New Yorkers tend to discover Brighton Beach by accident. They set off for Coney Island, but through train mishaps or sheer excitement at the first sight of the sea, they get off at the wrong stop and are confronted with its grumpy next-door neighbor instead. If they do make it to Coney Island, they might stroll down the shore, until the sea turns to vodka and the newspapers turn Cyrillic. Regardless of how they get there, they seem to peregrinate in a fog, for which they can hardly be blamed: In Brighton Beach, questions are deeply frowned upon, then ignored.
But no one’s coming to Brighton Beach for clarity. A dose of local exoticism is the best they can hope for. And after wandering up and down the boardwalk, marveling at the decked-out seniors — the ladies in fur coats with radioactively purple hair and men in track suits playing backgammon as if their lives depended on it, which they quite possibly did in the Siberian prisons — after devouring the warm piroshki (flying saucers of fried dough), tanning alongside the master tanners who’ve got it down to a science, and braving the dour ladies in paper hats who dole out the delicacies the land has on offer, the visitors will sigh contentedly, as after a battle won, and say that they’re going back to Brooklyn.
A slip of the tongue, perhaps, but it means something. And what it means is that Brighton Beach is a universe unto itself, with its own time, its own language, its own customs, for which it makes no apologies.
If you don’t get it, it’s your loss.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, just a century and some change, Brighton Beach was the premier destination for wealthy New Yorkers, boasting a massive luxury resort, a racetrack, a bathing pavilion, a vaudeville theater and a music hall. Coney Island, then known as West Brighton, was nothing but some annoying riffraff.
All of this glamour eventually faded, and the current state of Brighton Beach can be traced directly to the year 1979, when the first spate of Russian Jews came sputtering out of a hole in the Iron Curtain. The leak was patched up for a little while but opened more deliberately by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This was when my family came. We were part of the Odessa diaspora, unable to resist the allure of the water, so reminiscent of our beloved Black Sea home.
The sea was already in Brooklyn, so the next step was filling the streets with produce. Ex-Soviets do not trust information or strangers; they trust cucumbers. And if you want to know the soul of the place, you can start by comparing fruits and vegetables along Brighton Beach Avenue. If you do your research, it will become pretty clear which is the best gastronom, but no one will ever agree with you and ultimately it will be a test of the wills, and you will lose. Such is life.
If it makes you feel better, regardless how much better and cheaper the produce is in Brighton Beach than other parts of the city, it remains but a pale shadow of the flavors of the Old Country, where everything was simultaneously exponentially worse and so much better that life is now devoted to memorializing it.
The produce also bears the responsibility of uniting, however briefly, all ex-Soviets in the metropolitan area, most of whom do not actually reside in Brighton Beach but look down on it as a backwater dump where those who failed to move forward got stuck. But no amount of haughtiness will stand in the way of a good bargain, so Russian expats from across the city, hailing from not only anarchical Odessa but also sophisticated St. Petersburg and cosmopolitan Moscow, are drawn to the shopping thoroughfare under the rumbling El, although they abscond right after attaining their spoils (and a mani-pedi while they’re at it) and probably won’t admit they were ever there.
It was this complex expatriate shame vortex (and the thrilling sights it produced, like the most gorgeous sunsets exploding in polluted skies) that seduced the photographer Alexey Yurenev. Alexey emigrated from Russia as a child, but he did not grow up in Brighton Beach, only heard the rumors (backwater dump), which he found not at all fitting to the place he stumbled upon as an adult.
For the better part of a year, he photographed the local phenomena: those master tanners practicing their expert techniques; the Russian restaurants whose night life gives David Lynch a run for his money; the vets who fought in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians still call World War II, and who have the medals to prove it, which they don in festive/tragic fashion (Brighton Beach’s style) every Ninth of May.
There is the sense that Brighton Beach has remained fixed in time — but what era that is gets ever trickier to pin down. When we arrived in the early ’90s — I was a 6-year-old not at all happy to leave the paradise of Odessa — the neighborhood was a bustling haven of Odessan Jews, a fairly uniform population, not too large, but highly saturated.
We left, just like those before us, because of anti-Semitic persecution, or such was the official story, often told with at least a bit of an eye roll, since by the time of the exodus, Jews were no longer being raped, pillaged and murdered pogrom-style, only mocked and on occasion roughed up, if one happened to wander into the more Jew-hating corners, and of course they were kept out of universities and jobs through enforced quotas — in other words trivialities that only a wimp would see as abuse. Luckily, the Americans were just such ninnies who wanted to welcome the poor refugees and give them opportunities. It was those unheard-of things — opportunities — that we came for.
There was an air of victory and great aliveness — here were people who jumped off a cliff into the unknown and found themselves once again together in a land that had everything they only ever dreamed of, such as bananas — so many bananas! Old friends and neighbors bumped into one another, familiar faces came a mile a minute, even more than back in Odessa, since they were living in greater concentration. The thrill and panic of being in a foreign place was cut by the immense relief of rediscovering what was feared lost, and not just rediscovering but recreating, with some minor but notable substitutions, such as the Atlantic Ocean for the Black Sea, and the boardwalk for Primorski Boulevard.
