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A long-neglected Queens neighborhood grapples with the effects of climate change in NYC

In Edgemere, residents must face the reality of how climate change will reshape the community

Out in the Rockaways, almost at the end of the A train, a small, forgotten community sits on the shores of Jamaica Bay. Neglected for decades by the government, its streets are lined with vacant lots, its coastline a collection of abandoned piers. Reminders of the terrible destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy are all around, while boarded-up homes highlight the devastation of the recent Great Recession. This is Edgemere, one of the most unique waterfront neighborhoods in New York City.

In this quiet Queens enclave, the city is developing its battle plans against sea-level rise. This past March, the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan was released by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD). Resulting from a planning initiative that began in 2015, it presents an ambitious collection of projects and proposals that are intended to “serve as a model for other coastal neighborhoods not only in New York, but in vulnerable communities throughout the United States.”

Creating a multifaceted response to climate change is a challenging endeavor, and a walk through the streets of Edgemere quickly reveals that residents have serious concerns about the resiliency plan. Lifelong members of the community are fearful they could lose their homes and their neighborhood as the city works toward its goal of relocating homeowners away the waterfront.

As sea levels continue to rise, difficult choices are facing Edgemere and many other communities around New York City, and the outcomes of the strategies used here will only become more relevant in the years to come.

An illustration of northern Edgemere’s current conditions from the HPD’s Resilient Edgemere plan.
Courtesy HPD

“This is the city’s first neighborhood plan that looks comprehensively at housing, transportation, community resources, and harnessing our disaster recovery tools,” says Deborah Morris, the director of resiliency planning at HPD. “Edgemere as a community created an opportunity to really think about disaster recovery in a long-term context, not only because of its damage from Hurricane Sandy, but also its physical and financial distress over the last several decades.”

The Resilient Edgemere plan presents a variety of short- and long-term projects for the neighborhood, comprising zoning changes, new residential development, and transportation improvements. Some of the highlights include a $14 million investment into creating an elevated berm along the neighborhood’s unprotected coastline, a $68 million investment into NYCHA’s Beach 41st Street Houses, and the elevation of 41 attached homes above flood risk levels.

The most striking physical changes proposed in the plan are a new rocky shoreline that could replace the existing salt marsh habitat along the coast of Jamaica Bay, and the numerous illustrations showing that the northernmost part of Edgemere’s residential community, on Beach 43rd Street above Norton Avenue, would be replaced by open space and a new park. “As a proposal of de-densifying the area above Norton Avenue, the short-term tool there would be to change the zoning so that new construction of housing would not be possible,” explains Morris. “Over the long term, this area would transition from a housing area to a less-housed area. What that means is maintaining the balance of the population of the community and moving it to a safer space.”

An illustration of the long-term vision for northern Edgemere from the HPD’s Resilient Edgemere plan.
Courtesy HPD

For some Edgemere residents, the presentation of this long-term vision was an immediate cause for concern. Several neighbors who grew up on Beach 43rd Street attended a recent launch event for the resiliency plan at their local community center, only to be confronted by posters showing a future where their homes no longer existed. “We’ve been to a bunch of the different meetings,” says Deimosa Webber-Bey, who has lived on Beach 43rd in Edgemere for most of her life, “but this new plan really seems like we are on the verge of getting pushed out. We see a plan that does not have us on it at all.”

After the meeting, she and her friend Amanda Pelaez, another lifelong resident of Edgemere, distributed copies of the plan to their neighbors along Beach 43rd, creating a shockwave throughout their community. “This was my dream house. It’s still my dream house. I wake up in the morning with a sunrise and I go to bed with a sunset,” says their neighbor Dora Helwig, who has lived in a small waterfront home on Beach 43rd for 45 years. “You can’t give me that somewhere else. Don’t take that away from me.”

After the release of the plan, the HPD was eager to clarify that it does not intend to remove anyone unwillingly from their homes in Edgemere. “We are not trying to move anyone out or saying ‘Hey, we are turning your house into a park.’ That’s not the situation here,” says Juliet Pierre-Antoine, a press secretary at the HPD. “The plan that we have put together lays out, maybe, what could be the best option for this area … perhaps this is in the best interest of everyone in this area, for this to be a park area. We are not moving you out. If you would like to stay, you can stay.”

