Close-Up on Brighton Beach

It's been said that to live in New York is to have the ability to visit any country, any time. Never is this truth proved as effortlessly as on a trek to Brighton Beach, a subway-ride into another cultural dimension.

The neighborhood has been called Little Odessa, after the storied city on the Black Sea; it's been labeled New York's last true homage to the old world. Either way, time in the neighborhood is not exactly a pure and uncomplicated experience, with its borscht, exotic syllables, and story scrawled in Russian letters.

Brighton Beach inspires sympathetic nostalgia for regions its current residents left behind—whether last century's immigrants branching out from Manhattan; Ukrainian and Russian Jews escaping anti-Semitism in their home countries; more recent post-Soviet Russian immigrants; or Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and Pakistanis staking their own place in New York. No matter where you're from, it's likely that at first, Brighton will make you alienated, lonely, and even, on a grey day—when you notice that all the old-style bungalows are being replaced by Miami-style condos—miserable. In other words, it will make you feel like a traveler.

Hawking caviar in the shade of condos pink and plenty
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
Hawking caviar in the shade of condos pink and plenty

But don't be intimidated by the language barrier; or by the dour, under-the-train tracks feel of the main thoroughfare, Brighton Beach Avenue; or by the seemingly endless barrage of cheap, shiny electronic things for sale. For decades, people have been arriving in this neighborhood, trying to fit in. It doesn't take long.

It started in 1868, when these marshlands and sand dunes at the southwestern edge of Brooklyn were transformed into fairgrounds, hotels, a racetrack, and a public bath house and named after England's resort on the channel, Brighton Beach. Brooklyn's Brighton Beach later was purchased by the city and became a destination spot for immigrant families.

Waves of them arrived during and after World War II, then again in the late 1970s, when the Soviet Union relaxed its policies and allowed Jews and refuseniks to emigrate. The Russians are still coming, which may be why the neighborhood is shedding its old-world costume in favor of "milleniumization," which, according to longtime Brighton Beach realtor Arthur Kessler, means out with the bungalows, and in with the condos.

"This neighborhood is Russia," he said. "Like Chinatown is China. This is Russia. No matter how much it changes, that's the flavor it's going to be—for a long, long time."


Pastries: Reward for a long ride on the D train.
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

Boundaries: Brighton Beach stretches between Manhattan Beach and Coney Island on the windswept spit of land at the southwestern tip of Brooklyn. Brighton Beach is bounded to the East by Corbin Place, the north by Neptune Avenue, the west by Ocean Parkway, and to the south by the Atlantic Ocean.

Transport: Subway: D; Q. Buses: B68; B1.

Main Drags: The boardwalk and Brighton Beach Avenue.

Prices to Rent and Buy: Rentals? "None. None at all," says Kessler. While it's not quite that drastic, rentals are rare and only advertised by word-of-mouth, or, occasionally, in the window of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, where they're fighting to maintain affordable housing amid new development. To buy? Single-family home: $350,000 to $450,000; two-family home: $500,000 to $700,000; three-family home: $600,000 to $800,000. For mid-rise condos, one bedrooms: $300,000 to $500,000; two bedroom: $400,000 to $500,000.

What to Check Out: The Russian language binds people from a region far, far more extensive than Russia 's boundaries. Don 't miss the many layers of ethnicity here. On Brighton Beach Avenue, try the Kashkar Cafe, among the few joints in New York City where you can eat food prepared by Muslim Uighurs from far western China. Try the lamb stews and pies and finish the meal with "chakchak," a large, honeyed, Rice Krispie-like treat—all this for under $10. Add to that fresh Bulgarian cheeses from the astounding M & I International Foods, spicy Korean snacks in the delis, shashlik (kebabs) prepared by folks from Russia's Islamic neighbors, and Georgian cuisine—including walnut-stuffed eggplant, meat-filled xhingali dumplings, and chicken in walnut-curry sauce—at Primorski Restaurant, which calls itself a Russian eatery but is Georgian-owned.

Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: By day, it's the boardwalk, the ocean breeze, a plastic table and chairs, and beers from the tiny Tatiana Cafe, adjacent to the larger, fancier, neon-festooned Tatiana Restaurant. Then stroll west to the Brighton Playground to watch scores of aging, sighing, Slavic men play chess, or listen to the din of pick-up basketball games among children of the neighborhood's more recent immigrants. By night, it's the brass-and-glass allure of Brighton's mega-restaurants, like the famed National, at 273 Brighton Beach Ave., where a Vegas-style lineup of entertainment and a night of debauchery await—if you're prepared to pay. For something more lowdown, but equally kitsch, try the nautical-themed Gambrinus bar on Ocean Parkway.

Crime: The neighborhood suffered the same blight as the rest of the city in the '70s and early '80s. But now, despite lingering hints of Russian mafia-style lawlessness (as one New York cop reportedly put it, "It is much easier to deal with a criminal who breaks the law than with a person who doesn't know that the law exists"), crime has been on a downward trend in the last ten years. That said, there have been two murders so far this year, down from one at this time last year. Eight rapes were reported this year, up from zero at this time last year. Robberies are down to 63 from 83 this time last year; and felony assaults are up slightly, at 43.

Politicians: City Councilmember Michael Nelson, State Senator Carl Kruger, State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz and Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, and U.S. Representatives Anthony Weiner and Jerrold Nadler, all Democrats.

 
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