Not long ago, Brighton Beach, a neighborhood on the Coney Island Peninsula that is the last stop on the B train, was known as “Little Odessa.” In the 70s, when the Soviet Union relaxed its emigration policies and a wave of Russian immigrants—many of them Jews—arrived in the U.S., a large number chose Brighton Beach as their new home.
That’s when the Little Odessa name made perfect sense. Now, although the Russian influence is still extremely strong, there are many different cultures that call the neighborhood home. According to Yelena Makhnin, executive director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District, “It’s not Russian Brighton Beach any more. People from Uzbekistan, Turkistan, Pakistan have moved in. The neighborhood is more and more diverse. But not many yuppies, at least not yet.”
One of the Brighton Beach’s prime attractions naturally is its proximity to the ocean. Wherever you are in Brighton, the beach is never more than a 10-minute walk away. Makhnin quotes a Russian comedian who, when asked why he lives in Brighton, said, “because I can get to the beach by elevator.”
The history of the Brighton Beach neighborhood follows a familiar NYC pattern: It starts with a savvy businessman, William A. Engeman, who bought a huge chunk of land for very little money ($20,000) and began to develop it.
This was in the 1870s, when investors set out to create a haven for city dwellers anxious to escape the steamy city streets. In quick succession, Brighton, named after the English seaside town, was turned into a retreat for the elite, a summer playground with an elegant place for them to stay and several spots where they could be entertained, including the Hotel Brighton Beach, a multi-story, wood-framed hotel at the edge of the ocean with 174 rooms and wrap-around porches; the Brighton Beach Music Hall, where famous artists like John Philip Sousa performed; the Brighton Beach Theater, ‘the only theater in the world located a quarter mile into the ocean’; the Brighton Beach Casino, where women in traditional Japanese dress waited on tables; the Brighton Beach Baths, where its 1,200 members came to sunbathe, play handball and cards; and the Brighton Beach Race Course, where thoroughbreds raced until 1908, when bookmaking was banned.
By 1930, the upper classes had abandoned the area. The facilities that had been built for them were torn down and replaced by large apartment buildings, whose residents were predominately Jewish and mostly working class. This was the Brighton Beach that Neil Simon memorialized in his play, Brighton Beach Memoirs.
By the ’60s and ’70s, the area had deteriorated dramatically. Pat Singer, a community organizer and founder of the Brighton Neighborhood Association says, “I woke up one morning in the ’70s and all the young people in my building had left!” Residents in the neighborhood—many of them poor and old—had to contend with drug gangs.
That’s the time that the Russians began to arrive, energizing the neighborhood with shops, food and culture that has dominated the neighborhood ever since.
In 2012, the area was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the lower levels of many residential towers, knocking out electrical systems and stranding residents, many of them elderly, on high floors. Now, undeterred by the fact that this is a flood zone, developers plan a total of 45 new storm-resistant projects for the southern tip of Brooklyn, including Coney Island and Gravesend, according to The New York Times.
Boundaries: Coney Island neighborhood to the east and Manhattan Beach to the west, the Belt Parkway to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south.
Median home sales price: Two-bedroom condo, $763,000; co-op, $532,000
Median rent: Two bedrooms, $2,500
Here’s what some residents of Brighton Beach have to say about their neighborhood:
Getting in and out
“Sometimes I use public transportation, the B or the Q trains, but I have a car. Parking used to be easier but it’s a little difficult now because many of the people who are moving in have cars.” —Sheikh Latafullah, 59, owns
“When I go to another neighborhood in Brooklyn or to somewhere in Queens, I drive. I live in the Oceana complex built on the land that was once the Brighton Beach Baths. Living here, I am able to park my car right in the building. When I go to Manhattan, I take the B or Q. That trip has gone downhill over the past five years. It used to take me 35 minutes to get to work in midtown, now it’s more like an hour.” —Fay Pallen, 75, owns
“I bicycle to work. I work part time in my parent’s gift shop on Brighton Beach Avenue. There’s no bike lane so I have to always watch where I’m going. To get to Manhattan, I take the Q train.” —Alex Abramov, 19, lives with parents
“I haven’t driven since I was a teenager so I use public transportation all the time—subways and buses. But I like to go to Bay Ridge on the weekends to hear music and there’s no easy way to get there by public transportation, so I take a car service or get a ride.” —Pat Singer, 78, rents
Are neighbors friendly?
