I’m writing this article about my time in the Russian-speaking Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach from a tiny, unstable table at 28 Ming’s Caffe on Canal Street in Manhattan while eating two orders of pork sui mai ($2.75 for 4 pieces). It’s hard to recall the feeling of Brighton’s former Soviet Union immigrant population when everyone around you is chattering in Mandarin and fixating on a Chinese infomercial for some herbal supplement that seems to do wonders for the digestive system.
And yet this cacophony is the very definition of New York.
Back to Brighton Beach.
You can make your way down there directly on the N or the Q, but I actually prefer to take the D or F down to Coney Island and then walk the length of the boardwalk. Elena and I did just that and without realizing it I ended up shooting a whole roll of film out the window before we even got to Coney. A seat on the west side of the train car (right side if you’re en route to Coney) will give you unique perspectives on the Verrazzano Bridge rising in the distance above a sea of South Brooklyn row homes, taking on the same relation of scale as the alien warships in Independence Day as they hovered over the world’s major cities. I could write up a whole other article on the Verrazzano; a modern Goliath seemingly forgotten in favor of its smaller but more famous rivals such as the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Triborough [multiple segments] and George Washington bridges to the north (though I’m only mentioning the more famous bridges by which it’s overshadowed, I still have equalled sympathy for other unappreciated feats of NYC bridge engineering like the Bronx-Whitestone, the Hell Gate, The High Bridge, and a personal favorite for no other reason than that in the summer I love to take the 7 back from the city and then Citi Bike over it and down through Greenpoint while looking back across the East River at Manhattan instead of lazily riding the G….the not-to-be-forgotten PULASKI).
Once at Coney Island-Stillwell Ave (the southern-most station in the MTA and a unique station in that it has high ceilings and exposed rafters giving it the feel of English stations like Kings Cross in London, though I won’t dare make a true comparison) you’ll walk out to the streets and be greeted by the one-and-only Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. I couldn’t not stop for a dog and caved after only seconds of peripheral eye contact with its classic glowing sign. After getting my breakfast hot dog out of the way we hit the boardwalk and started to make our way up to Brighton Beach.
Now this is something of a mini-article in that I did not by any means allocate a full day to Brighton Beach, a storied neighborhood with, like most of New York, centuries of layers to un-peel if one were to truly give it the narration it deserves. The same goes for Coney Island. Instead, this is a mere snapshot of a what it’s like to walk between the two neighborhoods (only a ¾ mile along the water) and why I think you should do the same if you find yourself in NYC.
It’s safe to label Coney Island as world famous. It’s the epitome of a beachside amusement park, the standard bearer of the classic American beach scene (though fair claims could be made for a tie with Asbury Park, NJ) that yields evocations of men walking the boardwalk in fuzzy archival photos wearing top hats and strutting along with canes-in-hand. Even in the dead of January, we saw a few tourists and dozens more locals snapping pictures and peeking through the gates. It is, no question, an iconic place.
Brighton Beach, however, is not (though it should be). The average New Yorker probably knows it’s heavily Russian and may have come down a couple times as a kid, but that’s about as far as most folks I’ve spoken with seem to get.
We walked north along the sand, taking in the ocean as a respite from life deep in the urban valleys of central Brooklyn. About half-way along the walk we saw something that in most cities would stop you dead in your tracks and even here raised an eyebrow or two [Note: spending approximately 15 minutes or more in the New York City Subway system will desensitize your entire frontal lobe and render you permanently and irreversibly jaded as to what’s worthy of your amusement or attention). Just today I saw a small elderly woman doing wall squats at York St waiting for the F and it took me several minutes before I thought “hmm that’s interesting”]. Squinting our eyes that were already heavily damaged by apocalyptic temperatures in Montreal we saw a swarm of human beings up the beach…
ripping their clothes off.
Screaming and hollering soon followed suit and our previously serene beach walk escalated into a battle scene from Planet of the Apes. People of every shape, color and size ran rampant in a mad dash to the water. Then, with approximately 1.74 seconds of hesitant pause,
they dove in.
