The Culture of Brighton Beach from the Black Sea to the New York Bay
By Skyler Inman
Out on the boardwalk of southern Brooklyn, just to the east of Coney Island, a handful of competing cafés stand side by side. Other than by name and by the clashing colors of their adjacent awnings, there is very little that distinguishes one from the next: they are open-air; attract a stout, aging, Russian-speaking clientele; and serve roughly the same menu of traditional, nostalgic Russian cuisine.
Underneath the bright blue canopy of one café, called Tatiana Grill, waiters bustle between tables. With a few exceptions, Tatiana’s clients are middle-aged and sit in gender-segregated groups. Behind me is a table of women, none of them younger than sixty and all sporting poufs of unnaturally colored hair. Over the currents of their neighborhood gossip are the rough jokes of four rotund, well-tanned men who look as though, a couple of decades ago, they might have run the kind of business that made a bit too much money to be entirely legal.
Just a table away from the vodka-toasting men, however, sits the one table other than my own that breaks the pattern. A young, American-looking man in his thirties sits with his two young daughters and his parents. The man chats with his parents in fluent Russian, punctuated from time to time with a comment in English to his daughters.
Seeing three generations together is a rare thing in Brighton Beach. As is the case with many immigrant communities, most people who moved here when they first arrived have stayed, but their children—younger immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans—have since largely moved on from Brighton.
Brighton Beach’s distinct culture was formed by the vibrant, defining waves of immigration reaching its shores throughout the 20th century. Tatiana’s customers, like most of Brighton’s current immigrant population, arrived from the 1970s through final decades of the Soviet Union. These immigrants built upon the foundations laid by a smaller group of Eastern European Jews who had fled persecution and anti-Semitism during the First and Second World Wars and who established synagogues and a sense of community that had a lasting effect on the area.
Yelena Aranovna Feldman, who lives on the outskirts of Brighton Beach, arrived in 1991 at the tail end of the more recent wave of immigration.
Born and raised in Kiev, Yelena left the Soviet Union following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, bringing with her a twenty-six-year-old son, her husband, and her mother-in-law. The choice to settle in Brighton was an easy one. “Everyone here speaks Russian. You go into a shop and ask for things in Russian, we have Russian food. Life is easier because you know everyone’s culture and you can use your mother tongue. And on top of that, we’re not far from the ocean.” At this, she smiles, interjecting in accented English, “Enjoy life!
Yelena isn’t the only immigrant to embrace the beaches that give the neighborhood its name. At the height of summer, people from all over New York flock to Brighton Beach’s coastline, but even in early fall weather, the beach remains a hub of local activity. Soviet-looking men recline shirtless in the sand, short babushkas push strollers along the boardwalk, and old couples perch on benches facing the water. If not for occasional signage in English, it would look exactly like a Soviet postcard of Russian vacationers on the banks of the Black Sea.
When I ask her if there was anything other than the nuclear meltdown that motivated her to leave, she shrugs. “Everyone always says they did it for their kids, and of course that’s true. It was for them… But it was for us, too. All of us.”
Because they arrived as refugees, Yelena and her husband were legally able to work right away, but neither was able to find work consistent with their former careers, and both eventually got jobs brokering visas between the US and the USSR. Yelena’s son likewise struggled to find work. “He got a job in an auto shop for a while, but it wasn’t what he had been schooled in.” Without language proficiency, she said, there was little chance he would be able to find meaningful work. After several years learning English, Yelena’s son, like many others of his generation, eventually moved away from Brighton in search of a less insular community for his two American-born daughters.
“My eldest granddaughter is studying at McGill now,” Yelena says, smiling with pride. “She even got to take a class on Russian literature, but I think that was hard for her. She speaks well, but she never learned how to write like a Russian.” As is the case with many Brighton residents now, Yelena’s grandchildren have never lived in Brighton for more than a holiday weekend.
Ari Barkan, like Yelena’s granddaughters, is a first-generation American, born from the marriage of two immigrant families. “Believe it or not, Russian was my first language. I had to be taught English,” he says with some pride.
Ari is young—a recent graduate of Brooklyn College—and got some of his first exposure as an actor through a YouTube video he produced and acted in with a couple of fellow Brighton Beach residents: Sh*t Russian Grandmothers Say.
The video’s reception bridged age groups as well as geographical boundaries. “We weren’t expecting more than a thousand views total,” he says, “but it just kept growing. Some guy in his forties stopped me in Brighton today and asked for a photo because he recognized me from the video.”
Ari calls himself a product of New York, particularly of Brighton Beach. Nevertheless, like many young first-generation individuals from the neighborhood, Ari is considering relocating. He grins as he recounts scoring his recent contract with a talent manager based in Los Angeles. “I’m getting lots of calls, and I hope to be bicoastal in a couple of years.”
Despite the fact that Yelena hails from the same city as Ari’s maternal grandparents, if the two were sitting across from one another at Café Tatiana, their differences would be more striking than their similarities. Where Ari is dynamic and searching for his place in the world, Yelena has settled into her place within Brighton and its environs. Like most members of their respective generations, Ari seems to be on his way out, and Yelena shows no desire to leave the community that welcomed her decades ago.
It’s almost poetic that so many immigrants leaving the Soviet Union decided to settle here along the beaches of Southern Brooklyn. When searching for a new life, they chose to populate a region more temperate than their climatically ruthless home country, migrating southward. On a deep level, Brighton Beach—and all of its boardwalks and beachfront cafés—hits a chord within the psyche of the aging Russian émigré: it is a final prize, a place for those who have struggled at home in the USSR and again as immigrants in a new place, to live in their version of a utopia.
Ironically, this oasis of immigrant culture, established by those fleeing the economic and social problems of the USSR, now suffers its own difficulties. For most of Brighton’s younger adults, the neighborhood can’t support the future they envision: local jobs are few and mainly technical. Neighborhood schools are of poor quality, and housing still suffers from problems caused by Hurricane Sandy. Today, the neighborhood’s migration pattern is negative: the new generations are leaving, seeking, as their predecessors did, better opportunities for themselves and their children, while the aging generation of immigrants is digging its heels into the sand.
Brighton Beach is a community of stubborn nostalgia. The retired Russian-speaking customers sitting in the shade of Tatiana’s canopy are unconcerned with the neighborhood’s changing facade. To them, this short stretch of boardwalk is their reward for toughing out the immigrant life to give their families a better chance. Brighton may be staged for a cultural change, but dining in its cafés, browsing through its Russian-language bookstores, or buying from its Russian grocery stores, such change isn’t obvious at all.
So long as the aging generation remains, sitting in the wicker chairs of beachfront cafés, pushing their grandchildren along the boardwalk in strollers, and buying imported Russian chocolates, Brighton will subsist as it is. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but watching the old men toasting one another and the babushkas stubbornly coaxing Russian out of their American grandchildren, it almost seems that the peculiar, in-between Brighton culture could live on even after they are gone. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen in Brighton.
Skyler Inman’17 is in Jonathan Edwards College. She doesn’t quite know what she wants to do with her life, but is considering a major in English or Global Affairs.