Brighton Beach

Ask a historian: How did Brighton Beach become its own neighborhood?

December 10, 2019 John B. Manbeck
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Steven from Brighton Beach asks: “How did Brighton Beach develop into a separate neighborhood?”

Actually, Steven, Brighton Beach was the original Coney Island, as we know it. Before the neighborhood developed as a bathing beach, it was an island divided into sections: West End (Sea Gate), West Brighton (Coney Island), Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach.

In 1868, after the Civil War, William Engeman visited his brother who owned a restaurant in Brooklyn. Engeman had been a sailor and a cook but also a sutler who sold horses and mules to the armies on both sides in the war. On a visit to the ocean, he found the middle division of the island was for sale, if you knew the right people: William Stillwell and John McKane. Money changed hands and in 1875, the Engeman Pier and Bathhouse rose on the waterfront, followed by his Ocean Hotel.

Other projects soon materialized: the West Brighton Hotel built by Paul Bauer in 1876, the Hotel Brighton in 1878 and the Brighton Beach Bathing Pavilion in 1881. Investors sat up and began to take notice. So in 1877, Engeman sold his beachfront property.

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One buyer was Andrew Culver; the other was former mayor Henry Murphy, both railway men. A third railway developer, Austin Corbin, formed a competitive rail branch and hotel toward the east. While Engeman honored England with the name Hotel Brighton, Corbin lured wealthy New Yorkers to Manhattan Beach with The Manhattan.

Before established rail lines, Engeman had imported lumber for his bathhouse on a barge, which he sank, letting the wood float in on the waves. Culver constructed his rail line and its terminal, Culver Plaza, for his Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad; then he bought the Sawyer Tower from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, renaming the 300-foot structure the Iron Tower. He invited Thomas Cable to open a hotel and a restaurant on the new Surf Avenue.

Meanwhile, Murphy enlarged the Hotel Brighton and changed the name to the Brighton Beach Hotel, making it the terminus for his new Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad, later renamed the Brighton Beach Railroad. Now freed from managing his hotel, Engeman constructed the Brighton Beach Race Track in 1879, one of three Coney Island racing venues. With the new Ocean Parkway outside his gates, Brighton was destined for popularity and success.

Another famous New York restaurant, Reisenweber’s Ballroom and Casino, opened at the corner of Ocean Parkway and Brighton Beach Avenue next to the popular vaudeville New Brighton Theater, where guests such as millionaire Diamond Jim Brady frolicked. After 1892, for more refined middle-class guests, the conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Anton Seidl, presented interpretations of Wagner at the Brighton Beach Music Hall. John Philip Sousa alternated with him when he wasn’t touring with his band. The song, “By the Beautiful Sea,” was written overlooking Brighton’s ocean front in 1914.

Big changes altered Brighton Beach in the new century after the Greater City of New York swallowed the City of Brooklyn. While the sands of Brighton Beach offered competition to the Coney Island beach, a rival amusement area called Brighton Pike opened in 1905 with the Giant Roller Coaster in Brighton Beach Park. But in 1919, the park burned — and the subway arrived in the 1920s, bringing an elevated train and changing Brighton Beach into a residential neighborhood.

The New Brighton Theater opened in 1909, featuring Yiddish plays and Broadway stars like Al Jolson and The Marx Brothers. Manhattan Beach’s large hotels closed by 1916, but the three-story Brighton Hotel on Coney Island Avenue lasted until 1924. New tenements offered housing to socialistic Jewish immigrants during the Depression. Bungalows emerged on the property of the former Brighton Race Track while the boardwalk was extended to Brighton in 1926 and again in 1941.

After World War II, Brighton Beach residences suffered from the city’s fiscal meltdown. But movie theaters — such as the Lakeland Theater, today’s National Theater — distracted locals from recession woes. (Reflections of this era can be found in Neil Simon’s play “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”) With the later abandonment of much of Brighton’s housing and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Brighton Beach attracted Russian and Ukrainian emigres. Then, Brighton Towers and Oceana replaced Brighton Beach Baths and Racquet Club and its handball aficionados, while development of new condos in 1994 introduced a renewed interest in Brighton Beach’s seaside location, transforming it into today’s bustling international neighborhood.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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  1. Trevor Harris

    Excellent recap of the past. More on the extraordinary shaping of our
    County of Kings can be discovered in a new book Brooklyn The Once and
    Future City, by Thomas J. Campanella, Princeton University Press. This is
    a must read for aficianados of our amazing county.