Gravesend had been a sleepy village for nearly 200 years when, in the 1860s, developers purchased large portions of its shoreline to satisfy city dwellers' cravings for sunshine, clean air and recreation. Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, Sea Gate and Brighton Beach were all carved out of Gravesend.
By 1868, Coney Island had been established as the first of the resort communities, and Manhattan Beach and West Brighton were in development as well. William A. Engeman, an entrepreneur who made his fortune during the Civil War, purchased several hundred acres of oceanfront property for $20,000 and named the area Brighton Beach after the famous English beach town, Brighton.
Access to Gravesend was improved with the building of a toll road called Shell Road, which was then known as the Coney Island Causeway (now Coney Island Avenue). Crowds arrived by stagecoach, steamboat and finally railroad. The first railroad was the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad in 1864, followed by the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad (1878, this is today's Brighton Beach subway line); in 1887, the Brooklyn and Brighton Beach Railroad reached the area.
In 1869, Engeman built a small wooden pier to receive steamboats and in 1871 he opened the Ocean Hotel, located approximately where, today, Brighton Fourth Street meets Brightwater Court. With the completion of the extension of Ocean Parkway (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux) from Prospect Park to the ocean, carriage traffic brought crowds practically to the door of the hotel. In 1878, Engeman created the 2-story Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion and Ocean Pier, which accommodated 1,200 bathers.
In an effort to compete with Manhattan Beach and Coney Island, the board of directors of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad bought half of Engeman's property at Coney Island Avenue and built the 3-story, 174-room Brighton Beach Hotel. The grand hotel became the summer home of the New York Club, the Bullion Club and the Seidl Society, which in September 1889 hosted a luncheon for Susan B. Anthony, the veteran women's rights advocate.
Happily for the crowds, Brighton Beach found that it had to offer ever more exciting entertainment to compete with Coney Island, Manhattan Beach and West Brighton. In 1883, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody rode into town with a spectacular re-creation of the cowboy life - complete with a band of Sioux Indians, cowboys from the Doggie Camp, Oklahoma cowgirls and Chief Bull Bear of the Cheyennes. Two vaudeville theaters presented various types of entertainment. The New Brighton Theatre, touted as "the handsomest seaside theatre in the world," featured Belle Hathaway and her Simian Playmates, Elfie Fay, "The Belle of Avenue A," and many others. Located at the ocean end of the New Iron Pier, the New Brighton advertised itself as "the only theatre in the world located a quarter of a mile out in the ocean."
At the Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion, visitors entered the Midget's Palace to enjoy a performance by the Lilliputian Opera Company. In 1883, G. B. Bunnell opened a "dime museum." His Brighton Museum showcased a "Convention of Curiosities" which included Colonel Routh Goshen, billed as 11 feet tall, and known as the "Palestine Giant"; Major Tot, who weighed 10 and a half pounds; Richard James, the fat boy who was "9 feet around the waist"; and Miss Nellie Walter, the albino lady.
Horse racing began in Brighton Beach in 1879. William Engeman formed the Brighton Beach Racing Association, with a course located between Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue. Racing began on June 28 and in that first year there were more than 34 days of racing. Engeman died in 1884. His son William Jr. built a new grandstand in 1896. The track operated until 1908 when it closed due to new anti-betting laws. By 1910, horse racing had diminished to the point that all tracks were closed. The closing of the racing tracks led to the departure of the wealthy and heralded the demise of the grand hotels. The Brighton Beach track was later used for flying airplanes and for automobile racing.
In 1905, Brighton Beach Park opened a mile-long boardwalk featuring an open midway called the Brighton Pike. Attractions included Ferrari's Wild Animal Arena, a scenic railway, a carousel, an Irish fairground called Donnybrook Fair and a pavilion called Happyland. Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show and Great Far East Show combined Wild West and Far East themes with elephants, camels, Russian Cossacks, South Sea Islanders, Chinese and Turks. Will Rogers performed there with the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch. The famous steel roller coaster called "The Chase Through the Clouds" gave riders a thrill. A great fire in 1919 destroyed the bathhouse, the giant coaster and many of the attractions along the Pike.
The Brighton Beach Baths opened in 1907 as a members-only club that at its peak had over 12,000 members. It offered such pastimes as swimming in one of three pools, tennis, handball, miniature golf, mah-jongg, card playing, big-name entertainment and a nude beach. For much of the 20th century, it remained a cross between a community gathering place and a beach club. However, as the population became less affluent, the club began to lose members. Despite spirited community protest, the Baths were closed in 1994 and in its place, in 2000, rose the Oceana Condominium and Club, one of the first of many colossal projects to come.