Air Temperature: 32°F
Water Temperature: 40°F
Wind Speed: 9 miles per hour
It was a polar plunge of epic proportions. And we still have zero idea what the occasion was, if any! These people were laughing, dancing, diving over and under waves and having the time of their lives. You wouldn’t know from the photos that they were taken in the final week of January. I scrambled to shoot whatever I could of the scene, then paused to just take it all in and had an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment. The coupling of pure masochism and an undeniable joy on all of their faces made me, if only for just a second, somehow envious that they’d jumped in.
After taking in the madness of the polar plungers we made our way back to the boardwalk. There we walked onward and, like so many of the places to which I’m drawn, nothing particularly compelling caught our attention (besides the fact as a Californian I still haven’t come to terms with the notion that there is a whole other ocean on this side of America). The boardwalk had a decent grouping of New Yorkers walking along it and appeared to match with the expected cross-section of New York’s diversity, meaning every type of person on Earth walks by you in a two minute span.
And then I heard one. “Sounds like Russian”, I said as I turned to Elena with a slight twitch of my rigid, becoming-depressed-but-not-quite-there-yet-because-compared-to-Canada-the-cold-was-bearable facial expression. “Another one”, I grinned confidently, this time trying to hone in further as if I knew what to listen for, the way dads pretend to know exactly where a fish is in a river when they haven’t tied a lure to a line since the 80’s and in reality spend the majority of their free time watching Youtube videos about archaic power tools.
Soon everyone around us was speaking Russian or Ukrainian (can’t tell you which because, plot twist, I don’t speak them). The vibe shifted from the American beach institution of Coney Island to almost 100% former Soviet cultures all around. With Russian cafes on the boardwalk and winter squalls that bring to mind Napoleon’s failed invasion, you can see why the place earned the moniker of “Little Odessa”.
Winding off the boardwalk and over to the elevated rail line, you’ll find a set up that’s a common thread between many of New York’s ethnic neighborhoods: train tracks running overhead along a main throughway, endless shops for the given immigrant population lining either side and what can at times feel like another country. I noticed this phenomenon while I was walking along Brighton Beach Blvd under the D/F/N/Q. It was as though I were in a movie set that had originally been cast in Spanish in Jackson Heights or in Chinese in Flushing, only to be dubbed over and filled with Russian sub-titles. The architectural characteristics of the buildings and tracks were the same, the street layouts the same, and there was even a guy peddling Russian-language children’s books (see my post on Flushing for the same thing in a different language and neighborhood). It stands in my mind as a testament to the story of New York: for generations and generations groups have come here, worked hard to make ends meet and in the process they incidentally add their own touch to the greater whole that is this endless city.
Once in the thick of Brighton we mainly walked around staring at the Cyrillic signage and admiring the Russian take on winter fashion (you will never see a higher concentration of fur coats outside of Russia, and yes, I’m looking at you Aspen).
A couple places worth checking out:
Brighton Bazaar: A gargantuan smorgasbord of Russian foods, candies, hot and cold meals, dry goods and tons of stuff I’m in no way qualified to identify.
Kashkar: An Uyghur restaurant where ordering with a blindfold on would not sway the epic-ness of your food because the menu is just stacked. People have caught on to this spot already so be prepared for a potential wait, even in winter.
And lastly, any of the other markets along the avenue are worth popping in to check out. Grocery stores are always a solid starting point for exploring a new culture, as you see people running an errand that’s more or less unavoidable the world over. Down here you’ll definitely want to buy Russian candy too. Get the one with a Russian baby on the front. Just trust us on this (we had several Russians DM us about the candy so thank you all for that pro tip)
In all honesty, we didn’t spend the normal amount of time nor depth there that I’d usually afford somewhere. Brighton Beach absolutely deserves that and this article will no doubt have a Part II: Summer Edition dropping this July, but being real humans with limited schedules and no camera crew budget from CNN (yet), the trip was reduced to the simple walk between the two neighborhoods of Coney Island and Brighton Beach. The satisfying truth is, however, that sometimes that’s all you need to be transported to a world away from my place only nine miles to the north.
I’ll leave you with this. In the span of less than a mile, you’ll see the world’s most famous hot dog, one of the country’s most popular beaches, an iconic boardwalk, and just when you think you’ve wrapped up your box-ticking All-American beach day,
you’ll find yourself stumbling
into the middle
of the Russian Federation.