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Long IslandSuffolk

Residents aim to save Suffolk trailer park

Elvis Cortes, 26, a Navy veteran, says living

Elvis Cortes, 26, a Navy veteran, says living in Frontier Park allows his family of four to remain on Long Island and in Amityville, where he grew up. He also appreciates the proximity to his parents, who live just down the street. (March 20, 2011) Credit: Nancy Borowick

After school, kids play in the streets. In the winter, greetings mix with complaints about snow while the young help the old shovel out. In the summer, the smell from barbecues fills the air as lawn chairs are pulled closer together.

It's life in Frontier Park in Amityville. "It's like any other neighborhood," said Jude Baunach, 46. "Everybody knows each other and helps each other out. It's like an old-time New York City community, but with trailers."

Residents in the 50-year-old mobile home park say they are getting to know each other better than ever, as they unite to fight a planned development that puts their homes at risk.

In February, Frontier Park's residents were notified that it is "no longer feasible" to maintain the park on Route 110 and bring it up to modern fire and health codes. R Squared LLC, a developer owned by the principal owners of Rechler Equity Partners, has given Babylon Town a proposal to build apartment units on the site starting in 18 months. Twenty percent would be affordable housing and residents would be given first priority and credited six months of their current rent. Planning board approval is required; Town Supervisor Steve Bellone supports the plan.

There are 374 mobile homes in the park, with more than 500 residents. They buy their homes but rent the land on which they sit. Residents, who pay an average of $635 a month, call it one of the few affordable housing options left on Long Island.

Enclave of friends, family

Baunach, who has lived in the park for 13 years, said buying a mobile home was economical for her as a single person. "It's like owning a home without all of the maintenance and expense," she said. "But it's my home and I can do what I want, with a yard for my dogs and a garden for my vegetables."

Baunach owns a 12-by-60-foot home with green trim and green latticework. Her living room is simply decorated with sepia-toned photos of her grandmother and great-grandparents. In the center of the room are cages for her dogs, Harlie and Gracie -- one reason Baunach, who recently lost her truck-driver job, said it would be hard for her to move. Few apartments allow pets.

In the summer, she brings extra vegetables to Leah Oehrig, 80, who has a garden and two dogs, two cats and a canary. After moving from apartment to apartment, Oehrig came to the park in 1965. "It was paradise," she said.

The small plot of land was full of large stones when she moved in, Oehrig said, and she hauled them off and brought in topsoil. She still gets up at 6 a.m. every day when the weather permits to tend to the earth. "It just makes me feel good," she said.

Oehrig's garden, overflowing with lilies and other colorful perennials, has many fans, including neighbor Juan Gomez, 75, who calls her "the farmer."

The two look out for each other. Gomez helps fix things and explains paperwork for Oehrig, who said she suffers from Alzheimer's disease. She has him for dinner most nights in her home, where porcelain animals and teapots fight for space in curios that hang alongside Egyptian prints -- souvenirs from a lifetime of travel, said Oehrig, a former European American Bank manager.

"I don't want to move from here; this is my home," she said. "This is where I wanted to breathe my last breath."

Elvis Cortes' home defies what he says is the popular notion of trailers. Clean and full of light, the unit he bought for $20,000 is a comfortable home for his wife Mildred, 23, and children, Elvis Jr., 4, and Arielys, 2.

"When I'm here, it's not like I'm living in a trailer. I'm in a house, I've got my little backyard, I go to work, my kids go to school -- it's like anywhere on Long Island," he said.

Cortes, 26, grew up in Amityville, served in the Navy and now works in construction, where jobs are sporadic. Low rent is crucial. "I want to stay on Long Island," he said. "I've been here since I've been born and I have a lot of family here."

His parents, Nelson, 47, and Carmen, 48, live four houses over with two other children. Nelson, a North Amityville Fire Department volunteer, said aside from young families, most residents are disabled or seniors living on fixed incomes and "just barely making it."

Invested in community

Residents say Frontier has gotten a bad rap because some trailers, like the park's roads and fences, suffer from the elements and neglect. There once was open drug-dealing and prostitution, they said, but neighbors got police to step up their presence. County police statistics over the last five years support the claim: Annual reported crimes have dropped from 65 to 34.

Residents said they hoped their renovations were investments. But the odds of selling now are slim, they said. And despite developer offers of help on thousands of dollars of moving costs, there are few parks nearby, they said, and some homes may be too old to move.

When Jose Giraldo, 41, bought his place, it was little more than a burned-out shell. He put in wood floors, rebuilt the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, made closets and added an extension so his son and daughter could have their own tiny rooms. He even put a skylight in the kitchen.

Giraldo estimates he has sunk $25,000 into renovations. "It's not a lot to make a place comfortable to live," he said. Now, he said, his house may not be worth anything.

Frontier Park

Formerly a Wild West theme park, it opened as mobile home park in 1961

20 acres located on the east side of Route 110, just south of the Southern State Parkway

374 homes, with more than 500 residents

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