Over 150 members of the West Coney Island community left their homes on Sept. 24 in protest of the future home of the
Project Esteem chemical dependency center at 3114 Mermaid Avenue.
Filling the site with signs in English, Chinese and Spanish, all the while chanting “Hey,
Hey, Ho, Ho, Project Esteem must go,” protesters were furious that their community, one already surrounded by a plethora
of mental and physical health centers, was subject to what they called “the dumping on of Coney Island.”
“This does not belong in our community,” said Queenie Huling, the ACORN Political
Action Committee Representative. “It has to go.”
The center, which according to the proposal given to Community Board 13 and ACORN, plans to
cater its services to the Russian Community. In addition, unlike the other centers in the area, Project Esteem is a not a
non-for-profit agency, making it more of a business than service to the area . This has the local community, which according
to the latest census data is 42 percent African-American, 26 Hispanic-Latino and four percent Asian, in a fervor. Feeling
that the center is addressing people who don't live in the immediate area, the community wants the center moved somewhere
They know exactly where that location should be as well.
“It belongs in Brighton Beach,” said Huling. “Not here. We don't need this
in our area.”
After the rally, protesters headed to the Community Board 13 meeting at Coney Island hospital
and continued to share their thoughts.
“This isn't necessary in this particular area,” said John Cherry, another concerned
member of the community. “We have enough chemical dependency centers in this area to address our needs. No one thought
we were going to raise our voice in opposition to this. It's great that all these diverse backgrounds in the community getting
together and letting these people know they aren't going to do this to us.”
While the buildings owner, Dr. Oleg Gutnik wasn't at the rally or meeting, Project Esteem spokesperson
C.J. Zelossce attempted to make his presence felt during the meeting, saying that the center will work with the entire community
and despite it's intended patients, feels that “these people” have something to benefit from the program as well.
Zelossce took this idea even further by citing a statistic in a recent city survey that has Brooklyn only at 65 percent of
its potential capacity for substance abuse centers.
“Project Esteem wants you to know that they want to be a working part of this community,”
Zelossce said. “They are really looking to interact with individuals and families. I know there's always a stigma when
it comes to chemical substance abuse rehabilitation centers, but anyone who walks the street in this community knows that
there are plenty of addicts walking around. As a matter of fact, the levels are 40 percent higher here than the nation's average.”
Despite 's attempt to quell the crowd of protesters at the meeting however, the community wasn't
buying what Zelossce was selling, as they chanted for their cause as he walked back to his seat in the audience.
One other person [who didn't give her name] at the meeting voiced their support of Gutnik's
proposed center, calling him “a great man.”
“My husband is a heroin addict and this doctor has provided us with counseling so we can
get on with our lives,” she said. “He can help all of you. It's easy to knock something when you don't know all
the facts. This man deserves a chance.”
However, shortly afterwards,the Community Board also stated that they are against the intended
proposal as well, making the foreseeable future even tougher to assess.
Fearful of who else may come into their struggling community, protesters made it clear that
Project Esteem is not wanted in Western Coney Island.
“Why would they do this?” Coney Island resident Linda Smith said. “With this
in the middle of our community and the economy the way it is, this isn't good news. We are all hard-working people that want
something better for ourselves and our families. We need things built here that will improve our community, not bring it down
Photo by Ron Hatcher