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All Photos by Nathan Kensinger

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Can Auction Transform a Storm-Damaged Corner of Staten Island?

Buyers in New Dorp will be required to rebuild

As spring blossoms in Staten Island, a collection of empty homes scattered along the coast is finally emerging from dormancy and darkness. With electricity cut and windows boarded up, they have sat empty for months, sometimes years, waiting for new owners. Many contain artifacts from their past lives—green beans in the cupboard, toothbrushes in the bathroom, heirlooms in the attic. Most are gutted, missing floors, walls, or ceilings. All are reminders of the devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York’s waterfront in 2012.

On May 10th, the state will auction off 55 of these storm-damaged properties from around the island to bidders who will be required to rebuild and elevate them above flood levels. In New Dorp Beach, a neighborhood where Hurricane Sandy crushed houses, floated cars, and uprooted trees, 16 properties are included in the auction. Most are simple one-bedroom bungalows stripped down to hollow shells, a block away from the ocean. On a recent weekday, during an open house for potential bidders, visitors moved briskly from one home to the next, voicing their blunt assessments. "This is a knockdown. You don’t keep this." "How big is this one? Just one bedroom? Oh, too small for me." "This is one of the nicer ones! It’s big!"

Along New Dorp Beach’s narrow streets, remnants of Sandy are everywhere, from vacant lots to abandoned houses, and the storm still looms large in residents’ memories. "The water was eight feet high in the street. It came five feet up in my house," said one local, whose home is next door to an empty auction property. "I lost everything. My house was destroyed. I had to take it down to the studs. We never thought something like that could happen." With the upcoming auction, and ongoing home elevations happening throughout the neighborhood, residents hope their community will soon be returned to life.

"There is no reason why these communities, where people want to remain, can’t be rebuilt with better quality, more resilient housing stock," said Barbara Brancaccio, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery. "These communities have multiple generations, and the people who are living there don’t want to leave, nor should they have to." All 55 properties on Staten Island were purchased by the state government at their pre-storm value, for a total of just over $15 million, money that the government considers to be well invested. "If this program wasn’t there, it’s possible that a homeowner would have abandoned their house, or sold it to someone who didn’t have the know how to build it back," said Rachel Wieder, the director of the acquisition program. "We are guaranteeing that the homes don’t go abandoned, and we are replenishing the housing stock on Staten Island."

New Dorp Beach has hosted simple shorefront structures since at least the 1670s, when Obadiah Holmes, a British clerk, lived in a modest two-bedroom structure known as the Britton Cottage. Over the centuries, many more cottages and bungalows were built here, including summer getaways constructed at water’s edge, surrounded by sand. Most of these beach bungalows were bulldozed by Robert Moses in 1962, to make way for a never-realized parkway, but one last pocket survived up until 2011 at the century-old Cedar Grove Beach Club, before the city decided to reclaim and demolish them. The remaining bungalows of New Dorp Beach are now separated from the water by a strip of green parkland and, like bungalows throughout the city, face a difficult future.

With sea levels rising at an increasingly rapid rate, and the West Antarctic ice sheet potentially melting away, New York City’s older coastal communities must now choose between evolution or retreat. In Brooklyn, many of the remaining bungalow courts are slowly going extinct, while in the Rockaways, residents are still struggling to rebuild their bungalow communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In Broad Channel Island, where houses are built on pilings above the water, the challenges of climate change are becoming an everyday reality. And in Oakwood Beach, the neighborhood just next door to New Dorp Beach, residents decided to move away en masse after Sandy, selling their homes to the state government to be returned to nature. Bulldozers are now clearing away the community, and wetlands are sprouting where houses once stood.

While it is hard to predict how many decades the remaining bungalows of New Dorp Beach have, it is clear that the neighborhood will soon look completely different, as homes are replaced and elevated. "What we are doing is building the community up so that people can continue to live there," said Brancaccio. "We are not turning back time."

In 2011, before Hurricane Sandy, the last community of beach bungalows in New York City existed on the waterfront near New Dorp, at the Cedar Grove Beach Club.

Residents here were evicted from their homes after the 2010 summer season ended, when the NYC Parks Department decided to reclaim their bungalows and fence them off.

The century old bungalow community had survived Robert Moses’s attempt to bulldoze it in the 1960s, when he acquired the homes here by eminent domain. Most were torn down shortly after these photos were taken.

In the aftermath of Sandy, just two beach bungalows remained. They were demolished years later, leaving Cedar Grove Beach an uninhabited area.

Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage throughout New Dorp, flooding homes far inland. "The water was all the way above my head," recalled one resident. "This entire thing has been a nightmare."

Many homes were destroyed by the storm surge, including this property at the corner of Maple Terrace and Cedar Grove Avenue, seen in the days immediately after Hurricane Sandy.

Today, the same property remains empty, like many lots throughout the neighborhood. The home next door, also badly damaged by the storm, is now empty and up for auction.

Along Neutral Avenue, all of the houses were inundated by ocean water. "My neighbor, he left in the middle of the storm and the water was two feet high," recalled one resident along the street. "By the time he made it to the end of the block, it was up to his chest."

Today, this same Neutral Avenue property is vacant, with no sign of the bungalow that once stood here. "Some people wanted a buyout and others wanted to rebuild," said Rachel Wieder. "It’s a neighborhood with a lot of different recovery efforts going on."

In the years since Sandy, a number of homes in New Dorp have been elevated as part of the Build It Back program, transforming the landscape.

Accessing these homes can be difficult, although some residents have built elevators up to their front doors.

All of the auction properties that are being sold must be elevated two feet above the base flood level. "It depends on how low-lying the area is, but the elevation will probably be between five to eight feet in these areas," said Rachel Wieder.

Inside the auction properties, conditions vary from gutted and empty to renovated and filled with belongings. This attic space was heaped with piles of clothing and bedding.

Downstairs, cans of soup were still in the cupboard, though the home appeared to have been uninhabited since Sandy. "This is a complete teardown," said one visiting bidder. "I’m not going to spend a long time in this one."

In another home, toothbrushes and kitchen supplies had been left behind. "These homeowners were hit by Sandy and they didn’t have the means, or didn’t feel like they could build back," said Wieder.

Eyeglasses and a bowl of clocks and spoons, found in a pitch black basement. "Most of the houses need a lot of work. Some are okay, but most need a lot of work," said one visiting bidder. "Some of these, you’d be better tearing down."

On a wall of scribbled graffiti, a reminder of Hurricane Sandy. "I think what we are doing in New Dorp Beach is a step in the right direction," said Wieder. "We are going to see a lot of families living there."

Sixty-two properties in New York City are being auctioned off in total, from a number of different neighborhoods. "I think all coastal communities are now investigating their options," said Barbara Brancaccio. "What’s really important here is that there are multiple strategies at play."

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012.

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