A scattering of photos from two very different days in Sunset Park, Brooklyn: a slightly damp but sun peaking morning in the dead of winter and a clear, lukewarm late spring afternoon.
Inspired by Christopher Morris’ 1981 Subway Photo expose, I decided to start shooting photos whenever I rode the subway. Shot over the course of February and March of 2019, I used Fuji Superia 400 film with two of the rolls being pushed from their original ISO of 400 to 800 and 1600.
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.
The Rockaways just ooze an ever present melancholy. Blocks shift from newly constructed, cookie-cutter “beach-town” apartment complexes to tattered remnants of Hurricane Sandy. The A-Train in between the Aqueduct Horse Track and Broad Channel stops, skirting on an anorexic piece of platform, shows a brief glimpse into the blow that Hurricane Sandy dealt to this far south strip of Queens.
Family owned storefronts recede while the likes of Dunkin Donuts and Subway slide in with perfected franchises. Like the 7 train(and numerous other trains including the J,M,Z, etc), the A line elucidates the character of this South Eastern section of Queens by rising above ground at the 80th Street station. Single or double story homes firmly planted in marshy byways are flanked by John F. Kennedy International Airport.
A Korean Air 747 ascending from JFK with 1 World Trade Center barely visible serves as the only reminder that I am still in the globalized, economic powerhouse of a city that is New York. However, to not recognize that this slice of New York is just as much a part of the city would be to miss the point entirely. Despite the hardships the Rockaway Peninsula has faced since Hurricane Sandy, there is an air of positive resilience to the place. The area is exceedingly tranquil while still showing of its feisty personality. On the sharp, 40 degree(fahrenheit that is) day that I visited, the waves were crashing against the rocky Averne by the Sea shore harshly and yet there was no wind, leaving the only discernible thing to be the sound of the waves. Drivers didn’t honk at each others, or at least as much as in the city. Everything seemed slower, including the MTA bus service.
As I devoured my Pollo Guisado from Brisas Del Mar on 99th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, an Anthony Bourdain recommendation, a slew of middle school children bustled in laughing and screaming, smiles wide across their giddy faces. I emerged from the homey, family owned restaurant and was bombarded by another gaggle of kids, acting with the kind of youthful arrogance and lack of spatial awareness that is unique to, and partially endearing of, middle schoolers. As the “Not In Service” MTA bus full of elementary and middle school students, and one NYPD officer, pulled away, a girl, who couldn’t have been much older than 9 or 10, pushed her head out of the bus window and yelled “fuck yo’ shit!”
Despite its desolate appearances, the Rockaways seem to be making a comeback and a hopeful one at that. I mean, there were herds of those Lime Bike Beach Cruisers strewn about, so something must be going well. Or horribly wrong. On a more serious note, if you are interested in learning about how the Rockaways have fared since Hurricane Sandy, check out the following link to the New York state report on the revitalization of the beach-town community: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/osdc/rpt13-2018.pdf .