However, residents living in the area above Norton Avenue report that choosing to stay in their homes now comes with some significant caveats. The 30 residential buildings in this area of Edgemere will no longer be offered assistance from the city’s Build it Back program to be raised above flood level, according to neighbors, unlike similar homes just a few blocks south. Instead, residents say that they have been offered relocation packages that would move them into new houses built in empty lots further away from the coast.

This approach is confirmed by the Resilient Edgemere plan, where one of the short-term projects is to “establish a defined hazard mitigation zone (HMZ) where Build it Back benefits are limited to buyouts, and offer eligible residents to relocate further inland when possible.” This change in policy has left residents facing difficult decisions. “My parents went to Build it Back on day one, to tell them we want to stay here, we want to lift our home, we want to be a part of the community,” says Pelaez. “And then, after two years, all of a sudden, it’s ‘You are going to have to rethink where you have lived for the past 45 years. You are going to have to make another choice.’”

Some residents have also stated that their relocation offers were for smaller lots than what they currently own, with smaller homes than they currently live in. “The original thing was they were going to raise our house. And after a while they said no more, we are not going to raise the house. Then they said they would buy you out for pre-Sandy value. Then they said, no, we don’t want to do that—we will move you somewhere,” says Webber-Bey’s father, Lloyd Webber-Bey. “At first, our original agreement was a house the same size, the same size lot, and a garage. Now they cut the garage out and knocked the house down in size. It’s crazy.”

The use of buyouts, relocations, and land-use changes to empty out flood-prone residential areas endangered by rising sea levels is a relatively new approach in New York City, but when applied in other areas around the world, this process is known as managed retreat, or “the strategic relocation of structures or abandonment of land to manage natural hazard risk.”

The city’s first managed retreat projects are already well underway in Staten Island, where the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery is overseeing the removal of three neighborhoods that were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Threatened by frequent flooding and rising sea levels, these communities instigated their own voluntary relocation, approaching the state government for assistance, and received ample buyouts, bonuses, and assistance as part of their process.

In Edgemere, the HPD is careful to avoid the term “managed retreat” to describe their plans to replace the residential area with open land, instead preferring to use the more abstract “de-densification,” a terminology choice that perhaps removes some of the sharper edges of an already difficult process. “Managed retreat is often controversial because of the social and psychological difficulties in displacing people from their homes,” according to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change. “Managed retreat is not a low-regrets option, nor is it easily reversed.”

Ultimately, no matter how the process is described, Edgemere, like many of New York City’s waterfront neighborhoods, may eventually need to be completely abandoned as a retreat from the water’s edge becomes inevitable. “Sea levels in the New York City harbor are expected to rise one to three feet over the next 35 years,” according to the resiliency plan, and by the end of the century, New York’s oceanfront is predicted to be inundated with up to six feet of sea-level rise.

This same reality is facing nations around the world. “Over the past three decades, approximately 1.3 million people have relocated through managed retreat, which pales in comparison to this century’s projected displacements,” according to the Nature Climate Change study. “By 2100, sea level rise alone threatens to displace 72–187 million people.”

For those now living on the waterfront around Jamaica Bay, in communities like Broad Channel, Hamilton Beach, Meadowmere, and Edgemere, it is slowly becoming apparent that it is only a matter of years until their neighborhoods are underwater, a time frame that the Resilient Edgemere plan will hopefully extend. “This isn’t going to be here anyway in 10 years, because of sea levels rising,” says Helwig. “As the years go on, this will no longer be Rockaway. But maybe that’s doom that I’m talking about. I want to be here at least 10 more years.”

At the northern edge of Beach 43rd Street in Edgemere, the coastline is currently completely unprotected, with only metal traffic barriers and concrete barricades to keep the floodwaters out of the street. Much of the coast of Edgemere is in similar condition, lined by only salt marsh grass and gravel.

The Resilient Edgemere plan would help facilitate a 30-inch-high berm along the shore here. “It has not been designed yet, so I can’t tell you exactly what it will look like,” says Morris. “It could be a series of bulkheads and rock-lined berms.”