Everything that couldn’t be recreated was preserved in the brine of nostalgia. We lived across the street from a gastronom called Odessa, which was attached to a restaurant/nightclub called Odessa. (Side note: Russian restaurants double as nightclubs, with a regular show of dance performances, a kind of risqué variety show; for Russians, the idea of going out just to eat is preposterous.) Since we were among the last of the Soviet Jews to emigrate, by the time we got here, many of my parents’ friends already had their fill of this Old World replica and moved out to the ’burbs in pursuit of the American dream. On weekends, though, they were drawn right back to what was still home base of this alien land, and the entire kompaniya of friends and their feral children would convene for endless nights of drunken reverie.
As with all heydays, we had no clue that’s what it was, and how easily and imperceptibly it would fade away. Brighton Beach may look the same to the untrained eye but is in fact significantly changed from the Brighton Beach of my childhood. Restaurant Odessa is gone. The hot new supermarket is called Tashkent, which I’ve been told not everyone knows is the capital of Uzbekistan, so I should spell it out — if this applies to you, no need to feel ashamed, just get to Brighton Beach.
It is the Central Asians who are now arriving in droves, rediscovering one another, molding the neighborhood according to their fantasies. A thriving Georgian community adds dimension to the culinary landscape. While Russian and Ukrainian food is delicious in its utilitarian way, it lacks the aromatic nuance of Georgian cuisine. But you will excuse me, I am not a food writer, and the best I can do is tell you to find the Georgian bakery on Neptune Avenue and devour the freshly baked cheesy khachapuri. The grandfather who owned the bakery had enough of America and returned to Georgia, so the khachapuri is no longer divine but still delicious.
While the added multi-Soviet-culturalism is surely a reason to rejoice — and not just for the food — the reality is an ever-dwindling supply of old, proud, angry Russians. Ambulances crowd the streets. Familiar faces disappear on a regular basis. That little man with the cane, blind in one eye, who had a little white dog — where is he? He was put into the ground four months ago.
What can you do? You nod and move on.
But each of these old people is a time capsule. They lived through Stalinism; they spanned the entire absurd arc of the social experiment that passed by the name of communism in Eastern Europe. There is a lost and forgotten air about them; they have more stories than there are willing listeners. Lord knows, I don’t want to be the one to ask for their tales. I grew up around those surly presences. Their gravel voices went in one ear, out the other.
So it was greatly reassuring to learn that Alexey has taken up the mantle. He speaks about the people he has met with such electric enthusiasm that it’s jarring and enlivening, as if he were speaking about a different Brighton Beach, whose heyday is back. Alexey and I discussed an interesting phenomenon, which is that many of the Russians now identify strictly as American. A bit strange, but not too surprising, considering that there’s pretty much nothing else left to identify as. Brighton Beach is no longer an offshoot but a legitimate place in its own right.
For proof, you need only to look at the one arena in which the Brighton Beachers have ventured fearlessly into the unknown: fashion. Boutiques along Brighton Beach and Coney Island Avenue advertise “European Fashion,” which means headless mannequins hanging from the ceiling in asymmetrical parachuting garments whose buckles, zippers, mesh pockets, frills, knots and sashes require a doctorate in engineering to operate, which fortunately the fashionistas of Brighton hold. Beauty is synonymous with a highly precarious yet glossy and impermeable outer shell. When that seaside gale blows, one must be so shellacked not a hair moves out of place.
Needless to say, there is great competition among the nail salons, perhaps even more than among cellphone doctors or podiatrists. The Russian-owned salons are more expensive than the Chinese-owned ones and make you feel worse about yourself, so everyone wants to go to them, except my mother, whose map of Brighton includes several crossed-out blocks onto which she can’t step since they harbor an offending manicurist or, worse still, a nice one she feels she is betraying by going to the cheaper Chinese.
Avoidance, generally, plays a big role. Now that everyone's been long reunited, they've had the chance to become annoying again. Hence the tendency to jet down the shadow part of the street, dash behind corners, keep your head down.
But no matter how agile and sneaky one gets, there is one person whose presence is unavoidable: The Doorman. Every building has one, and they are not hired by the building but by Unconscious Forces. It is not a job but a vocation. Naturally it is the most threatening people who feel the greatest need to protect. But as they say, whatever works. Our doorman, a schizophrenic Georgian Jew engaged from morning to night in intense solitary arguments, seems partial to us — perhaps he can sense kindred spirits — so he only nicely, never violently, opens the door.
And then, ah, home at last! After all that these immigrants have been through, can you blame them for relishing their comfort and safety? Brighton Beach is, was and perhaps always will be a refuge for the spiritually homeless, who, even though they have regained equilibrium and attained security, will forever be on the lookout for the next great danger, the upcoming catastrophe. All that alert vigilance has cultivated a genuine pleasure in simply observing. Bare torsos lean out of windows in Brighton Beach, practically falling out, tracking the goings-on like hawks. Perhaps this is the only place that they, that we, will ever feel truly comfortable, neither outside, nor in.
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