Checking out Little Odessa: Brighton Beach

My friend Michael joined me on a jaunt into the heart of Brooklyn’s Russian scene. A Sheepshead Bay native, he filled me in on some local history – stuff I wouldn’t find in the books at the library. (Michael’s companion post is here.)

The Brighton Beach stop, the southern terminus of the B train, was our entrance to Little Odessa. Even from the platform you can see what you’re in for.

Brighton Beach Avenue is the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare. We marveled at what had become of the famous Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes. We also took a look inside the former Oceana Theatre, where Michael watched the premiere of The Warriors, the movie about gangsters of Coney Island. He said the subjects of the film showed up in person and caused some issues. It’s now a Russian dinner-theater called the Millennium Theatre.

Next door to the old knish place is Black Sea Book Store, which is almost exclusively in Russian. I do not understand why I failed to buy this book of Russian emoticons.

The area’s architecture is varied but skews toward detached housing. Some bungalows have survived, even farther inland. There are a few larger buildings.

Michael pointed out this pedestrian bridge next to the train tracks over the Belt Parkway. When he was a kid, some of his friends would climb the fence and run across the tracks to the Sheepshead Bay station – all to save 35 cents. Now there’s barbed wire and the fence is painted over, but you can still see through at a few places.

We found several Arabic spots. A few men were running to make it on time to their midday Ramadan prayer.

Neptune Avenue is another important drag in Brighton Beach. In Sheepshead Bay to the east, its name changes to Emmons Avenue. On it is a place called Georgian Bread, where I hoped to get some khachapuri, a gooey cheese bread. They had nothing out, though.

“We’re going to Brighton 10th.” You’ll need to be a bit more specific than that. Several of Brighton Beach’s numbered streets have offshoots with similar names.

Ocean Parkway is the neighborhood’s western border.  Its northernmost half-mile, in Windsor Terrace, is now the Prospect Expressway, and the road down here might as well have that name, given the blatant disregard for speeding laws many drivers showed. Hey, at least there’s a pedestrian path. And plenty of doctors around.

Nearby, the NYPD has a stable and riding-area for horses.

The designs of several streets provide reminders that Brighton Beach is an oceanfront community. Take Brighton 3 Road and Brighton 4 Lane, for instance. Yes, that path has a name.

We had to get some Russian food, so we stopped at Skovorodka in the shadow of the BMT Brighton Line. The place had a faux-opulent feel, which contrasted well with the Russian game show and music videos playing on the two TVs. Michael saw our waiter fill a glass with vodka and deliver it to a customer, who we surmised was a regular.

It was good to have a companion for this trip; that way, I could try twice as many things. After we split an avocado and tomato salad, I had cold borscht, egg-fried hammered pork, and fried potatoes. Michael had mushroom soup, Cornish game hen, and buckwheat.

With lunch over, all that remained was a trip to the water. We walked by the monstrous Oceana condos in the footprint of the Brighton Beach Baths.

Near the eastern end of the boardwalk we came across an odd sight.

Five birds. Their owner, Johnny, brings them to the beach frequently to free their wings. (He keeps them uncaged in his bathroom “to contain the mess”.)

Johnny gave us an impromptu lesson on the birds: how long they live (10 years for the smaller parrotlets, 40 for the parrot), how he trains them (bringing them to the beach demonstrates that they are dependent on him for survival), and why the younger parrotlets have rings around their necks (their plumes, used to court mates, don’t come in until they’re three). A few perched on my finger, although Mr. Blue was more fond of my back.

The beach had what I thought to be a sizable crowd for a Thursday. There was a good mix of ages, although I saw more man-thongs than I would have liked. Many, many more. Viewer beware.

The attractions of Coney Island were hazy in the distance.

Neither of us brought sunblock, so we sought the shade of the el once more. We stopped at a supermarket that offered a number of Russian and Turkish items. I got some gummi candies by the pound: $2.29 a pound, to be precise. We also stopped at a store offering random trinkets for outlandish prices. I guess you can’t get great deals everywhere.

We finished at the Ocean Parkway Q stop, where topless mermaids swim free.

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