In the days after Sandy, we visited two businesses in Sheepshead Bay. Now, we revisit them to see how the year has treated them.
On October 29, 2012, Hicri Atas left his Turkish Republic Day celebration early. He wanted to cross the bridge back from Manhattan before the city shut it down. Getting into his car just before 7pm, it took him hours to make it home – going over the Queensboro amidst flying cones and taking several highways before arriving at his house in Sheepshead Bay. When the storm calmed at 2:30am, he immediately rushed to Istanbul Restaurant, which his father has been running on Emmons Avenue for over 17 years.
The water was up to his chest and everything in the restaurant had been thrown around – even the refrigerator in the back had been flipped by the flooding. Some elements, like the bar, had disappeared entirely.
The next morning, Hicri’s uncle, Abdul, came to work at 7:30 – just like usual. He wasn’t dissuaded by the road closures or the lack of streetlights – the power on the street would take months to return. “We all get addicted to being here,” Hicri’s father, Riza Atas, explains. The men predicted that, with the help of insurance, the restaurant would be closed for only 2 months. Friends and family members came every day, and they began the slow process of dismantling and disposing of their restaurant full of hand-made, imported treasures. They filled 10-12 dumpsters. Everything that touched the flood water had to go – the entirety of the floors, electrical wiring, plumbing, studs, and sheet rock. “We didn’t do sheet rock again,” Hicri relates, “In case it happens again.”
Rebuilding after the storm gave the Atas’ a chance to re-examine the practical and artistic aspects of the space. A history enthusiast, Riza Atas buried himself in creating a beautiful environment – decorating the long wall to look like the exterior of an Ottoman home with courtyards and bathing beauties, creating custom lighting out of colored glass lamps and his retired pots and pans, and hanging his fathers’ old leather shoes in the corner – making the restaurant a three-generation venture.
They also took their office off the ground floor, to keep their important documents from being ruined by water again. They protect whatever possible from a future flood, because they are now ineligible for flood insurance. Their provider turned down their claim and no one will give them coverage for the future.
FEMA officials made the Atas’ a settlement offer and sent out representatives, but the money never materialized. “They call, they call, they call, they call… now they forget about us,” Riza Atas explains. To pay for their $400,000 in repairs and renovation, the restaurateurs turned to friends and family for loans. They are grateful they received that support, especially because while the city rebuilt the boardwalk in front of their building, there was no other assistance for the restaurants on the block. While they were rebuilding, the Atas’ worked from a single electrical cord. One Sunday, while they were cleaning their site, they were fined $1,500 from the Buildings Department for working on a Sunday. “We didn’t have a penny to buy coffee,” Riza Atas laments, “They have no feeling.”
It ended up taking Cafe Istanbul 8 months to re-open. The longest wait was for electricity to be restored.
“Our customers are very lovely. I didn’t want to leave them,” Riza Atas says. But he is finding that many of his old customers are leaving – moving out of state or the borough. After an initial surge, business is slower than last year, despite Cafe Istanbul’s grand opening attended by local politicians. Both Cafe Istanbul and neighboring V&S Pizza are seeing less of their regulars. Each business owner believes that is because people are moving away – either because of economic forces or fear of another flood.
“There’s a difference between then and now, and that difference makes a difference,” says Dominic next door at V&S Pizza. The business is run by two families whose fathers partnered up in 1986. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re paying our bills, but it’s not the way it was.” It took V&S Pizza almost 8 months to re-open as well – a harsh let-down from their estimated 1 month of being shuttered. The V&S team was also denied their insurance claim, because Sandy was classified as a ‘Superstorm’. “If we were going to flood, what kind of storm would it be?” Dominic wonders sardonically.
V&S Pizza managed the repairs through the savings of its owners and their family members. Dominic is trying to refinance his house to help pay for the expenses, but “banks aren’t giving money like they used to.” Already rejected by one bank, he is finding difficulties because he and his family were out of work for the 8 months the pizzeria was closed. “If you had a little cash in your pocket to help you, you stayed afloat,” Dominic explains, “If not, you sunk.”
What helped V&S Pizza and Cafe Istanbul survive? Their shared landlord, Lenny Katz, did not charge them rent during the repairs. They had each other – the Atas’ did their own construction and the V&S crew hired workers from Riza’s brother’s construction business. But most of all, each business owner had their sons to give them inspiration.
“I thought I was the only one,” Dominic says. Many subcontractors left in the middle of the job, there were no volunteer groups to help restaurants (Dominic believes groups would focus on residences rather than businesses). Besides their neighbors at the Turkish restaurant next door, it felt like V&S Pizza had a lonely road to hoe. “You come in and everything is destroyed, it’s disheartening. My boy was the one who pushed us. Right, Frankie?” Dominic calls to his son tossing pizza dough. Frankie is a shy young man with a warm smile, a perfect complement to his father’s extroverted humor. But Dominic is serious for a moment as he remembers the dark, post-storm months. “You almost want to give up, ‘What, am I going to do this all over again?’… A lot of people talking about moving, it’s discouraging.” Turning to Frankie, his voice becomes proud and lively again, “This little buddy kept me motivated. He was the first one to start breaking things down, building, and fixing things.”
According to Dominic, though, not all neighborhood businesses survived. He’s seen many new businesses move into the spaces of businesses that sank under Sandy. V&S’s entrance, however, is a testament to the potential in destruction. The old, classic pizzeria signage, complete with a cartoon pizza, has been replaced by sleek glass. An LED-lit display case greets customers where before there was a hinged counter. Thanks to the help of their Turkish neighbors, the pizzeria has exposed brick and feels more luxurious. Sheepshead Bay is once again a bustling center. Almost all the storefronts are occupied and their awnings are new, welcoming potential customers. On the sidewalk, Russians in fur vests are followed by South Asians in colorful wraps.
The future holds promise for each restaurant. Cafe Istanbul took advantage of their renovations to put in a new brick oven, reviving the baked goods that originally made their name. While the elder Atas pours his heart into the design of the room and collecting Ottoman antiques, his son constantly pops in the back to design and taste-test the food.
Frankie preps pizza while his father takes a break to chat with the diverse crowd that walks through their door. They’re hoping newcomers will discover their new neighborhood and that the initial excitement people felt for their restaurants will be rekindled. The fishing and party boats are back in the bay, and the future will show if there will be a resurgence in people visiting the neighborhood – which is how the ex-resort town got its start in the first place.
As Riza Atas puts it, “The government didn’t help us, now we need people to help us – to come and eat.”
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