Angel and Nelly Rodriguez live in the middle of a long block of two-story prefab houses on West 33rd Street in Coney Island. From the lawn table outside their back door they have a view of the Parachute Jump, lit yellow and red in the distance, and a much closer vista of the Friendset Apartments for Seniors—a 16-story building that twinkles cozily at night and defies any comparison with the neighborhood’s more ill-kept projects and derelict flop houses. At one time, Nelly was the building manager for the high-rise. But then she found God.
Angel remembers selecting this house when it was still frame and beams. It was 1989 and the single-family homes were going up all along Mermaid and Neptune Avenues west of the amusement park the rest of the world reckons is Coney Island. The Rodriguez’s and over a thousand other Coney Island families became first-time homeowners that year thanks to the construction push. Angel delivered mail in Manhattan and then he too found God.
Tonight the Rodriguezes are celebrating the birthday of Angel’s mother, a woman who moved to America from Puerto Rico with five children and no husband in 1952. She is 94 years old and she doesn’t speak English. But her children and grandchildren do anyway.
“We thank God because our mother is still with us. She kept us together as a family all these years and she’s a mother and father to us,” says her daughter Virginia, raising a toast of grape soda.
“We find ourselves lucky to have our mother here,” says the eldest daughter Milagros, “Not everybody is so lucky. She might get a little impossible sometimes but we love her and she taught us everything about being good people and, praise God, a good family.”
Lucia cues Angel, the only son, who says, “We always know where to go if we need anything because we are a strong family, thank God.”
Victoria Rodriguez, the matron in question, swats her hand at the speeches. And then about 20 Rodriguezes—pastors, subway conductors, college kids, and mailmen—eat pineapple cake.
Angel Rodriguez arrived in Coney Island when he was three years old. He lived on 23rd Street and on 27th Street and also on 29th Street and then, when the houses he had lived in as a child were leveled in the name of urban renewal in the late ‘60s, he moved with his mother and four sisters into Surfside Gardens, one of the five public housing projects that nearly a quarter of West Coney residents call home today.
Nelly was born in New York, but her family—also named Rodriguez—is also from Puerto Rico, and they also lived in the projects. Her full name is Nereida; her brother bears the equally marine-tastic name “Saturnino,” but mostly he’s called “Sassy.” Nelly has known Angel since she was a kid—he’s Sassy’s best friend. They started dating when she was 16 and were married in 1984. Sometime in between, they went on a double date with Angel’s sister Lucy and Nelly’s brother David. They still can’t agree whether it was the paddleboats in Prospect Park or in New Jersey, but on the way back Lucy and David were making out in the backseat.
Lucy and David also got married; they live next door to Nelly and Angel. Sassy lives in the house on the other side, and two more Rodriguezes (they might be Nelly’s brothers or they might be Angel’s sisters) live in the houses on 34th with contiguous paved backyards. When both sides of the family gather among the above-ground pools, umbrella tables, and Yankee clubhouse wet-bars that mark the individual yards of the mid-block compound, there are about 70 Rodriguezes in all. Most of them live within a 10-block radius. Luckily, it’s also Angel’s postal route.
Then God tells me I can’t just take Freddy to the Catholic church. No—I got to take him to Brother Jack’s, to Coney Island Gospel. I say, ‘There? I gotta take him there?’” Nelly’s family is Catholic. Angel’s is Pentecostal. It was a minor issue when they got married, and again when they baptized their son Daniel. They resolved it by taking a third path—to Brother Jack’s Coney Island Gospel Assembly. Though the Gospel Assembly is predominantly black—a “hallelujah church,” says Nelly—Brother Jack is Italian, so go figure. Marriage and baptism safely behind them, Nelly and Angel backslid again from church: from Catholic to Pentecostal to Gospel. But then Nelly’s brother Freddy got sick.
“He tells me he needs a new heart,” Nelly recalls, “and I’m thinking oh please God don’t let him die. Because he’s a Hispanic man, he doesn’t have money, he’s not gonna get a new heart anytime soon you know. So I’m thinking oh God you can’t do this to my mother. You can’t take her baby from her. And I decided to pray.”
All night, says Nelly, God was working her over. First He told her she had to go back to church. But when she agreed, He said she has to get Freddy to church too—a harder task. “So I say OK, OK, I’ll try and then He tells me I can’t just take him to the Catholic church. No—I got to take him to Brother Jack’s, to Coney Island Gospel. I say, ‘There? I gotta take him there?’”
Meanwhile, as Nelly would soon learn, a mysterious caller was visiting her brother Freddy in Coney Island Hospital. Even as hospital orderlies moved him from floor to floor, a dark-skinned Indian woman with Bible tracts appeared at his bed insistently. She told him that the missives, printed by Coney Island Gospel Assembly, had been given to her to give to him. When he awoke, he had two blankets, a clean pillowcase, and at long last, comfort.
“And in Coney Island Hospital,” concludes Nelly, “that’s a miracle.”
Freddy never got the heart transplant, but he’s alive and healthy. He goes to Brother Jack’s regularly. His daughter, a teenager with a stunning smile who has shown up for the birthday party tonight, doesn’t.
“That’s my other nephew,” Angel is saying for the fourth time.
Little Angel is just back from Iraq. He has a fierce buzz cut and a voice that almost says aw shucks and he’s gentle with the smaller kids. His cousin Danny is studying fire science at John Jay College and hopes he’ll find work as a code inspector for the new apartment buildings going up in the neighborhood. David, another Rodriguez, is a photographer. He’s just finished a prototype for a Coney Island tourist brochure: “More Than a Timeless Roller Coaster and Boardwalk,” reads the sweeping Lucida font on the front. Inside, dummy text promises, “Two tickets kisses the pawnbrokers. The lampstand clever never wanted to treasure the unsuspected klingons.” On the back flap under the heading “Romantic Hideaways” is an entry for West 33rd Street and Surf Avenue.
“What’s romantic about 33rd?” asks a cousin who knows that the Surf Manor, a depressingly seedy home for the indigent, stands on that corner.
“Oh—me and Danny holding hands,” cracks David, and then says, in all seriousness, that West 33rd has the best beach, where the coast is always “crisp.”
All are in agreement. Nelly, who now works as the church secretary at Coney Island Gospel, says she lives for the ocean breeze and late night coffee on her back patio. Angel, who meets her at home for lunch, says it’s simple—”Everything I have is here on Coney Island. My family is here. My home is here.”
All around this family and their homes, property is changing hands. Vacant lots are slated for new affordable housing, even as much of the current housing stock is losing its Section 8 status. The squalid projects are being vacated by their tenants of 30 years, only to be filled by Russians moving west from Brighton Beach, which itself has gone from a sleepy immigrant community into a high-end oceanfront enclave—almost overnight.
The day will come, Angel knows, when “a Russian will knock on my door and offer me a million dollars for my house.” Nelly says they’ll never take it, but Angel doesn’t know for sure. He does know that he’s the middle house on West 33rd Street—a domestic lynchpin. If he goes, how will the kids get from Sassy’s to Lucy’s? Where will they hold barbecues for 70 people? And who will keep the Rodriguez mail straight?