Since Superstorm Sandy, Coney Island’s residents have been living without reliable access to food. Many grocers and food establishments are still struggling to get back into full service. And word has spread slowly about stores that are back in operation.
“Until last week, you had to go all the way to 86th Street to buy food,” a young man named Rashid in his twenties, who lives across the street from a Key Food, says. “They just opened up,” he says, pointing across the street. Actually, the Key Food at 36th and Neptune remained reopened around Thanksgiving, but that was nearly four weeks after the storm hit the neighborhood.
As the neighborhood’s food markets revive, residents of Coney Island have been getting their food from the Red Cross, whose trucks have been circling the neighborhood constantly, and community organizations.
On Neptune Avenue and 28th Street in Coney Island stands a brick building with a wooden roof that spans the length of the block. The Coney Island Gospel Assembly has been housed in this building since Pastor Jack A. Sanfillippa acquired it from restaurateurs. When Pastor Jack passed away in the 1980s, his wife took over the congregation, and when she passed away in 1990, their daughter Constance Hull-Sanfillippa became the pastor.
“I’ve been here all my life,” Hull-Sanfillippa says. She has long black hair, and is wearing a black dress with only a black menswear jacket over it, despite the cold, as well as her signature brown-and-white cowboy boots. “That’s 55 years.”
The Coney Island Gospel Assembly has been serving as one of Coney Island’s major sources of food for the past six weeks. Staff and volunteers have been serving hot meals and providing those in need with everything from toiletries to winter-wear. In the parking lot next to the church building stand hundreds of industrial-sized boxes labeled “Fritos” and “Huggies” and “Baby Wipes.”
Between helping individuals get what they need (“Giver her a little of everything… You, do you have coats? Get a coat… Load her up! Hot food, canned food, give her the works… Did you get one of those airline kits?”), Hull-Sanfillippa explains that the food and supplies have come from other churches who call in every day to see what she still needs. “I never called and asked for anything,” she says. “They just send it. Ministries and the Red Cross.”
Among New York’s 59 community districts, Coney Island has the fourth highest proportions of residents who are foreign-born (53 percent) and the highest 65-or-older population share: Seniors comprise 22 percent of the district. Its poverty rate, 28 percent, is well above the citywide rate of 20 percent or the Brooklyn-wide figure of 23 percent.
In the weeks after the storm, Hull-Sanfillippa estimates that the church served 3,000 families a day. Now it’s down to about 1,000 a day. Asked what is the biggest challenges facing her community right now, she says it’s, “The fear of it happening again. And the loss of things—furniture, which they can’t replace. They are hardworking people, but you know, this is a depressed community.”
“And the mold,” Pastor Connie adds. “There’s mold everywhere. And it’s growing.”
She pauses to demand of another woman walking through the lot, “Did they turn on your stove yet?” The woman says no, but she has heat. “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have a microwave for you,” Pastor Connie tells her.