elected officials, only one of whom crossed the street to speak to the community protestors, also seemed understanding of their plight, “I personally welcome their participation here, because it reminds all of us that are in public life that all is not well,” CBS reported Markowitz saying. Schumer has also said that while it may take a few months to distribute the $60 billion Sandy aid package passed by the Senate, it is “aimed at helping people from every different walk of life who were hurt by Sandy,” he told PIX 11.

During Hurricane Sandy, Luna Park, located directly off the Coney Island beach, was filled with five feet of water. In order to safely re-open the park on Saturday, the entire park had to be power washed and all the rides replaced.

“The allocation of dollars initially in this crisis was given to different institutions outside of this community, and what is happening is that [those institutions] are clueless on how to address the issues that exist here,” said Aida Leon, executive director of Amethyst Women’s Project, which provides HIV testing and services in Coney Island. “And you know why? Because they didn’t speak to those of us who were already here. And that is a real problem.”

About 15 blocks west of Luna Park, the community’s only high school, P.S. 329 – The Surfside School, has only partially re-opened. One parent from the school who wishes to remain anonymous, said her daughter is being bussed over an hour and a half to another school in Brooklyn every day. Other community members say the students and teachers who remain at the school are packed into the second floor, which has still not had the safety of its air quality checked since the storm.

Stressing the importance of taking care of the children, Stuart also said that the community centers, which served the neighborhood’s youth but have been closed due to damages from Hurricane Sandy, do not have concrete re-opening plans. Some community members were told that Heartshare Human Services of NY recreation center, for example, would re-open in September, but Stuart was recently told that it was only the bidding for which reconstruction company will do the work, which would be completed by September. The reconstruction would only then start after that.

“The young people don’t have anywhere to go,” said Stuart. “Prior to Sandy, we had very little, to say the least–but now we have almost nothing at all.”

So community members rallied across from Luna Park, carrying signs reading “People live here” and “Coney Island is not back” and displaying photos of community centers, senior centers, homes and schools still reeling from the flooding, mold and other damages sustained by Hurricane Sandy. They caught up on local news and asked about each other’s children, but also spoke of a youth shooting that had happened earlier in the week, pointing to the lack of community centers and schools as a possible cause.

“There are two places they are living in, yesterday and next year. What about right here, right now? They are behaving as though this is a budgeted planned event. It is not. It is called crisis intervention,” said Dayna Monroe, a resident of Coney Island since 1974 who began working with the People’s Coalition of Coney Island after Hurricane Sandy. Monroe mentioned the senior citizens who are still not getting a lot of heat and hot water, the air quality and trash disposal issues that have been unattended to and the emotional impact on the many children displaced from their homes and schools as just some of this issues her community is now facing.

But Monroe also explained, “We’re not trying to place ourselves as a bunch of victims in need of some social program saving; we’re just asking to put the building there. We’ll manage the rest. We’re dedicated, we’re smart; we have the agency to do it.”