Unlike its famed neighbour, Coney Island—with whom it spent the better part of the 20th century unsuccessfully competing—Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach remains largely un-mythologized, its cultural narrative unclear even to the New Yorkers who frequent its sun-baked sands during the summer months. Originally intended as a resort for affluent Americans, various unforeseen economic factors contributed to its gradual decline, not least the rebuilding of the Brighton Beach railway, which, in making the neighborhoods more accessible, also encouraged visitors to leave at the end of the day instead of settling in at the grand hotel.
Even during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the increasingly impoverished area was afflicted by a drugs and arson epidemic, it remained an active summertime destination, its local residents—longtime black and Latino inhabitants alongside newly arrived European and Russian Jews—contrasting sharply with its fair-weather beach-seeking crowds. It was not until the ‘90s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a mass influx of ex-Soviet immigrants from Ukraine, that Brighton Beach saw the beginning of an upturn as Russian clubs, shops, restaurants and bars sprang up all over ‘Little Odessa,’ as it now became known.
Bohbot’s images offer a largely architectural study of the neighborhoods, where signs and storefronts, underpasses and densely built residential homes serve as hieroglyphic clues to its layered ethnic and cultural identity. Out of the murky shadows and bruised indigos of evening, an after-hours Brighton Beach takes shape, whose dim streets and alleyways lit by chintzy neons more closely resemble the set for a Russian gangster film than a beachside resort neighborhoods—not coincidentally, the area is a known (secret) hub for Russian organized crime. To the average beach-seeking visitor, these scenes are all but invisible; most depart by sunset, having seen only the sun, sand, and luxurious condominiums looking out over the Atlantic (never back towards Little Odessa).
Named first after an English seaside resort, then re-christened with the name of a Ukrainian port city, all the while striving to become more like the nearby Manhattan Beach and Coney Island, Brighton Beach has always existed as a kind of distorted reflection of a pre-existing place—“a Jewish immigrant’s idea of what an American’s idea of Russia may be” is how one author described its present incarnation. Yet in its almost-familiarity, with the unlikely collision of such varied ethnic and social worlds, it has become, in a way no one could have predicted, the strange and spectacular escape from reality it so fervently aspired to become.
Text by Elizabeth Breiner