The Brighton Beach Connection
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
You may have heard some stuff about Ukraine recently with impeachment and all that stuff and two Ukrainian Americans involved in it. There's Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who recently testified, and Lev Parnas, who may have helped him try to dig dirt - who may have helped try to dig dirt in Ukraine on Joe Biden - turns out both of these men came of age in a certain place, Brighton Beach. So reporter Alina Simone visited that Brooklyn enclave.
ALINA SIMONE, BYLINE: For many, Brighton Beach remains something of a time capsule, a forever frumpy land of Boris and Natashas. But a lot has changed in the past decade.
OLEG FRISH: When I came to Brighton Beach, I saw exactly the street I knew from the songs, from the news, from the movies, from documentaries. But, you know, nothing is endless.
SIMONE: Oleg Frish is an expert in nostalgia. He sells it for a living as a jazz singer and as the host of a weekly music show on Russian-language television. Frish moved to Brighton Beach in 1991. The Soviet Union was about to collapse. And the crime rate in New York City was at an all-time high. Frish remembers the years when exiled Soviet artists and intellectuals routinely mingled with...
FRISH: ...Like, people from the criminal world. Someone could raise from the table and just greet me. Oh, Oleg, hi. Come over. I said, no, no. I'm waiting for someone. I wanted to stay apart. But they came to our table. Like, they could order a bottle of wine or champagne from their table to our table. And they didn't count the dollars.
SIMONE: But that was almost 30 years ago. The gangsters are gone and so are the clubs. Each year, there are fewer Russian restaurants. Now, you're more likely to find food like this.
UKTAM: Uzbek samsa.
UKTAM: Uzbek - uzbek samsa - samsa babka, samsa chicken, samsa beef, bread.
SIMONE: That's Uktam. He didn't feel comfortable providing his last name. He's part of a new wave of Central Asian immigrants.
UKTAM: (Foreign language spoken).
SIMONE: Unlike Russian immigrants like Oleg Frish, Uktam had never even heard of Brighton Beach when he came to America. He came here to work. But now he loves Brighton Beach. Everything you need - it's all here, he says - then adds, this is where my people are.
A few blocks up the street is Saint Petersburg, formerly known as Saint Petersburg Books. This was the high temple of the Russian-speaking diaspora. But like every other book business in the streaming age, Saint Petersburg has been forced to pivot.
ELIZABETH ORLOV: A lot of the books went online to make room for more optimal items.
SIMONE: That's Elizabeth Orlov. Her mother founded the store 25 years ago. Today, the shelves are stocked with toys, housewares and bespoke gifts the Amazon can't poach, like pottery commissioned directly from artists in Ukraine or camel-fur slippers sourced from Mongolia.
For the final part of our tour, Oleg and I head over to The National. It was the last big club on Brighton Beach Avenue to close.
Is it sad?
FRISH: Of course, it's sad because National is the history at least the wildlife and the lives of the thousands of the people we used to come here in the '90s and the '80s every weekend.
SIMONE: But Oleg is moving on, literally. He wants to move to Manhattan for more of what he calls a contemporary lifestyle. And he says he won't have any trouble unloading his apartment.
FRISH: Oceanfront, oceanfront, oceanfront - that's the keyword right now.
SIMONE: In recent years, Brighton Beach has become a mecca for regular New Yorkers seeking a summer getaway. Developers have taken notice, too. Last year, a local developer announced plans to build a 13-story, luxury apartment complex in Brighton Beach. Its proposed name, Trump Village Tower. For NPR News, I'm Alina Simone in Brighton Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.