Emerging from the N-Train just before 10:30am, Coney Island, icon of New York, and arguably American, entertainment, appeared as a ghost town. The subway car’s occupants had slowly withered away as the N-Train, running express, raced farther South, though there was still enough riders to be taking up most of the bench seats. A sparse group of middle aged joggers, and one woman delicately, almost lovingly, feeding the seagulls, were the only indications that I was not completely alone on this bitterly cold, swift winded Friday morning. Coney Island is, on the surface, a “cheesy” but nonetheless greatly captivating place on its own. However, this is not what I had taken the subway to its last stop to do on this day.
As someone who hates swimming, would always pick the mountains over the beach, and has been shit on by a seagull, I seem to have conjured a strange affinity for coastal enclaves on frigid days. Brighton Beach sits on the Southernmost tip of Brooklyn and not quite to the full eastern tip of the shorefront peninsula, only beaten by Manhattan Beach. The area has long been known for its heavily immigrant based population, currently being the highest density area of Russian immigrants in the Western Hemisphere according to a report done by City University of New York. This fact being exemplified by the Russian lettered notices standing next to the English notices on the inky boardwalk sign. I am greeted by a row of perfectly aligned, various colored brick walk ups and a cafe named “Volna”. Though I am tempted by these beachside cafes, and my hands are freezing, I trust my gut(literally), which pleads me not to eat boardwalk food.
Lined down the block by delivery trucks, Cafe La Brioche sits at the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue, the main avenue slicing through the retail drag, and Brighton Beach 12th Street. I hold open the door for an elderly Russian woman, who thanks me in English, and I step in, immediately taken back by the enormity of traditional, delectable looking Russian pastries inside the messily laid out “cafe”. Undoubtedly a family run establishment, the, who I presume to be, father is aggravatedly arguing with his daughter while his son mans the register. After many moments of difficult deliberation, I purchase an eclair, an almond cookie, and two cream puffs for $2 total. After I quickly eat one of the cream puffs, I go buy two more.
While I am immediately labeled as an outsider in Brighton Beach, this immigrant dense neighborhood still very much feels like a part of New York City, and a thriving one at that. The rapport among residents is like that of a family: a shop owner playfully ruffling the hair of their young, less experienced employee, the shop labelled hat and apron wearing employee only eliciting a glimmer of annoyance. A matte grey wrapped Mercedes Benz AMG G-63 SUV takes off down West End Avenue with a suit and scarf wearing operator at the wheel. The vibrant, methodologically working Brighton Beach Ave gives way to extra-residential streets, one to two story brick homes engulfing each block, and mothers pushing strollers to the surprisingly numerous playgrounds in the area. Although I have been noted as clearly not Russian, this doesn’t stop most of my fellow pedestrians from quickly flashing a smile in passing from behind their, fully bundled, parka and hat wearing faces. Maybe they just feel bad for me, because I am painfully underdressed for the 30 degree day and am obviously cold. I seek refugee in a restaurant.
As I sit, hands thankfully thawing out and regaining full feeling, in Cafe Kashkar, a self proclaimed Uzbek Halal restaurant, waiting for my “Lagman Soup”, a recommendation of Edward Lee of Buttermilk Graffiti, the aforementioned family rapport of the tightly packed area becomes painstakingly clear. It is too much of a generalization to assert that this family rapport is due to many of the same family lineages continuing to run through the beach. Certainly, families have come to Brighton and their legacies have been lengthened in the same neighborhood. Rather, the familial emotions of this place are likely because of the reason that the community even exists on the Southern Peninsula of Brooklyn. Prevalent Anti-Semitism, tightening border policies, and the idea of a better future drove these, primarily Jewish, Russian immigrants to the United States, intrinsically linking them together in a community struggle. Through the continual shift of Soviet laws and religious persecution across a 40 year period of time, Russian immigrants flooded into the United States, many of them landing in Brighton Beach, in three waves: the late 1940s/early 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. As more and more Russian immigrants began to settle alongside the beach in Brooklyn, the sense of community and the prosperity within the locale grew immensely. Eating what may be one of the best bowls of soup I have ever consumed, a rich lamb broth, mint, and fat rice noodles filling my gut, I can’t help but admire the strength of those who initially made the journey here and of those who have kept it such a sacred place. Finishing my bowl of body warming soup and wondering how far their delivery people go(not to the East Village unfortunately), I simultaneously feel satisfied and grippingly curious with my adventure to one end of Brooklyn. As I board the Q-Train heading back to Manhattan, I relish, a little too romantically, the peacefulness of an early morning Coney Island and my anxiety free walk around Brighton Beach.