Russians don’t speak highly of Brighton Beach, the enclave in Southern Brooklyn where I spent many of my formative years. The neighborhood’s critics disparage it with a degree of shame or superiority, or even irony, as was the case in my family. Moscow-born author Lara Vapnyar encapsulated this widespread sentiment when she titled her contribution to the 2008 “Brooklyn Was Mine” anthology, simply and pointedly, “I Hate Brighton Beach.”
Perhaps nothing better describes this phenomenon than the scene that follows: I was at a Russian music festival a few years back, standing around a campfire with some Boston Russians. One of them asked me where in New York I lived, and when I told him the honest-to-goodness truth, that “ya zhivu na Braitonye,” the response was uproarious laughter. Obligatory jeers followed that were all-too familiar — but then, how could they not be? I crack the same ones all the time.
Little Odessa, Little Russia by the Sea — call it what you will, both are misnomers. Brighton is not quite Odessa, Russia or New York, but some confused amalgam of everything in between — a refusenik Disneyland with bygone Soviet tropes thrown in for good measure. Michael Idov put it best in a New York magazine article: that Brighton is a “double-blind guess — a Jewish immigrant’s idea of what an American’s idea of Russia may be.” And for those who fled the oppressive former Soviet Union for New York, it’s a little piece of the old country — one they never think to miss, until nostalgia strikes.
Brighton Beach Avenue, with its litter-strewn streets, clamorous overhead trains and famously bad service at shops and cafes, is a popular target of ridicule, particularly among assimilated immigrants. But even the harshest critics end up here, on a random smoldering Saturday in July, say, to sample domashniy, or homemade, Eastern European delicacies, with their decadent aromas and startlingly low prices.
Only Southern Brooklyn can satisfy that nagging pang of longing for a good old-fashioned day at the banya, the steam bath, complete with rounds of vodka and hearty venik-lashings, with bundles of birch or oak. Even the Brighton-specific brand of bad service is all part of the experience, because when nostalgia is commodified, authenticity is everything.