Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, in the latest in a sequence of essays about New York City's vernacular architecture, Kensinger visits the vanishing bungalows of Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach.
As the final days of summer fade away and the city prepares to close down its beaches and pools, the sun is setting on yet another piece of New York's historic waterfront. Like the endangered wooden boardwalks along the shoreline of Coney Island and the Rockaways, many of the city's last summertime bungalow colonies are now facing a bleak future. Built in the same era as the boardwalks, these seasonal getaways once numbered in the thousands, but today most of New York's bungalows have disappeared from the coast. The few clusters that remain are now buckling under the combined pressures of redevelopment, storm damage, and the realities of global warming.
In Brooklyn, the last vestiges of seaside bungalow life can be found in Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, where narrow footpaths cut through the blocks and past these charming, humble abodes. Sunken down below the surrounding street level, the bungalow courts are tightly packed with individualized homes, but the basic Brooklyn bungalow is a simple, detached one-story house with a peaked roof and no basement, sitting on a small footprint, sometimes with a tiny front yard and usually with a neighboring bungalow in the backyard. Most were built in the first half of the 20th century and intended for summertime use, but were later modernized to become year-round residences. Today, dozens of these charming vernacular structures have either been abandoned or gutted, and are being offered for sale at cut-rate prices starting as low as $149,000, even as similar buildings in Windsor Terrace and the East Village command millions.
In Brighton Beach just a handful of well-manicured bungalows remain standing, hidden down overgrown paths. The decline of the bungalow colony here has been a slow, painful process. Built in the 1920s where the Brighton Beach Racetrack once stood, this unique community was once a summertime destination, located just a few blocks from the lively Coney Island Boardwalk, which opened in 1923. The troubles in the bungalows began decades later, when abandoned homes began to be overtaken by drug dealers, prostitutes, and homeless squatters in the 1990s. "It has pretty much gone from bad to worse," said Gary Collier, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. "It's just a shame what's happened here."
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Shortly after Collier moved in, an abandoned bungalow next door, which had been empty since 1995, was overrun by a homeless commune that illegally tapped the electric lines and threw raucous Christmas parties, culminating with police finding a dead body inside in early 2000. Despite that, "the neighborhood was quiet," said Collier. "The only problem was random prostitution." Over the next decade, however, a citywide development boom and bust would sweep over Brighton Beach, leaving Collier and his neighbors stranded in a "nightmare" landscape pockmarked by empty lots, stalled construction sites, and fire-scarred ruins, the results of arsonists and developers racing to mow down as many unprotected bungalows as possible. The neighborhood has continued into a freefall since 2010, with ever increasing numbers of abandoned and demolished homes, continual problems with fires and squatters, and a new fleet of outsized condominiums squashing the one-story bungalows. "It's gotten worse in the last few years," said Collier, who is ready to sell his home and move out. "The good old days are gone. The bungalow district is a thing of the past…We are trying to get out of here as soon as possible."
When Hurricane Sandy swept over Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in 2012, it destroyed many of their remaining historic bungalows, which are mostly located in basins several feet below street-level. For Brighton Beach, it was the final nail in the coffin for an already destabilized bungalow community. "Sandy has hastened the demise," said Collier. "After Sandy did a lot of damage, people bailed out." In Sheepshead Bay, the historic bungalow courts have an outward appearance of being in much better condition, but the calamitous effects of the storm may pose an even greater existential threat. Though largely ignored by the press, this neighborhood was inundated during Sandy, and today, down its quiet lanes, hidden behind gates and fences, many bungalows remain empty, gutted and waterlogged, missing roofs, floors, and walls. They are quietly being sold off as-is, at reduced prices, with no warranties, in need of full renovation. "During Sandy, the whole bay came over here. It was like a tsunami," said Andrew Feinstein, who has lived in a Sheepshead Bay bungalow for 25 years. "People were on their roofs, waiting to get rescued. But we didn't get a lot of attention after the storm."
That may soon change, as the city continues to plan out the future of this waterfront community. After years of red tape, a recent walk through the verdant passageways of the Sheepshead Bay bungalow courts revealed contractors measuring lanes, repairmen working on sewer lines, and a Build It Back representative checking on a recent drilling project. "We are doing soil samples throughout the neighborhood, taking core samples from the street to test the soil rigidity," he said. "It's for a much larger project, with changes to Edgemere, Gerritsen Beach, and other waterfront areas." Proposals for Sheepshead Bay's future include replacing all of the individual bungalows with prefabricated, attached row houses, or raising the homes four feet above street level, accessible via a new boardwalk. Currently, just one bungalow has been lifted out of its flood-prone gully and above the street, soaring over its neighbors, but more homes may soon be elevated. "That's the goal. They want to raise all these homes," said Feinstein, who hopes to sell his bungalow to a developer and move to Staten Island. "Eventually, these will be taken over. These homes are a thing of the past, whether you want to believe it or not. They are obsolete."
