THEY'RE COMING TO AMERICA

In a beachside suburb of New York, history is repeating itself with the arrival of a vast tide of immigrants from the eastern fringe of Europe. SEBASTIO SALGADO photographed the Ukrainian Jews of Brighton Beach. Report by ALAN ISLER
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Coney Island, which is no island, is divided into three parts. To the west is the section variously known as West End, Coney Island or Norton's; to the east is Manhattan Beach. Brighton Beach sits between the two, as if it were a way station on a journey from the slums and poverty of the west to the relative affluence of the east. The elevated subway, that splendid American oxymoron, cuts across Coney Island Avenue, curves west on to Brighton Beach Avenue, and bisects the commercial heart of Brighton Beach, casting its busiest half into perpetual gloom. From the perspective of Brighton Beach Avenue or the residential streets of small houses and low- rise apartment buildings that run north from and parallel to it, one would not guess that the Atlantic is a mere block away. Here is a blue-collar neighbourhood like many others in New York City, and, like them, blighted by civic neglect, untended rubbish and glaring graffiti.

Apart from the broad boardwalk to the south, the few sad cafs that line it, the sands and the ocean beyond it, there is nothing in Brighton Beach to suggest the summer resort that it once was. It is utterly without architectural distinction. There are no grand hotels, no cozy bed and breakfasts for weekend or summer visitors, no public gardens, no piers, no pavilions, no shops selling buckets and spades and naughty postcards, not even a public fountain commemorating those who fell in the Great War. Indeed, there is nothing in Brighton Beach to detain the visitor - there would be nothing, were it not for the migrs from the old Soviet Union who for the past 20 years have been settling here and who now make up 60 per cent of the population; migrs who have revitalised a moribund area, giving it a distinctive Slavic spin. It is because of this recent migration, overwhelmingly made up of Jews from the Ukraine, that Brighton Beach is now known as Little Odessa, a sobriquet used fondly by the welcoming old- time residents but surely ironically by the new arrivals, for Brighton Beach is as little like Odessa as it is like Brighton, after which it was first named.

Russia is in the air, in the language heard in the streets and in the shops, in the delicious smells in restaurants, bakeries, and delicates-sens; Russia may be seen in the faces of the passers-by, in the groups of old men gathered around outdoor chessplayers in tiny Babi Yar Park, in the vivid cosmetics on the faces of young women, in the Cyrillic signs in shop windows, in what the shops have on offer: a laundromat sells Russian dolls, toilet waters, amber beads, gewgaws; a video store sells jewellery; and an electronics shop sells coats suitable for a Siberian winter. Makeshift tables along the curbs sell Russian books; at the corner of Brighton Beach and Coney Island Avenues is the Black Sea Book Shop, selling a full range of Russian books and magazines. Next door, a tiny shop front offers to translate documents for as "little as $10" and to provide "US passports in one day, guaranteed".

Americans, especially New Yorkers, like to visit "ethnic" neighbourhoods, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and so on, in search of exotic foods, of "authenticity". For some, it may be a search for "roots" - for others, a proof of the national motto, e pluribus unum. Brighton Beach has become a place to visit, a place where Americans can be abroad at home. It does not disappoint. A man approaches. He is wearing a three- quarter- length coat of imitation leather, a peaked cap, and an expression of weary hauteur. "Excuse me, sir," he says. "You speak English, right? What does it mean, `an elevated self-esteem'? You can tell me, please?" Had he read the phrase or overheard it somewhere? Had someone told him he should elevate his self-esteem? Had someone said, "The trouble with you, boychik, is that you have an elevated self-esteem"?

The Brighton Bagels eatery is unassuming, but serves bagels, inter alia, of an excellence and size undreamed of in London and unmatched in Manhattan. At one of its white plastic tables sit two elderly Jews drinking coffee, one speaking with a New York-Yiddish accent (obviously a long- time resident), the other with a thick Russian accent (obviously a newcomer). They are discussing the finer points of the OJ Simpson trial. Further along Brighton Beach Avenue is the Caffe Cappuccino. Its concessions to Italy are its coffees and desserts. Otherwise, its fare is Ukrainian, its menu is printed in English and Russian, and its decor includes three raised television sets beaming forth Russian music videos. Beneath the deafening rumble of the El, street sellers offer passers-by such Russian food as potato ponchiks and tinned caviar. And then there are the nightclubs: the Odessa in Brighton Beach Avenue, say, or the glitzy Rasputin with its Italian marble floors and mirrored dance floor in Coney Island Avenue, a hangout for members of the Organizatsiya, the Russian mafia, and for the free-spending young. In the nightclubs, a bottle of vodka sits on every table - borscht, blini, and balalaikas evoke the lost homeland.

With all America before them, why did the Russian immigrants choose Brighton Beach? Many Russians have, of course, settled elsewhere, some elsewhere in Brooklyn or in Manhattan, others in Chicago or Los Angeles. But the reason that the largest number chose Brighton Beach has something to do with the history of the place.

