Back to New York's Future

Brighton Beach is one of the last 'old world' communities in New York City, serving immigrants since the early 1900's, when the first wave of European/Russian émigrés settled here.  Today, it is still a community of émigrés - a neighborhood that encompasses people of almost every region of the world.

With an estimated population of 150,000 people, Brighton is a melting pot of world cultures, which can be seen in its many restaurants, shops and cultural establishments.  The largest population thus far are Russians.  The first wave came in the early 1900's.  The second wave came in the late 1970's with an estimated 25,000 arriving in our shorefront.  With this influx, Brighton Beach became a bustling scene of cultural upheaval.  Brighton will never be the same.

Brighton Beach Avenue is the main commercial strip of Brighton Beach and over 80% of the businesses are Russian owned.  The 'Momma Pappa' stores of old now reflect the influx of major chain stores like RiteAid and Duane Reed along with Petland Discount.  You can not go hungry on Brighton Beach Avenue because there are blocks of produce stores along with restaurants and nightclubs.

In the 80's, another 10,000 people from Russia arrived and they still trickle in due to relaxed immigration policies.  In addition, large numbers of Koreans, Filipinos, Pakistani, Afghanis, Hispanic and Turkish people have moved into the community.  Recently, mosques have opened on and around Neptune Avenue where many middle Easterners are settling.

Brighton housing stock is as diversified as its residents.  Many elevator buildings are styled in the art deco of the 30's either in their lobbies or their entrances.  Building owners have been restoring many of these beautiful lobbies to their former splendor.

In many of these buildings you will see the remnant of an extra faucet over the tub which was for salt water.  The ocean was literally piped into these homes.

Several hundred pre-war boarding houses, which the city calls single room occupancy living, are interspersed in the community.  These houses are wood framed and the insides are honey combed with numerous rooms from the basement to the top floors.  Tenants share amenities including kitchens and bathrooms.  Brighton 4th Street homes such as these served as the back drop for the movie 'Brighton Beach Memoirs', 'Streets of Gold' and'Boardwalk' movies also filmed here. 
 
A rich history

The ocean has always been a major attraction for all New Yorkerís and visitors alike.  With five miles of beaches, Brighton Beach became a Mecca for the wealthy and ordinary alike.  It was especially attractive to William Engeman, an early real estate developer who bought land in 1868 and named it Brighton Beach, after a famous British resort.

To accommodate the influx of visitors, four major hotels were built: in 1873-79 the Ocean Hotel; the Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion, and Paul Bauerís West Brighton Hotel in 1876.  The Brighton Beach Hotel, the largest of all, was constructed in 1879 and then moved inland in 1888 in a spectacular feat of engineering with more than 120 railroad cars and six locomotives to save it from destruction from the eroding beaches.

A one-mile race track was built in 1879 for horse racing and dog racing off season.  The track was constructed in an area now occupied by Brighton 10th Street, adjoining streets and elevated train line.  The race track was converted fro auto racing in 1911, but due to numerous racing deaths and laws against gambling, the track was sold, razed and is now mostly private homes.

Theaters and casinos also opened during the early 1900's.  A music hall was constructed near the once famous Reisenweberís Restaurant.  The place was frequented by 'Diamond Jim' Brady who often entertained actress Lillian Russell.  He also opened a casino on Ocean Parkway.

In 1907 the Brighton Beach Baths opened, and two years later, the New Brighton Theater also opened.  Unfortunately, wood frame construction of that era did not meet today's fire code standards.  The Baths were destroyed by fire in 1911.  In 1919 the Brighton Beach Hotel fire reduced the once grand summer community and surrounding area to ashes.

But the residents did not give in, so in 1919, the first Yiddish theater was established reflecting a large influx of Eastern European Jews into the area.  The New Brighton Theater became famous for presenting shows by George Jessel, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Will Rogers, Fred and Adele Astaire, the Marx Brothers and Douglas Fairbanks.

The Brighton Beach Baths and Racquet Club were rebuilt on its present 15 acre site by Joseph Day and was a haven for many seeking the refuge of fresh water pools, paddle tennis courts, and other activities.  In it's heyday, the 50's and 60's, the Baths had a membership of more than 10,000 people.  Four years after the reconstruction of the Baths in 1922, the City of New York extended the now famous Boardwalk from the Coney Island amusement area to Brighton Beach. 
 
A residential change

The 1930's and 40's brought a huge influx of people from Europe were escaping the oppression of fascists and the Nazis.  Street names were changed for the benefit of the immigrants to numbered Brighton 'places'.  The Brighton BMT train line jumped from handling 5000,000 people annually to more than 6 million riders.  And in 1938, Robert Moses purchased the entire beach from private owners for $75,000 and donated it to New York City.

The neighborhood began to change as well as the wealth of immigrant families rose and began to move out.  Singer Neil Sedaka and actor producer Mel Brooks used to call this neighborhood home.  While many elderly remained in the community, younger families moved out and instead, poor minorities began to arrive.

But be the 1970's, the Russian community became the largest minority taking over Brighton Beach and began constructing their own restaurants and cafes to accommodate their groups.  Others quickly learned the delight of the Russian restaurants, where abundant dishes were to be had - unlike the Russia these new residents used to know where food was scarce and lines to supermarkets to buy scant items were common.

And to service this neighborhood, there are more than 350 businesses that flourish on Brighton Beach Avenue.  They account for more than $60 million in annual sales and help to support the local economy.  More than 2 million people flock to the neighborhood to enjoy the beaches, kept clean by the New York City Parks and Recreation Department.  And shopping on the Avenue finds bargains daily.