Not everyone in Sheepshead Bay believes the bungalows' days are numbered, and while many homes are currently for sale, they are not all being offered to developers. "A lot of people don't want to see to them go," said Feinstein. "These people have been in the bungalows for generations. They don't want things to change. They want the old fishing village look." Down at the Greenlawn Bungalow Colony, where 33 bungalows dating back to at least the 1920s are situated at the very edge of the bay, sales of bungalows have been crisp since Sandy. After an initial offering of 22 homes, just four remain on the market, ranging in price from $300,000 to $500,000. "Yeah, we're one of the last bungalow colonies, not too may left," said Bob, the owner of many of these bungalows, when reached by phone. "It's a very unique, close-knit community, and a lot of people don't even know it is there. They have no idea. And if they ever walked in and saw it, they'd be like 'Oh my god, look at this—this is in Brooklyn?'" Bob's bungalows are being offered to individual buyers, who will be expected to participate in an active homeowners association. Even though these homes were significantly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, he still believes in the future of the Brooklyn bungalow. "We got some water, like everybody else. I won't be around in the next hundred years, when the next one comes. But these cottages withstand the storms. They are still there."
Down the narrow lanes of Brighton Beach, overgrown footpaths hide the remnants of a historic 90-year-old bungalow community.
A few of these 1920s bungalows remain in good condition, with gardens and fruit trees fenced off from the surrounding neighborhood.
The classic Brooklyn bungalow is a low one-story structure on a concrete pad, but much variation exists within this basic form.
This bungalow was offered for sale in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but now has been abandoned, its windows boarded up to keep squatters from entering.
Other bungalows in the neighborhood have been abandoned much longer, including this fenced off home, which has been empty since at least 2010. "One of them has burned down a couple times," said Collier.
The interior of an abandoned bungalow, as seen in 2010. It had been gutted and left open to the elements, with snow melting across the floor.
Empty lots line many of the bungalow paths. This one held several bungalows before Hurricane Sandy. A new single-story home is being constructed at the end of the lot. "It wasn't in reusable condition after the storm," said its owner. "All the houses were torn down here after Sandy."
New construction throughout the neighborhood overshadows the last remaining old bungalows. "The zoning laws were changed to allow this to happen," said Collier "The whole landscape here has really changed."
"These things are coming up like mushrooms," said Collier. "They are throwing up whatever they can… if you come back in a year, who knows what will be here."
A similar problem of oversized new homes and condos is taking place in Sheepshead Bay. "They took out a lot of small houses and a lot of old restaurants," said Andrew Feinstein. "The neighborhood is overcrowded now."
Down the neighborhood's narrow lanes, several different bungalow courts are tenuously clinging to existence. Hurricane Sandy flooded through the homes here in Mesereau Court. "The bay is maybe a foot below them," said Feinstein. "People were on their roofs, waiting to get rescued."
The bungalows of Sheepshead Bay have a similar architectural style to those in Brighton Beach, but many are in much better condition and have been extensively customized, like this home on Dunne Place.
On Lincoln Terrace, the classic bungalows face the retaining wall of a hotel parking lot. "There is an influx of condos and hotels," said Feinstein. "Since the late 90s, into the mid 2000s, it boomed."
At the end of Lincoln Terrace sits the only bungalow in the neighborhood to be recently elevated out from below street level. The entire community could soon look like this.
Many of the bungalows along nearby Hitchings Avenue are already at street level, and did not entirely flood during Sandy. "We lost our whole basement, but the first floor was untouched," said Feinstein.
Other homes, especially those along Lake Avenue, were not so lucky. Several bungalows in this court remain empty today. During Sandy, "people swam out," according to Marie Feinstein. "It was like Venice. There was no electricity, no heat, nothing."
The interior of a Lake Avenue bungalow, which currently has a large "for sale" sign out front. The home is available for $205,000 to "Buyers who want to be part of the Rebuilding [in] Sheepshead Bay."
Not all of the bungalow homes on Lake Avenue were entirely destroyed by Sandy. This bungalow, currently for sale by its owner, appears to be in peak summer condition. "It's a nice community of waterfront cottages," said Bob, who owns much of the nearby Greenlawn bungalow colony.
Bob's bungalows encompass Shale Street and Bogardus Street, at water's edge. He and the other bungalow owners here prefer to maintain their hidden, unique existence. "If you walked down the block to the grocery store and asked the guy where Bogardus Street is, he'd tell you: Not in this country."
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