Brighton Beach became a seaside resort in the last quarter of the 19th century, complete with a bathing pavilion, a race course, pro- fessional entertainers, and hotels. One of these, the Brighton Beach Hotel, was appro- priately termed "Grand", for it boasted a park and open-air concerts. By the first decade of the present century, Brighton Beach had a music hall and a casino. Summer cottages, rented by the season, sprouted on new land- fill sites. Holidaymakers, among them Jews excluded from the ritzier Manhattan Beach to the east, arrived by steamboat or by the new extension to the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad.

In the Thirties, the arrival of the elevated subway opened up Brighton Beach to the many. For a nickel, the poor could now leave their steaming tenements and sweatshops for a day of fresh sea air, food stands, and tawdry amusements. Then, too, with the teeming centre of New York only a subway-ride away, it became feasible to live all year in Brighton Beach. The building of single-family homes and low-rise apartment buildings went on apace, creating what is to this day the area's essential housing stock. The boardwalk and the sands were still there, still crowded in the summer, but Brighton Beach became primarily residential, ceding the entertainment of day-trippers largely to Coney Island. Eastern European immigrants moved in from elsewhere in the city, in particular Jews from Russia and Poland.

In the early Seventies, when the first trickle of refugees arrived from what was still the Soviet Union, they had in their possession the names and addresses, long and lovingly preserved, of relatives who had settled in Brighton Beach three or four decades earlier. As the numbers of refugees swelled in the late Seventies and again in the late Eighties, this first generation of Brighton Beach Jews, the immigrants of the Thirties and Forties, were retiring to Florida or to old people's homes, their children, upwardly mobile, having long since left. Housing was becoming available in a stable Jewish community newly rescued from the downward slide to slums and decay. And so Little Odessa came into being, its numbers growing with a steady stream of new refugees every year.

The Russian refugees, uprooted and bewildered, are helped all along the way by a host of agencies and acronyms, some governmental or government- affiliated but most Jewish, among them the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA). HIAS, the migration arm of the North American Jewish Community, is responsible for moving refugees from Russia and other member states of the former Soviet Union to the United States. Those refugees who end up in New York are resettled by NYANA. For the first few months after their arrival, NYANA provides newcomers with a wide range of essential services: health, housing, education, language instruction, the acquisition of Social Security cards, employment, acculturation, and so on. Each family has its own case worker - each interview is eased by the presence of a translator.

Those refugees who settle in Brighton Beach are additionally fortunate in coming under the aegis of Pauline Bilus, a lifelong resident of the area, who runs Project Ari (Action for Russian Immigrants - the word ari in Hebrew means "lion") from the Shorefront YM-YWCA. Project Ari co-ordinates its activities with the myriad agencies and sub-agencies involved in resettlement, fine-tunes their services, and leads the Brighton Beach refugees safely through the bureaucratic labyrinths. A chain-smoking woman of immense compassion, good humour, and fierce energy, Bilus focuses her attention on what she calls "the two Js" - Jews and jobs. By Jews, she means the reclamation for Judaism of Jews who were separated from their religion by 70 years of life in an atheist state. It is an uphill struggle that is, she says, meeting with some small success, but most of the refugees are as uninterested in and as suspicious of those who proselytise for Jewish Orthodoxy as they are of the Jews for Jesus, an organisation that is trying a flanking attack.

A visitor asks a question of students in an English language class at the Y: What most surprised you about America? At first, there is silence, then a gaunt man of middle age raises his hand. "Disappointment," he says. The visitor is taken aback but persists: What in particular disappointed you? "Everything." Most of the students nod vigorously. Those few who shake their heads do so, it seems, less in disagreement than in disapproval of a lapse in manners.

Bilus is not bothered by this response. She has heard it all before. Ask them again in two or three years, she says. The young are easily acculturated; for the middle-aged the going is tougher. Most of these people are professionals, she explains, college educated. They don't want to take a job behind a counter -always supposing such a job is available. They think of assistance as entitlement; they want to wait for a job that matches their sense of self. Meanwhile, they feel a little lost, a little frightened. Let them get on their feet, then ask them about America. The Russian immigration of the past 20 years, she adds, is the most successful migration in the history of the United States.

On a sunny weekend in early spring, the boardwalk is crowded. Every bench is occupied; some have brought their own colourful beach chairs. Older women wear headscarves or hold umbrellas against the sun. The very young, the very old and the infirm are pushed along, bundled up, for though the sun is warm, a stiff breeze blows in from the sea.

A few of the cafs are open - groups of people sit at small tables drinking tea or coffee, eating potato ponchiks or small fried fish, men play dominoes. Russian music fills the air. People, whole families, stroll along in clusters, pausing from time to time to gaze at the ocean. The sunlight dances brilliantly off the waves. The visitor is surrounded by Russians; he hears nothing but Russian. He turns his back on Coney Island's distant amusement park, where the grey, uncanny shapes of the Ferris Wheel and the Parachute Drop loom, and for a brief moment the name "Little Odessa" loses its ironic sting.

Comments