“I live in an apartment building and I know my neighbors enough to say ‘hello,’ but since most of them only speak Russian, it is difficult to say anything much more.” —Sheikh
“Are my neighbors friendly? Let me tell you a story: I had been living in the Oceana for two and a half years when my daughter died. I was devastated. I went to a neighbor in the building who I knew was a foodie to ask for advice on how to plan a meal for after the funeral. He came to my apartment, asked me what I wanted and told me to give him my keys. When we got back from the funeral, a hot and cold buffet, coffee, tea, dessert, everything was all there. I would say that’s more than friendly, wouldn’t you? I would describe my neighbors as passionate, warm and supportive.” —Fay
The neighborhood is gradually becoming more diverse
“When I started organizing, the neighborhood was practically all seniors and almost all were Russian. Now it is getting more diverse, more ‘two party’. I do remember once having a Russian resident say to me, ‘You’re not one of us and your time is over.’ That upset me, but I never gave up organizing. Now I have Russians, Americans, Pakistanis and Asians on my board. I think of this as a global community.”—Pat Singer
“Once Brighton Beach Avenue was pretty solidly Russian. Now some of the pharmacies that were owned by Russians are owned by Pakistanis…. We also have quite a few Muslims coming from Uzbekistan and Turkistan. Not many yuppies, though but some 40 story buildings are coming so we’ll see what happens.” —Yelena Makhnin, executive director, Brighton Beach BID
“When I sold my house in Midwood and decided to buy an apartment in the Oceana, I had other friends who were thinking of moving here. They changed their minds because they thought that the complex would be solidly Russian [and they wouldn’t fit in]. They were wrong. There are people from all over Eastern Europe and I’m as likely to hear Polish as I am to hear Russian or English. I love it here!” —Fay
“Most of our customers are Russian speaking. I speak Russian so there’s no problem communicating.” —Alex A.
It’s worth the trip just for the food
“I don’t have a favorite restaurant because most of the Russian restaurants in Brighton are pretty good. The food is always fresh and they don’t cheat on food—it’s always nice—and the service is getting better and better.” —Alex Gincher, works in Brighton Beach and rents in nearby Midwood
“My favorite restaurant? It’s a pizza place on Coney Island Avenue called Sofia’s. I like their grandma slice. —Alex A.
“When I first moved here a neighbor asked, ‘Why are you bothering with a kitchen? Everyone here gets take out or eats out—no muss, no fuss.’ For food shopping I love the brand-new supermarket on Brighton Beach Avenue where there used to be a Mandees. Can’t think of the name. Let me go find a bag from there. Ah, here it is—it’s called Tashkent. I love it there. The workers are so polite and helpful and it’s so clean! In the winter when it’s snowy, when all of the other stores have wet and dirty cardboard on the floor, their floor is spotless. Recently I went in and they had moved the walnuts. I asked a worker where they were and he escorted me to them.” —Fay
“When it comes to food, Brighton Beach is unique. An example: we have a melon that comes from Uzbekistan called a hamei melon. You can’t buy it anywhere but here. When people taste it for the first time they can’t believe how delicious it is. When my friends come to visit me, the first thing they want to do is to go shopping at Tashkent. When I work late and have no time to cook, I stop at Tashkent and I can get anything I want—Russian food, Chinese food, Afghan food, and pickled everything. The quality is great, the prices are lower than other parts of the city. And, I love the borscht at Brighton Bazaar. It is fantastic but to get the first batch of the day, the best batch, you need to get there by 11 in the morning.” —Lev Kilman, 46, owns a house
“One of our biggest supermarkets has halal food. Who would have figured that a while ago...And lately I’ve noticed that more and more people are doing their food shopping online. I see lots more Fresh Direct trucks than ever before. ” —Yelena
“I’m always on a diet so I can’t say much about the food here. But I can tell you that I love the salad Olivier that you get in any of the markets in the neighborhood. I like to get it at the Brighton Bazaar. They mix potato salad and peas and other good things and I can make a meal of it. And for a meal out, I like Tatiana’s Cafe on the boardwalk. You can go and sit outside and have a drink, meet friends, have something to eat and not kill your budget.” —Pat
“For my supermarket shopping, I drive about 5-7 minutes away to a Stop & Shop on Avenue Y. They don’t stock halal meat so for that I shop closer to me on Neptune Avenue where there are three or four stores to choose from. We mostly eat at home but when we go out, we like a Turkish restaurant on Brighton Beach Avenue (sorry, I can’t remember the name) or we go out of the neighborhood to a restaurant on Emmons Avenue that has fish and halal meat that we like.” —Sheikh
To do? How about the beach and the boardwalk?