Brighton Beach never realized the reputation for spectacle and excitement that gilded Coney Island and West Brighton. There was never a Luna Park or Steeplechase Park. Its appeal was always more to the middle class and to families. It also never reached the depth of poverty and crime of those other areas. Jews from the Lower East Side, Brownsville and East New York arrived in Brighton Beach early in the 20th century. Developing a rich cultural as well as religious presence, they were the core of local Democratic clubs and other neighborhood improvement societies. Their presence led to the conversion of the Brighton Beach Music Hall into a Yiddish theater in 1918. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the theater would house a stock company presenting all new plays but mainly musical comedies starring the best-known Yiddish actors in America.
In the early 1920s, the developer Brighton-by-the-Sea, Inc. built bungalows on the old racetrack site and on the oceanfront. However, with the extension of the Coney Island Boardwalk, land became too valuable for single-family housing and so apartment house development began in earnest. Soon Brighton Beach grew into a year-round neighborhood of families living in more than 36 apartment buildings extending from Coney Island Avenue to Ocean Parkway. On August 30, 1936, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that one apartment building, the Brighton Beach Gardens, covered two blocks of the area where the old Brighton Beach Hotel, the midway, the music hall and the summer bungalows used to be. These apartment buildings provided the backdrop for Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs.
The 1930s and 1940s brought a huge influx of people from Europe who were escaping the oppression of Fascists and the Nazis. Russians arrived during and after World War II. Immigrants also arrived from Pakistan, China, Vietnam and Mexico. To make it easier for the immigrants to navigate the neighborhood, street names were changed to numbered Brighton "Places."
The extension of the boardwalk and inexpensive, rapid transportation brought overwhelming numbers of summer visitors to this already overcrowded neighborhood. Despite efforts by homeowner and community groups, infrastructure problems caused a gradual deterioration of the neighborhood and the beach. In 1938, Robert Moses, representing the city, bought all oceanfront land at a bargain price of $75,000, relieving the private sector of its responsibility for the beach, but not alleviating the area's worst problems. Over the next decades, the community would continue to fight hard for any improvements it needed.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, although the beach continued to be popular, the neighborhood became more elderly and impoverished. By the time of the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, many civil service workers had moved away. Other middle-class families migrated to the suburbs. Homes were converted into single-room-occupancy dwellings for welfare families, the elderly, and patients released from mental institutions. Landlords refused to keep up their buildings. The elderly were attacked by youth gangs, many of whom were involved with drugs. Abandoned buildings were burned. Rapid population loss created fear in the community not only of increasing crime but of a changing way of life.
Yet at the same time, the beginnings of neighborhood rejuvenation came with the relaxation of the Soviet Union's immigration policies, as thousands of Soviet Jews from the Ukraine settled into Brighton Beach. Families with children were seen again on the streets. The neighborhood became known as "Little Odessa" after the port city and resort on the Black Sea. Brighton Beach Avenue, the main street running under the elevated tracks of what are now the B and Q trains, became crowded with Russian nightclubs and restaurants specializing in borscht and blini with black caviar. Markets selling delicacies from Riga and Kiev and fresh fruits and vegetables tempted tourists and residents alike. Stores selling children's wear and toys, clothing and home products opened. Bookstores and newsstands offered the Russian-language daily Novoye Russkoye Slovo, as well as Russian-language books. Although life in Brighton Beach was improving, it wasn't until the late 1980s that real estate values began to increase. As late as 1992, the Brighton Neighborhood Association was still fighting drugs and housing battles. Despite the problems, new condominiums, many with terrific ocean views, drew new waves of immigrants, including New Yorkers from other neighborhoods. Although this real estate development threatens the ambience of the beach, neighborhood involvement continues to have an impact and may help mitigate a new problem, that of overcrowding.
The beach continues to lure the city dweller. Brighton Beach Boardwalk harbors many Russian restaurants that tempt the passerby to spend a pleasant hour enjoying a delicious meal, welcome shade and a beautiful view of the ocean. Lively and unique stores on Brighton Avenue attract the intrepid shopper. However, as always, in summer it is Brighton Beach's warm ocean, hot sand and salty air that are the ultimate draw.