Saturday, October 09, 2010

Coney Island and Brighton Beach: Shooting Freaks in Little Odessa

A week ago when my Dad - still feisty at 84 - had to drive down to south Brooklyn to deliver some important papers to somebody in Sheepshead Bay area, and we decided to go along for the ride. My Dad is a long retired New York detective with a lot of time pounding the pavements as a beat cop back in the classic days of New York cop life, during the 1950s, and whenever I get a chance to cruise around with him in the city I get to listen to his nonstop stories from the old police precincts.
Papers delivered, we took a cruise down memory lane to see Coney Island, where my Dad lived for a few months in 1931 and where my Uncle was born. Coney Island is one of those slices of New York life that never really changes - it spruces itself up now and then, but essentially it is a visit back to 1935 every day in this part of town. At least on the boardwalk. The old neighborhood used to be characterized by hundreds of small bungalows and homes that were rented out each summer to New Yorkers looking for a beachside weekend or a summer at the sea.
In the 1950s the area began to run down and New York's "Master Builder" - the never-elected-to-office Robert Moses - decided that the seedy amusements day had gone. The Luna Park and other fairgrounds were closed, and the Aquarium were built in its place. The last big fair, Steeplechase Park, closed in 1964. The cozy bungalows were replaced by ugly apartment projects. Robert Moses remains one of the most hated names in the history of New York - he destroyed nighborhoods, even entire boroughs in order to carry out his megadevelopent plans between the 1940s and the 1960s (ending with the construction of JKF airport and the site of the 1964 World Fair in Flushing.) Still.. a lot of housing went up during his years. Ugly housing, but housing nonetheless. In fact, Klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras spend his twighlight years living in this building, across the street from the boardwalk, and spent most of his days in a chair by the window watching the endlessly turning Coney Island Ferris wheel. Coney Island went on a decline that lasted until about a decade ago. The new Coney Island owes a lot to the Nathan's hot dog stand and Delicatessen.
Nathan's has long since franchised itself into a thousand suburban malls, but the original still serves fried clams and boiled corn - and Nathan's excellent but ridiculously overpriced NY beef hot dogs. Ya want heritage, ya gotta pay for it. And while Robert Moses was able to pretty much destroy Brooklyn and much of New York with his Stalinoid building projects, some of the old Brooklyn spirit was guaranteed to creep back. They didn't have paint ball back in the day, but if they did you can be sure they would have featured "Shoot the Freak."
Basically, a guy (from Bensonhurst, we met him) gets armored up in hockey gear and hides amid the rubble between two clam and beer bars, and for $5 you can shoot at him with a paintball gun. This, in Brooklyn, constitutes "fun." Who could resist an advertisment offering "Live Human Targets!" It was a bit early for us to start shootoing freaks (they begin at 11 AM) so we cruised down to Brighton Beach, to the nighborhood known as Little Odessa. Starting back in the 1970s, as Russian Jews began emigrating to the USA, this became the single most concentrated Russian nighborhood in the USA. It is a little like being in Chinatown, only with Russians instead of Chinese. And these are happy Russians, at least the ones we met. With markets serving all the flavors of home and produce you would only dream about back in Moscow, this is a bustling, healthy ethnic nighborhood that has some amazing places to discover.
We stopped at a small cafe on Brighton 12th street, ordered a coffee, and by chance lucked into the best cheese pastry any of us had ever had in our lives. We live in east Europe, so we know our cheese pastries, and this place had the most exquisite, mouthwatering, delicately flavored, harmonious cheese pastries ever encountered. I know of what I speak. These were gooooood. I should just drive down to this joint in the morning, buy all their pastries at $1.50, and then sell them on the street in Manhatten for $4 a pop.
My Dad immediately wanted to jump from breakfast to lunch. The counter was filled with good old Russian comfort food: pierogis, pelmeni, roast chicken, kasha, potatoes, latkes, mayonnaise salads, boiled beet borscht... all for $3.99 a pound for the meat dishes and $3.49 for the carbs.
All the foods of my grandmother's depression era kitchen - the amazing things one can do with chicken and spuds. We didn't have enough time to really eat our way through Brighton Beach, but it is worth a return trip, if only for those cheese pastries.

1 comment:

Hot Meat Products said...

When out shopping at the Cora in Fót my wife wandered into a Russian food mart in the entry stores called ARBAT. Lots of genuine Russian canned food and some nice smoked fish. Plus they have a fast food place just around the corner in the food courtyard. Except for the smoked fish, the food really isn't all that great, but if you're in the neighborhood and hankering for some Russian food...