“In the Eighteen Eighties, a person walking the length of the beach from Sea Gate to Manhattan Beach could have observed the complete scale of living standards of the day from lowest to highest.”
– New York Times, September 2, 1962
Until the late 1860s, Brighton Beach consisted of little but farms carved out of sandy hills. It was known as the “Middle Division”, a section of Gravesend, the only English town of the original six in Kings County. By the mid-1700s, the Middle Division had been broken up into 39 lots, the owners being descendants of the original European colonizers.
Then William A. Engeman showed up. Engeman, an entrepreneur who had sold weapons to both sides in the Civil War, saw gold in them hills (and in the oceanfront next to them). Working with — or, in some eyes, conspiring with — Gravesend’s surveyor, William Stillwell, Engeman acquired all 39 lots for the bargain price of $20,000. He then began work on his empire, which came to be named after the English seaport Brighton.
Brighton Beach catered to a population somewhere between the riffraff of the midways to the west and the high-collared types who summered at the ritzy Oriental and Manhattan Beach Hotels to the east. The visitors were mostly from Kings County, too, a demographic ensured by the routes of the Ocean Parkway (completed 1876) and the New York and Brighton Beach Railroad (completed 1878), which had its terminus at the Brighton Beach Hotel.
(Fun fact: Henry C. Murphy, who owned both railroad and hotel, gave Brighton Beach its name; he was retired from a prestigious political career, having served as Brooklyn mayor, Congressman, ambassador to The Netherlands, and state senator.)
Attractions filled the area. The Brighton Beach Race Track opened in 1879 and was one of three popular horse-racing venues along the shore. Anton Seidl and the Metropolitan Opera brought their popular interpretations of Wagner to the Brighton Beach Music Hall, where John Philip Sousa was in residence. The New Brighton Theater was a hotspot for vaudeville. Visitors for tea at Reisenweber’s Brighton Beach Casino would be served by Japanese waitresses in full costume. And the longest-lived of the early crew, the Brighton Beach Baths, was an enormous private club where members could swim, access a private beach, and play handball, mah-jongg, and cards.
In 1905, Brighton Beach Park opened its own area of amusements, calling it Brighton Pike. It offered a boardwalk, games, live entertainment (including the Miller Brothers’ wild-west show, “101 Ranch”), and a huge steel roller coaster. It met the usual fate of these wood-heavy constructions — incineration — in 1919. Brighton Beach would never be Luna Park, but it did get the boardwalk extended to it in 1926 and 1941.
Floods were a frequent nuisance to the beachfront. In December 1887, an extremely high tide washed over the area, creating a new, temporary connection between Sheepshead Bay and the ocean. Wrote the Brooklyn Eagle, in brilliant prose: ”Unless [Engeman] is very lucky the next races on the Brighton Beach track will be conducted by the white crested horses of Neptune.”
This didn’t mesh with the waterfront location of the Brighton Beach Hotel; floods like that filled its ballroom with water. The solution — move the hotel back from the shore — was simple. The execution, however, was much more complicated. Engineer George Farquhar designed a way to move the 500-foot-long, 6,000-ton structure in a single piece: he placed 125 flat-cars under the hotel and used six trains to pull them along 24 rails. Total distance: 600 feet. Total cost: $80,000. The move took nearly three months, from April 3 to July 29, 1888.
The flooding problem was solved in 1931 by Joseph P. Day, who owned the entire shorefront at the time. He used stone from subway-excavations to build breakwaters. Day later “sold” the beachfront to Robert Moses’ Parks Department in 1938 for a paltry $75,000.
Increased transit service to the area by the 1910s had conflicting consequences. It was now much more feasible for visitors to return home in the evening rather than spend the night. (This led to the closure of the Brighton Beach Hotel in 1924.) Infrastructure was strained, with sewage spilling into the streets. On the other hand, the access to downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan meant Brighton Beach could become a viable year-round community.
The neighborhood had always been friendly to Jews, so much so that the publication Coney Island Frolics in 1881 said that “the Hebrew element in Coney Island clusters at Brighton Beach as flies gather on a lump of sugar”. Perhaps the main reason was that the developer of Manhattan Beach, railroad magnate Austin Corbin, was a raving anti-Semite; he thought Jews “vulgar and unclean” and barred them from his hotels there. (There was a campaign in 2007 to rename Corbin Place, but the honor remains.)
This welcoming atmosphere made Brighton Beach an attractive alternative to the Jewish tenements in places like Brownsville and East New York. (Even though Tenement House Commissioner Langdon W. Post called Brighton Beach a “slum” in the 1930s, it was still a much nicer place to live than those other neighborhoods.) Single-family bungalows were no longer cost-effective, so many were torn down in favor of multi-family dwellings. New residents came from other areas of Brooklyn and eastern Europe alike. To meet the bursting demand, the New Brighton Theater converted itself to the States’ first Yiddish theater in 1919.
The influx of foreign Jews kicked up in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union relaxed its emigration policies. The culture shock must have been palpable for those who made the trip. Gone were collectivism, fixed salaries, and the lack of social and vocational mobility; in their place were crime, drugs, and a strange tongue — but perhaps most importantly, optimism. There was also a generational gap in knowledge of culture among Soviet Jews, since the atheist party of Lenin frowned on religious activities, and persecuted those who observed anyway.
Grassroots organizations sprouted up in Brighton Beach to help educate the newcomers to understand their Jewish heritage, their new society, and their new language. Local NYPD officers volunteered to learn conversational Russian from the Shorefront YM-YWHA. The area became known as “Little Odessa by the Sea”, and an annual festival began. (The 36th Brighton Jubilee will take place Sunday, August 26, 2012.) Today’s Brighton Beach remains overwhelmingly Russian, with many stores and services catering exclusively to that language.
Two of the stalwarts of early Brighton Beach met their ends toward the end of the 20th century. One was the old Casino, which had been renamed Club 28. It succumbed to arson in December 1980. And the Brighton Beach Baths, known fondly as “the 10-month vacationland” to many of its members, was torn down in the late 1990s and replaced with — yep — condominiums, called Oceana.
Gravesend, the home of Coney Island by Eric J. Ierardi (Arcadia, 2001).
The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).
Coney Island by Harvey Stein (W.W. Norton, 1998).
History of Brighton Beach - a quick note about this one. I found a copy in the Brighton Beach archives at the Brooklyn Collection. A pencil-marking attributes it to a “Rubin” and it must date from between 1967 (the latest year given) and 1979 (when Club 28 closed its bingo hall).
“America, America” by Rosemarie Rugani (Brooklyn Magazine, December 1978).
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Susan Hartman (New York Newsday, August 31, 1992).
“Club 28 is gone” by Bob Wine (Bay News, December 22, 1980).
“Moscow-on-the-subway” by Verena Dobnik (New York Daily News, February 2, 1992).
“20 Coney cops to learn Russian” by Murray Weiss (New York Daily News, December 14, 1979).