Behind Closed Gates

Behind Closed Gates

Residents of Edgewater Park have described their southeastern Bronx community as timeless and unspoiled, a waterfront Shangri-La. Next door to them is Silver Beach Gardens, a “white-picket-fence fairytale,” as the Daily News declared last summer. But trouble struck these two communities last month when the Fair Housing Justice Center, an advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against both claiming racial discrimination.

Edgewater Park and Silver Beach Gardens are private cooperatives, with closed-off streets and a single point of entry. They have security guards and signs that forbid loitering, trespassing or soliciting. They also, as the lawsuit points out, have very few black people living within their cloistered confines—less than 1 percent. The suit, filed February 4, has left these Bronx neighborhoods defending their insular, tight-knit ways. And it has left those outside their walls astonished that gated communities exist in New York City.

But they are here, and not just in the Bronx.

Slices of suburbia nestle along coveted waterfronts and isolated pockets of the outer boroughs, fenced off and often guarded from the rest of the city. Some have been around for more than a century. They began as mostly white, middle class enclaves. That is what they mostly remain to this day.

Gates first went up around the western tip of Coney Island in 1898. To this day, the 830-home Sea Gate maintains its own streets and sewers and even has its own private police force, separate from the NYPD, stocked with guns and squad cars. In 1960, residents at the far end of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens formed the Breezy Point Cooperative. Silver Beach Gardens finalized its own private co-op in 1973. Edgewater Park followed in 1988. These are the largest and most well known, but it is not uncommon for developers to put up fences around developments new and old, declaring them off-limits to outsiders.

With beaches and mazes of private streets lined with bungalows or detached one-and-two-family homes, these gated communities hardly resemble Manhattan’s premier co-ops like Sutton Place or 740 Park Avenue. Nor do the residents enjoy the haughty, decadent lifestyle on display in Coto de Caza, the gated community where The Real Housewives of Orange County live. And yet these private sanctuaries do exhibit a similar world view.

“Sea Gate is horizontal. Park Avenue is vertical,” said Tom Angotti, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College. “Physically the communities are different. Socially, they’re the same. The essential aspect is exclusion.” Gates and private security, Angotti said, send a message to people on the outside of these communities that they are not welcome.

Not all gated communities are co-ops like Edgewater Park or Silver Beach Gardens, however. Nor are their practices seen as nefarious. “We’re a unique seaside community,” said Tami Smorto, manager for the Sea Gate Association. “Nobody knows about us. We’re so quiet about who we are. It’s like a little hidden gem.” She said Sea Gate’s somnolent streets, low crime rate, and relative obscurity attract people.

While Sea Gate has a board of directors, it has nothing to do with the buying and selling of homes—anyone can move into the neighborhood. “Honestly, we are a fantastic mix of people,” Smorto said. “Jewish. Russian. So many different types of people. It’s like taking all of New York City and putting it right here.”

Well, not quite. Census data for Sea Gate from 2000 shows that more than 75 percent of the people living there are white, 7.4 percent are black and 9.4 percent Hispanic. Those numbers for New York City as a whole are 44.7, 26.6 and 27 percent, respectively. In Breezy Point more than 99 percent of the residents are white. In Edgewater Park and Silver Beach Gardens, white residents make up 82 percent of residents. The neighborhood is 12 percent Hispanic, but only 1 percent black.

Part of the Fair Housing Justice Center’s lawsuit against Edgewater Park and Silver Beach Gardens alleges that a real estate agent for the two communities simply refused to show homes to a black couple that contacted her. According to the suit, the couple “were told of the strict reference policy, never even offered the opportunity to view available properties, and steered away from the properties because there are very few people of ‘any kind … of ethnic color’ living in the co-ops.” (Both coops declined to comment.)

Recent history reveals how other gated communities in New York have remained exclusive. In 2003, a Breezy Point woman was arrested on hate crime charges after she assaulted a 12-year-old Hispanic girl. Meanwhile, Sea Gate, once open to foot traffic coming in from Coney Island, closed its streets to outside pedestrians in 1989. It then required residents to carry photo-identification passes. Eight years later, the community built a fence blocking a strip that allowed people from Coney Island to access its private beaches. The city took Sea Gate to court, claiming the beach strip was city property. The court ruled against the city.

“People believe New York to be a melting pot where people live in harmony with one another,” said Tom Angotti, the professor of Urban Affairs at Hunter College. “That’s the image we’re sold and the myth we buy.”