Residents Only: Inside New York City’s Oldest Gated Community

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The entrance to Sea Gate doesn’t have a doorman, or an alarm system, or a bolt lock. Instead, it has a gate.

Perched at the southwestern tip of Brooklyn, at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 37th Street, the gate blocks the road completely. A small booth reserved for the Sea Gate police sits in front of the brick and white-paneled structure; the police decide who comes in and who stays out. Just beyond the barrier that moves up and down as cars pass through is a glimpse of green not typical of New York City.

The gate’s pedestrian entrance is peppered with signs that warn, “entering private community,” and “no trespassing.” But Pete Spanakos’ car rolls right through.

The landscape changes as soon as he reaches the other side of the gate. Victorian-style houses are spread generously along wide streets and cul-de-sacs. Other houses are smaller and slightly closer together, their red brick exteriors gleaming in the sunlight. Trees dot the sidewalk. An elderly couple ambles down the street, taking their time, arm in arm. This suburban-like enclave is home to just under 5,000 residents, according to the 2010 Census, and covers half of a square mile.

Spanakos, 73, has lived in Sea Gate for 44 years, and he knows so much about Sea Gate’s past that he is known as the community’s historian. His entirely steel house — an anomaly in Sea Gate, and anywhere else, for that matter — was designed in the 1930s by William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building. Its modern, cube-like design and white, pre-fabricated walls, which peek through the trees in Spanakos’ yard, have earned it the nickname, “the sugar cube.” Inside, lining the entryway’s walls, hangs photograph upon photograph of the Chrysler Building, an ode to the cube’s creator. Scattered around his property are small reminders of the beach, like the miniature lighthouse figurine and the old Coney Island boardwalk sign that sit in his living room. There are bars on his windows, despite the gate he lives behind.

Beyond the bars, the windows of Spanakos’ living room offer a sweeping view of the beach, where Gravesend Bay meets the Lower Bay. The Verrazano Bridge glistens in the background. It’s hard to believe this sight is only minutes from the gritty sidewalks, run down stores, and housing projects that crowd Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

The beginnings of Sea Gate date back to the 1890s, when Norton’s Point Land Company bought all of the land west of 37th Street and sold property to several wealthy families, writes Arnold Rosen in his book, Sea Gate Remembered. Land was sold to clans with such prominent names as Vanderbilt, Dodge, and Morgan. These bourgeois of the time built Sea Gate into an exclusive summer resort community. In 1899, several of the families who owned homes in the community joined together to buy all of Sea Gate from Norton’s Point Land Company. The Sea Gate Association, the private corporation that still runs Sea Gate, was officially incorporated in 1899. The association put up two gates and a fence around its perimeter, creating one of the country’s first gated communities, and the first in New York City. Today there are still two gates, at Surf and Neptune avenues, and a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire stretches the length of West 37th Street. There’s also an economic gate. For the most part, homes are not priced astronomically; in the last three years, houses have sold for an average of less than $500,000, according to the Property Shark database. But residents also pay annual dues and charges that amount to 13 percent of their property’s assessed evaluation, says Tami Maldonado, the association’s community manager.  The dues and charges pay for things like sewers, street repair, and beach maintenance. The community even has its own police and sanitation departments. It runs like its own, private, city.

Maldonado says she thinks Sea Gate was walled off in the first place to set the community apart. “It used to be a little playground for the rich and famous and it used to be a big beach club,” she says. “It was mainly done, I would say, for safety and for separation.”

It was this exclusivity that drew Spanakos to Sea Gate generations later. Growing up in Red Hook, Spanakos and his twin brother were the youngest in a family of seven boys born to Greek immigrant parents. As a teenager, he spent summers as a seasonal park helper, cleaning up the beaches of Coney Island for nine dollars a day. He says he passed by the gate when driving the park’s truck one day and it piqued his curiosity.

“I wondered, ‘what the hell was this all about? A gated community?’” He told his friend he wanted to drive into Sea Gate to see what it was like. His friend warned him that if he tried, they would throw him out. He didn’t attempt to enter until years later, in 1967.

When he got married, Spanakos says, he thought about where he’d like to raise a family. In Red Hook, he and his twin brother took up boxing—and later became professionals–because they so often got into fights. He didn’t want his children to grow up with the same dangers.

“My twin brother and I, because we’re small, we’re Greek, we used to have fights every day.” Boxing, he says, “was the only thing that saved us in Red Hook, because we started fighting back. When I was looking for a house when I got married, I said, I don’t want to live in this type of neighborhood.”

The desire for safety, of course, is not uncommon. Three out of four parents are afraid their children will be kidnapped by a stranger, according to a national survey cited by Barry Glassner in his book, The Culture of Fear. And every year, more Americans are coping with this fear by gating themselves off from the rest of the world. Between 1995 and 2001 the number of people living in gated communities rose from 4 to 16 million, writes Setha Low in her article, “Behind Bars,” published in the magazine Next American City.

