Just 30 minutes on a straight-shot subway from the center of downtown Brooklyn lies the seaside retreat of Odessa. Not, of course, the warm water Ukranian port and favorite summer retreat for oligarchic Russians, but rather Brighton Beach, otherwise affectionately referred to as “Little Odessa” because of the large Russian-speaking population that resides there. Indeed, to visit Brighton Beach is to have one of those great Brooklyn experiences in which you are transported not to another pocket of the borough but to far-flung, foreign terrain. You board the train in New York City, circa 2012, and exit in a Polish shtetl, 1943, or you turn a corner and are smack dab in the middle of a Latin American-style market where people haggle in Spanish over plantains. Brighton Beach is of this ilk: when you step off the Q (or B) subway at Brighton Beach Station and on to the main drag, you are surrounded by markets selling babka and oreshki [Russian biscuits], neighbors chattering away in Russian, and the sound of the surf breaking within walking distance.
Brighton Beach, named after the famed port city in Britain, was a neighborhood designed and masterminded by William Engeman, an entrepreneur who bought a few hundred waterfront acres to develop as a summer getaway for city dwellers. The idea was to both complement and compete with nearby, established Coney Island, and indeed, early Brighton Beach sounds much like Coney: there were fashionable hotels, a pier for bathers, and even a freak show housed in a building called the Midget’s Palace. Despite these obvious draws, Brighton never quite attracted the wealthy crowd that Coney did, instead luring Jews from the Lower East Side, Brownsville, and East New York. These part-time residents developed Brighton into a diasporic enclave of sorts, which led immigrants fleeing their home countries to see it as a viable location for beginning a new, American life. There were two major influxes of Jewish immigrants to Brighton: after World War II when refugees arrived in droves from Europe, and again during the 1980s when the Soviet Union relaxed its immigration policies. The streets were numbered for these non-English speaking transplants, and the word “resort” in relation to Brighton took on a new, non-Engemanian meaning.
Brighton today, to a visitor, seems less overtly Jewish than it is overwhelmingly Russian –– even at the local Verizon store, you’ll be “greeted” with a chilly “zdravstvujtye.” Of course, a visit to the Verizon store on Brighton Beach Avenue isn’t an essential part to the perfect Brighton day, which goes something like this: wake up late in another part of Brooklyn and eat a bagel. Pack bathing suit, large sunglasses, and book (Pasternak?) in a tote bag, and sleepily crawl onto the subway. Watch out the window as Midwood races by. When you disembark, buy a flimsy towel at L&S, the local pharmacy, and then head over to Bakery La Brioche and purchase cake by the pound for beach munches. As you walk to the beach, check out the fleshy local ladies slumped in their lawn chairs in rows on the sidewalk, and try your hardest not to think of the Ellen Burstyn’s doomed character in Requiem for a Dream. Bake in the sun, and watch oily Russian men with bellies hanging over their teeny Speedos stand at the shoreline with their hands on their hips and survey the bay. When you tire of this –– likely in the late afternoon –– head up to one of the two ever-dueling boardwalk restaurants, Tatiana or Volna, for cheese dumplings, borscht, and Russian Standard vodka chased by pickles. This author recommends Tatiana, which boasts a theater show complete with women dressed as day-glo butterflies that begins around 10 PM. It’s too gaudy to resist.