Brooklyn: Like No Place Else
Coney Island Beach and Boardwalk
Once an opulent playground for the rich and famous, Coney Island’s history can be traced back to the mid-1800s. It reached its peak in the early 20th century, and then its popularity began to slowly decline following World War ll. While the amusement park is only a shadow of what it once was, its boardwalk, which stretches into Brighton Beach, is still strewn with great rides, including the 150-foot Ferris wheel, the Wonder Wheel (built in 1920) and the Cyclone (1927), which still ranks among the world’s scariest roller coasters. It was in Coney Island that Charles Feltman reportedly invented the hot dog in 1867, which had a lot to do with Nathan Handwerker opening the legendary Nathan’s Hot Dogs at 1310 Surf Ave. in 1916. The original Nathan’s Famous still stands and is worth a pilgrimage to sample its incredible hot dogs, which haven’t changed in more than three-quarters of a century. And Nathan’s fries rank among the best on the planet.
Coney Island's Annual Mermaid Parade
A tradition since 1983, the parade celebrates the sea, sand, salt air and the beginning of summer. It’s kooky, outrageous and fun. Prepare yourself for far-out, handmade costumes. Participants dress in handmade costumes as mermaids, Neptunes, various sea creatures and the occasional wandering lighthouse.
What makes Brooklyn unique is that it’s a true melting pot of every ethnic group. It is not one community, but many communities and neighborhoods, all different and special in their own way.
Traditional Brooklyn neighborhoods were cliquish clusters of working-class families and friends that all lived close to each other. Every ethnic group had its own neighborhood. The Italians lived in South Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, and in Bensonhurst; African-Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York; Latinos (Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians) predominantly in Bushwick and Sunset Park; Jews, in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Ditmas Park and Carnesie; Scandinavians, in Bay Ridge.
Despite gentrification and the influx of urban professionals from all over the world, most of these neighborhoods have retained their ethnic flavor, which still defines them.
A true Brooklynite defines himself by his neighborhood. Growing up in Bensonhurst is not the same as growing up in Flatbush or Greenpoint -- you’re talking about different viewpoints, attitudes, philosophies and lifestyles.
At the same time, there is an innate sense of respect for the other guy’s turf; his neighborhood is more than the place where he lives, eats and sleeps. It’s also his identity -- who he is and what he stands for.
A.k.a. “Little Odessa,” so dubbed because it’s where you’ll find New York’s Russian community. Walk its main drag, Brighton Beach Avenue, which extends from Coney Island to the shoreline and the beginning of Sheepshead Bay, and you’ll feel like you’re in a small Russian sea town, replete with shops, grocery stores, delicatessens and some great restaurants and nightclubs. Children and adults chat in Russian. Greengrocers and delicatessens, where cured meats and cheeses hang from hooks on the ceilings, and restaurants -- where the smell of Russian soups and dishes waft onto the streets -- line the streets. More important than indigenous foods, the section is steeped in Russian culture -- its theater, music and dance.
Little Odessa is a microcosm of a Russian community, uprooted and transplanted into Brighton Beach. In August, grab an available table at one of the outdoor restaurants or bars on the boardwalk overlooking the beach, order a cold vodka and watch the sun slide away as the reddish-orange sky slowly fades to black. You won’t want to go home. Stick around for a couple more vodkas only if you’re not driving.
West Indian and Caribbean Culture
The vibrant, growing section of Church Avenue from Flatbush Avenue to Kings Highway in Flatbush and East Flatbush is yet another world within a larger world. It is the nucleus of Brooklyn’s growing Caribbean population. You’ll find shops of all kinds, grocery and fresh produce stores, restaurants and takeout joints galore. You’ll hear West Indians speaking a patois fusing English and French. If you’re asking for directions, you may have a hard time deciphering what they’re saying.
If you want to experience the flavor and energy of this thriving community, attend the annual West Indian American Day Carnival & Parade in September. It’s one of North America’s largest costume parades, drawing more than two million spectators. It’s a whole-day extravaganza featuring singing, dancing and food representing every island in the Caribbean. Parade participants are dressed in homemade costumes and march along Eastern Parkway, Utica Avenue and Washington Avenue, ending at Grand Army Plaza. Along the route you’ll find food stalls serving up a variety of Caribbean specialties: jerk chicken, barbecued beef, Jamaican patties, pastries, you name it.
Historic Homes and Landmarks
Several neighborhoods ought to be visited in order to experience their essence. Unlike many cities, a single place or cultural institution can’t define it, because all the continents on the planet are compressed into this one borough called Brooklyn.
It’s no wonder that its history is embedded in the structures that permeate the borough, from early Colonial wood-frame houses to the sturdy elegance of the brownstone, originally purchased for as little $5,000 and $6,000 and which have now appreciated 200 times those amounts. These sturdy buildings are hotly sought after by young urban professionals.
Brooklyn boasts more homes built before World War II than any other borough. Walk through Brooklyn’s north central neighborhoods, especially Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Park Slope, and you’ll discover for yourself that history is embedded in the borough’s homes.
To experience and feel the merging of old and new -- gritty turn-of-the-century industrial chic melding with New Wave energy and creativity -- check out DUMBO (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Walk its winding cobblestone streets from the Fulton Ferry Landing to practically the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, and you’ll see why it’s become a home and hotbed of creativity for artists and musicians. In this one historic spot, which encompasses more than nine acres, you’ll enjoy a special kind of adrenaline high because you’re surrounded by and immersed in history from both land and water. It’s best to visit this section on a clear, sunny day so you can roam the streets and parks, visit the galleries and sample the bars and trendy new restaurants.