“I like to walk on the boardwalk a lot. It’s just 10 minutes from where I live. Sometimes I go to the beach. My kids used to go a lot when they were younger.” —Sheikh
“I’m on the boardwalk every day. I ride my bike from Brighton to the aquarium—it’s about a three mile ride.” —Alex A.
“I like to go to Bay Ridge to hear bands on weekends. Two favorite spots there are Red, White and Brew, and the Kettle Black. We need more of those kinds of places here. Sometimes I stop in at the Velvet Rope, a bar and restaurant here in the neighborhood for a drink after work with friends.” —Pat
“The only things good about Brighton Beach are the beaches and the food.” —Alex G.
“My friends from Oceana and I enjoy performances at Kingsborough College, a short 15-minute drive from here. Ticket prices are reasonable, and parking is free. I just attended a jazz concert there last Friday night.” —Fay
A good place to raise a family?
“Young people seem to move out—some to Manhattan. They like things that are new…. Is it a good place to raise a family? I think it is. Kids are happy here—the beach is right here. I used to take my kids to Bay 1 all the time. District 21 [the school district] is excellent.” —Pat
“It’s a wonderful, nice place to bring up children. We have five mosques, good schools. All my kids went to public school and now one is a doctor and two are in law school.” —Sheikh
“The people who live here at the Oceana are well-educated and to them, educating their children is very, very important. The local public schools are an option at both the elementary and middle school level. The Bay Academy is a long but doable walk and a lot of kids from here go there for middle school and like it. High school is a bit more of an issue: My neighbor sent her only son to boarding school.” —Fay
Good place to raise a dog?
“Walking a dog here is easy and nice. There’s a rule that you can’t walk dogs on the beach from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Now the same rule has been extended to the boardwalk, but people don’t pay any attention to it. It’s never enforced.” —Lev
Is it a safe neighborhood?
“Sure, I feel safe walking around the neighborhood at night. We have good cooperation with the 60th Precinct but some in the community wish that the police would do more patrolling.” —Sheikh
“The cultural diversity program of the NYPD was started here with the help of the neighborhood association. Now it’s all over the city. As a result, we were assigned more Russian-speaking officers.” —Pat
“This is an absolutely safe neighborhood. Oceana is gated but even when I am out late at night and have to walk back and forth from the subway, I’m not the slightest bit uneasy.” —Fay
What do residents worry about?
“Of course, we worry about another Sandy kind of storm. Our insurance has skyrocketed since then. And many of us are worried about the government’s attitude toward climate change. Super storms like Sandy are more likely when the ocean warms and I can tell you that in October the water used to be so cold I could barely swim in it and now it is as warm as our indoor pool! Another thing we worry about is the possibility of sky-high property taxes. I’m going to a hearing tomorrow to talk about the issue and ask for parity with other parts of the city.” —Fay
“When Sandy hit I thought everything was going to go out the window. There was sand in the streets, banks were locked, cars were floating down the street. I couldn’t get out of my building, couldn’t call anyone. But, we came back. Russians are resilient. Can we come back from another storm like that? I don’t think so.” —Pat
“We worry about the homeless population which is particularly large in the summer time. And the road conditions, particularly in the part covered by the el, are terrible. We know that it’s expensive to repair the roads but all we get are promises, promises. I can’t walk back and forth across the street in heels!” —Yelena
Thinking of moving to Brighton Beach?
“I work here but I wouldn’t live here. Why? I don’t like the style of living. I live in Midwood. I like it there. I was born in Odessa. Brighton Beach isn’t like Odessa.” —Alex G.
“It’s a nice neighborhood. We have everything we need. Lots of young people are moving in and I encourage the new development.” —Sheikh
“People assume that rents are low here but that’s not so. In immigrant communities there is so much moving in and out that many formerly controlled rents get decontrolled. Newcomers should never take preferential rent. Many make that mistake. You aren’t locked in to any specific rent and it can go up a lot. Many make that mistake.” —Pat
“If you’re going to buy a house or a condo here, do more than just visit the property. Look around. Is your house of worship nearby? If you have kids, are there other kids around? This is a neighborhood where many of the families in a building are related to each other. Young people want to be close to family and come back with their own families to be close to parents and other family members.” —Fay
“I think that this is a critically underrated neighborhood. I love this place. Living here, I’ve extended my summer by at least a month. We have so much here: the beach, Coney Island, restaurants, fishing, two subway lines, Russian night clubs, ice skating nearby and our taxes are reasonable. I’m Russian and my wife is American. It took me two years to persuade her to move here from Park Avenue and 61st Street but now she loves it as much as I do.”—Lev
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