Spanakos, who used to be a drug counselor in Coney Island’s school district 21, cites Coney Island’s crime rate as justification for the gate. “You can’t walk at night on the boardwalk. You can’t walk on Mermaid, Surf, and Neptune Avenues,” he says. “Because of the drug infestation, because of high crime rates, it’s not safe.”

Emile Saint-Lot, 62, disagrees with this reasoning. A native of Haiti, Saint-Lot moved to Sea Gate with his wife and three young daughters 18 years ago. He says he thinks the gate prevents the neighborhood from becoming crowded and overrun with beach-goers, preserving its quietness, not necessarily its safety.

“I am not saying that being outside of Sea Gate is unsafe,” he says. “I’ve lived in this country for 47 years and I’ve never been mugged. The fact that we are in a gated community gives you, maybe, a false sense of security.”

Saint-Lot recalls that once, not long after he first moved to Sea Gate, he left five of his family’s bicycles outside on his porch overnight. In the morning, the bikes were gone. He says this taught him a lesson: “you have to be careful wherever you are.”

Eighty-three percent of Sea Gate’s residents are white, according to the 2010 census, and 23 unique first ancestries were reported in the 2005-2009 American Community Survey. The neighborhood’s composition has changed though; just fifty years ago, according to 1960 census numbers, Sea Gate was 99 percent white. According to Spanakos, before the neighborhood became predominantly Jewish in the 1930s, a sign on the lawn directly opposite the main gate said, “no dogs or Jews.”

Saint-Lot is part of the 17 percent of today’s Sea Gate residents who aren’t white, and he says he has never felt uncomfortable in Sea Gate because of his race.  “We speak to each other as people who live in Sea Gate,” he says. “They’re not looking to see if you’re black, white, green, or purple.”

People of color, says Saint-Lot, are not moving to Sea Gate in droves simply because they may not know about it. He explains that people learn about neighborhoods through word of mouth, and often that results in large ethnic enclaves in certain neighborhoods, like the Chinese in Sunset Park, West Indians in Crown Heights, or the Polish in Greenpoint. Similarly, Sea Gate has quickly growing Hasidic Jewish and Russian populations. When he was looking to buy a house, Saint-Lot told the realtor that he wanted to live in a neighborhood that would accept his biracial family; his wife is Russian.  He also wanted to live near the water, which reminded him of the island he had left behind as a teenager. If the realtor hadn’t told him there was a house for sale in Sea Gate, he may never have ended up there.

As for perceptions on the other side of the gate, they vary, says Judi Orlando, executive director of Astella Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that works to improve quality of life for the Coney Island community. She says of the gate, “I’m sure some people you talk to will resent it. Other people say that’s the way it is.” She adds that Astella’s former board president lived in Sea Gate, as does one of their current board members. She knows several people who have moved from Coney Island to Sea Gate, she says. The communities are conjoined; there are no stores or schools or services in Sea Gate, so Sea Gate residents are also involved in the Coney Island community.

Spanakos walks the length of the Coney Island boardwalk every morning. Saint-Lot used to take his children to the amusement park. Maldonado says that many Sea Gate residents are involved with the Coney Island community board. She also says that while she grew up in Sea Gate, her husband is from Coney Island. Despite the gate, the police, and the barbed wire fence that define it, the Sea Gate-Coney Island boundary is more fluid than meets the eye.

But still, gates are built to keep people out, as Low explains in “Behind Bars.” “The transformation of established neighborhoods into gated communities,” she writes, “became an alternative strategy for regulating and patrolling the urban poor, comprised predominantly of Latino and black minorities.”  Coney Island, as it turns out, is 42 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic. 

“The gates are a security issue that unfortunately have become a racial and minority issue,” says Spanakos. “Unless you’re a homeowner or a tenant, you cannot come into Sea Gate. And if I spot something suspicious on the street, I call the cops up, they come and they check the guy out. You don’t live here? You don’t rent here? Out.”

The question is, how is this gate different from a doorman at the entrance to an apartment building, or an extra lock on the front door? All are meant to keep home safe and private. Saint-Lot thinks they’re not all that different.

“The purpose of the gate is to keep people who don’t have any business where we are, out. Just like a doorman. His purpose is to keep people who don’t belong in the building out. Is this safety? Or is it privacy?” asks Saint-Lot.

Perhaps a gate just exaggerates the separation we all try to create in our lives, a reminder of our attempt to assure both privacy and safety for our families in a world filled with fear. But one thing’s for sure. Behind the gate at the edge of Brooklyn, the view is breathtaking. Spanakos gazes through his living room window toward the horizon, where the blues of water and sky collide.

“I love it. No regrets,” he says. “You have a paradise here.”

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