Numerous community groups began to sprout to service the businesses and to keep Brighton a popular place to visit.  The Shorefront YM-YWHA at the end of Coney Island Avenue next to the boardwalk has a membership of young and old who use the indoor pool and gym, exercise rooms and attend classes. 
 
Today and a new tomorrow

Brighton Beach is still one of the most popular beaches for summer recreation because of its proximity to major population area, easy access to the elevated BMT train lines, numerous bas lines, car services, taxis and accessible parking both on street and in municipal lots.

It is close to Coney Island amusement area, famous Nathan's Restaurant, the exciting Cyclone  roller coaster and the popular New York Aquarium to the west, and the Sheepshead Bay fishing fleet to the east.  This community is popular for shopping, dining and the ocean breeze.  The breezes inspired Reisenweber's song 'By the Beautiful Sea' in 1919.

Along the main Avenue there are many wonderful shops along with Russian nightclubs.  One can sip vodka to the passionate sounds of Russian music on the main Avenue or on the Boardwalk.

M & I International is a European style superette.  On the main floor (besides Russian meats and delicacies) are cans of foods from all over the world.

Restaurants have menus in both English and Russian.  Imperiator, National, Atlantic Oceana, Odessa and Tatiana are some of our leading night spots for great food and entertainment.  We also have numerous small restaurants like Paris and Primorski.  If you would like additional information on our restaurants please contact the Brighton Business Improvement District at 718-934-1908.

Nearer to Coney Island Avenue, a main thoroughfare, there is the Black Sea Book Store with Russian language and some English books.  Mrs. Stahlís knishes are still world renowned for diversity and great flavor at a still favorable price. 

Brighton Beach is also popular with cinematographers for scenes in many past and new movies being shot such as one famous film with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in 'Back to the Beach'; Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiiffer filmed ìFrankie and Johnnyî; Shelly Winters and Danny Aiello, Marcello Mastrianni starred in ìPicklesî; Matt Dillon recently filmed here; Steven Segal did an action flick 'Out for Justice' under the elevated L line.  Shirley MacLaine and Mastrianni came back to Brighton to film 'Street People'. 

Although BNA has fought to maintain the character of this 'old world' community, we see new construction in Brighton Beach.  Joshua Muss Development is completing their Oceana Condominium Complex with 850 units on the old Brighton Beach Site.  In a later paragraph, attorney Raoul Lionel Felder, reflects on what that original site was like.  This new complex features units with fireplaces, a health spa along with indoor and outdoor pool facilities. 

BNA is currently working with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz to bring back one feature from the old Baths which is Paddle Tennis.  Funds are being set aside to develop a park nearby this complex on Brighton 15th Street and the Boardwalk which will be opened to the community along with the new residents at the Oceana. 

There is also new condominiums being built in the Bungalow section of Brighton Beach, but BNA is seeking to limit such development to preserve the existing affordable housing.

"For those who had the price of admission, the Brighton Beach Bath an Racquet Club was a sun-filled paradise of sorts.  It was 15 acres of swimming pools, handball courts, beach chairs and a bandstand graced by the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey.  With the price of admission came a fraying elastic wrist band attached to a key that opened one of the hundreds of lockers (rotting even then), whose chinks might allow a peek into the womenís dressing area.  The smell of wet wood, suntan oil, and sale remain as evocative to former patrons as the aroma of Madeline was to Mr. Proust.", as quoted from the well-known attorney Raoul Lionel Felder.

Some years later my father began taking me to Brighton when the weather got cold.  Brighton had slowly become a sort of retired poor manís Miami Beach in the years since I had gone there as a child.  My grandparents had moved to Brighton and my father and I would visit them before taking a quiet stroll on the boardwalk. 

We would end up at a large space that contained perhaps a hundred deck chairs.  There, on a sunny mid-winter day, for 25 cents an hour, you could be tended by college students who ran among the chairs, wrapping you with layers of threadbare blankets purchased from the hotel bankruptcies. 

Library reading-room silence was enforced - all communication was in whispers.  With our eyes closed and only our faces exposed while the icy waves crashed in the background, we felt a sense of detachment from time and reality more perfect than that produced by any nickel bag succeeding generations could purchase on a street corner. 

Forty years later, when my own daughter, now a young woman, and I began taking Sunday drives around New York, we discovered today's Brighton.  It was 35 minutes and seemingly thousands of miles from Manhattan.  It was as if we had crossed the border of a Russian republic.  The sights, sounds, smell and language were completely different from what we had experienced only minutes before.  Exotic foods were for sale at stores where the Cryllic letters in the signs were as unenlightening as the sales women's speeches in fractured English.  There were restaurants with $20 10-course meals (a bottle of vodka included) accompanied by live music and strangers with shiny steel teeth sharing our table. 

Weekend after weekend my daughter and I would visit.  After a year or so, we saw a large new apartment house at the foot of Ocean Parkway overlooking the water.  We looked at the building and each other said,'Why not?'. 

And so it came to be that I purchased an apartment in Brighton Beach.  My family does not live there, but my daughter and I come on Sundays and stroll the boardwalk, read the papers, gorge ourselves on food, take a nap and drive back to a Manhattan skyscraper where after 20 years, I still don't know the names of my neighbors. 

For the past two summers I have gone to the beach as I did when I was 9 or 10.  I stand in the water looking out across the sea to England, clearing my head and listening to the waves while people splashing about chat with each other and me.  It seems as if the clock has been turned back a generation.  I've stopped telling friends about my Brighton adventures; either they do not believe me or they make jokes.  But I know I have discovered a secret New York City treasure.

Brighton is New York at its best; a unique neighborhood of immigrants in a city of neighborhoods.  Perhaps the work 'immigrant' is a misnomer.  These people are quintessential New Yorkers who have established a peaceful enclave with all the symptoms and anticipation of permanency.