Few places in New York City or elsewhere are as completely defined by an architectural element as is Brighton Beach, especially the eponymous boulevard bisecting it unequally.
Elevated subway tracks darken every one of the four lanes, making an unofficial border in this part of Brooklyn, as they have for nearly a hundred years. Subways define something important about Brooklyn. Forget for now that an elevated track doesn’t fit the definition of “subway” anywhere but in New York.
For Brighton Beach in its earlier phase, the subway connected it with the rest of New York City, bringing sunbathers to its deep, white sand beaches, and carrying them away after dark. Quieter than its rowdy neighbor, Coney Island, Brighton Beach was a place for wealthy Manhattanites to escape the urban heat and odors.
Across the water, New Jersey’s shore is visible. Cruise ships and freighters slip by, into and out of the Atlantic.
But for people who live here, perceptions are much different.
El on the Border
When you live in Brighton Beach, one border, unofficial, is the boulevard with the huge footprint of steel, noise and shadow extending from one end to the other.
As the fine art photo on the left shows, the division is clear. Although more residents now are Russian, the neighborhood seems rooted, changeless, in the shadow of the El.
Fashions have changed, but it’s unlikely the street scene was much different sixty years ago.
Sixty years ago, Brighton Beach was a community of formerly European Jews, many of them holocaust survivors. Once popular music idols, Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond, grew up with the elevated railroad as part of the community consciousness.
There is no right or wrong side of the tracks in Brighton Beach. What you have is an oceanside retreat, a broad boardwalk lined with restaurants where you can enjoy food and and drinks while watching waves afloat over the blue Atlantic, and on the other side, a steadier community that has been home to the city’s most powerful feature – its melting pot.
Europe has rarely and only in isolated pockets been safe for Jews, but when the situation became completely intolerable, survival at stake, Brighton Beach offered a home. Russians fled here when the Soviet Union’s collapse left their homeland chaotic and impoverished.
Elevated All the Way
Not long after the Q Train settles underground after crossing the Manhattan Bridge, it finds its way into daylight, making a trail across Brooklyn.
Reminding us that these tracks originally offered passage for a railway, the Q avoids grade crossings by running below street level, although not under cover.
Riders pass Prospect Park and several neighborhoods, each distinguishable by building styles and suggestions of poverty, affluence and stations in-between.
I always enjoy this ride, watching Brooklyn like a travelogue, on a subway without the characteristic I like least – the confinement and darkness of tunnels. Above ground seems cleaner too. The air is definitely fresher, light streaming in the window during the day relaxing. Even at night, the city lights lend a sense of freedom.
Before the line turns sharply west to meet the ocean, you’ve been lifted above the surrounding buildings. The sense of arrival makes announcements unnecessary.
Brighton Beach Boulevard
You will want to see the beaches, the boardwalk only occasionally disrupted by obese people defiantly in bikinis. You might take a stroll on down to Coney, an area undergoing a renewal.
But don’t miss the boulevard. The Russian stores are little adventures, and in the markets, unfamiliar foods will tempt you. My recommendation is: save room for pickles. If you’re one of those unfortunate types who don’t appreciate a perfectly developed pickle, you have my sympathy. Albeit a small one, you’ll miss a bit of paradise.
Enjoy the deep shadows of the El as it shadows the way and frequently fills the blocks with the rumble of trains. Understand how much this is like it was once upon a time and, more than almost anywhere else, still is.
Brighton Beach remains an attractive mix of past and present, grime and clarity, routine and beauty.