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This influx of Russians actually helped BNA turn the neighborhood around. New immigrants bought up empty apartments and cheap housing and started to populate vacant storefronts with Russian-speaking businesses; however, it wasn’t a smooth transition. Shootings in mafia-operated nightclubs led some fearful residents to move to nearby Sheepshead Bay.
The 1990s brought renewed prosperity. Singer fondly recalls the period, even though many older residents clashed with the newly arrived: “They weren’t used to young kids screaming and carrying on, fighting, slamming doors, throwing vodka bottles in the incinerator and all that. But it’s called life! Life was returning to Brighton Beach.”
And now, some of Singer’s fans are the Russians who came to trust her. They are not necessarily involved in local politics, but they rely on social programs like welfare, Section 8 housing and senior community centers. Singer helps them understand, access and maintain these benefits.
This is how Singer came to represent Brighton Beach even though she does not share the language or background of the majority of her constituents. Walking around in winter, one encounters women in their best furs and mink caps with wide flaps covering each ear; street vendors, in black shawls, hunched over, selling freshly baked piroshki; old men playing chess on the boardwalk, or local Chabad members offering their pamphlets to Jewish-looking passersby. Despite recent influxes of Central Asians, Middle Easterners and Latinos, almost 80% of Singer’s neighbors are Russian-speaking immigrants, and nearly 40% are not proficient in English. Singer says she sometimes feels like the “token American” — ironic, considering she moved to the area because of a sense of finally fitting in.
Singer, though, is cheery, raw, honest and often self-effacing. She’s also quirky: Her office is decorated with plaques that read “51% Sweetheart, 49% Bitch, All Woman,” “Stop Kvetching,” “Wonder Woman Works Here,” and “Redheads Are Sexier.” If people stop by anytime during business hours, they are guaranteed to see her sitting at her dark wood wrap-around desk, surrounded by her overstuffed Rolodex, a phone, a typewriter, a computer and stacks of paper. (She’s only taken one vacation in the past 30 years. Even when Singer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, which she has since beaten, she never took a sick day.)
Today, Singer is addressing the issues that plague an aging community. One time, a man came into her office and collapsed. Singer called a car service to take him to the hospital, and it turned out that he needed a pacemaker. He had no remaining family, so she’s since helped him relocate to a nursing home and she even dragged his furniture out of his apartment herself.