Edgemere, sandwiched between a defunct landfill and a 20-block-long city-owned wasteland, has long been one of the most neglected neighborhoods in New York City. In its residential area, some roads were only recently paved, and a few dirt roads remain.

Abandoned homes are still a common sight throughout the neighborhood, which was devastated by the 2008 economic collapse. According to the Resilient Edgemere plan, 31 abandoned homes were identified in a recent city survey of empty properties, and 17 were moving toward acquisition by the city.

Inside an abandoned home. Edgemere residents are quick to share stories of childhood adventures among trap houses and squats, and of the wild dog packs that were once common in the area. “I’ve been attacked by one or two wild dogs walking down the street. Tore my pants, scratched my leg,” recalls one resident. “That was back in the ’90s. And in the ’80s, we used to play with crack vials.”

Despite these challenges, neighbors at the end of Beach 43rd Street have maintained a tight-knit, diverse community over many decades. “We’ve seen children grow up, grandchildren,” says Helwig. “We’ve been very lucky to live in this enclave, where everyone watches out for each other. I love it here, I really do. I don’t want it to change.”

The coast of Edgemere, as seen in 2010. “We used to play hide-and-seek back here; I used to jump off the rocks. I swam in the bay,” says Pelaez, remembering cheerier childhood adventures. “The families that have stayed, we have known each other through our whole childhood. Our kids know each other. So we want to keep that sense of community here on this street.”

A flooded home on Beach 43rd, as seen in 2010, before new sidewalks and storm sewers were installed. “The water would have been halfway up the block on a high tide,” recalls one local resident. “We used to have to come out at high tide in the morning, run through the water, move the car, swim. It hasn’t come up since they did the sidewalks and the sewer system.”

All of Edgemere was completely flooded during Hurricane Sandy, when the Atlantic Ocean met the waters of Jamaica Bay. In the aftermath, many homes along Beach 43rd Street were left badly damaged, as seen here on November 1, 2012.

Boats, docks, and cars were stranded in the middle of Beach 43rd Street, as seen here on November 1, 2012. “All of this was underwater,” says a local resident. “They were using jet skis to get people out of here during Sandy.”

On other streets, the stormwaters did not recede for days because of the lack of proper storm drains, as seen here on November 1, 2012. “Edgemere is a relatively flat community,” says Morris. “Its low shoreline coincides with low streets, and that allows the water to flow down the streets and flood them.”

Today, new storm drains help, leaving residents to wonder why the streets were improved if they are intended to be de-densified. “We haven’t had streets and sidewalks down here, so they put in streets and sidewalks for what?” asks Lloyd Webber-Bey. “New gas mains, new water mains, all of that stuff, for what? To move us out?”

A pristine new fire hydrant faces a long-abandoned marina, which will become “open space” under the Resilient Edgemere plan. The HPD is currently one of the largest landowners in the area, and has owned numerous empty lots here since the 1970s. “There is a significant amount of city-owned land in that area,” says Morris. “A major goal is to change those open-space lots that are in city ownership from a housing use to an open-space use, so that there will not be new development in this area.”

There are approximately 26 residential buildings along the east side of Beach 43rd Street that could be removed as part of the long-term vision of the resiliency plan, to be replaced by “open space.” As of August 2016, Build it Back had helped elevate 41 homes in 19 structures in other parts of Edgemere, according to the plan.

Several homes along the coast have already been purchased by the city’s buyout program, including this building on Beach 37th, which was acquired for $416,000. “My neighbor sold her buildings to the city and moved out. Now they are boarded up,” says a nearby resident. Several other residents have also reportedly decided to accept the city’s relocation assistance.

“This whole area is like Atlantis. In 15 or 16 years, it’s going to be underwater,” says the local resident. “There’s no stopping it. We might not be around to see it, but this will all be gone. I’m done with it. I’m getting out. Time to move out while you still can and get to higher ground.”

The Resilient Edgemere planning process, which engaged with numerous local residents, was intended to investigate these same issues. “It’s 2030 or 2050; are you still living in Edgemere? If yes, how is that still possible?” asks Morris. “This is a long-term planning process. It’s a framework for changing a community.”

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. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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