POV

The Last Stronghold

The beauty and excitement I’d been searching for was here all along.

Story by Carol Zaydel Photos by Muge Karamanci
Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Trains rumble and screech overhead, while below the tantalizing smell of fresh baked pirozhki wafts through the air. Welcome to Brighton Beach, where cultural assimilation is a foreign concept. Situated in the South of Brooklyn, “Little Russia” has solidified the soviet culture in the borough for decades. Dozens of storefront awnings sport Cyrillic characters, retaining the authenticity of the Motherland. Although it’s no Hamptons, in the summer, the neighborhood sees an influx of New Yorkers heading to the beach, which offers an atmosphere more tranquil than that of its flashy neighbor, the reinvigorated Coney Island. Restaurants juxtaposed along the boardwalk teem with patrons slinging back vodka shots at noon as onlookers stroll by leisurely. In the winter, icy gusts make outsiders an anomaly, and the indigenous population, in their floor-length fur coats and embellished scarves dominate the streets once more.

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Growing up in Sheepshead Bay, another Russian-affiliated neighborhood mere minutes away, Brighton Beach became my home by extension. My first summers were spent here, splashing in the Atlantic, and familiar Russian chatter filled my ears at every turn. Being a native of the area, I never questioned the cultural climate of Brighton Beach, and accepted it as the world to which I belonged. It didn’t matter that the sidewalks were gritty, the elderly, out-of-shape men shirtless or the ocean often too frigid; I was a patch in the community quilt.

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

However, along with adolescence came more freedom and exposure to other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. With each passing day outside of the Brighton Beach bubble, I noticed stark contrasts between the areas and began romanticizing affluent neighborhoods. I became less inclined to take pride in my home, and avoided spending time there altogether. One train ride was all that separated me from an iconic and magical metropolis, but eventually I knew I’d turn back into a pumpkin. My distaste for the area mounted, until we were hit by Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012.

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Sandy was deadly to parts of New York, and Brighton Beach was among the devastated. The boardwalk was ripped apart and covered in sand drifts, trash accumulated on the beach, and houses and businesses were demolished, turning the area into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. My home had been left looking war-torn by the storm. The valiant efforts of the community rebuilt the area slowly, but surely, the courage displayed by the residents reminded me of why I was proud to call this area my own. A year later, life returned to normal and re-invigorated businesses thrived despite the impact. The hard-working and dedicated residents picked themselves back up, ready to flourish once again.

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

This informed my newfound appreciation for Brighton Beach. The Russian community was intrinsic to my development as an individual, and denying this part of myself never felt right. The beauty and excitement I’d been searching for was here all along. It was in the off-season serenity of the desolate beach, with the soundscape of seagulls squabbling over the crashing waves. It was in the way that traditional culture thrives despite the changing times, shown in the preservation of the Russian language and customs passed down from generations of Jewish immigrants who escaped oppressive regimes. It’s in the boardwalk stretching for miles along the beach, illuminated by the soft light of the street lamps and in the shopkeepers’ warm smiles speckled with gold.

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Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

Photo © Muge Karamanci

 

 

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