What do you do when you can’t afford an out-of-town summer vacation? If you are a New Yorker living in Manhattan or one of the surrounding boroughs, you might spend an afternoon or a day at Coney Islandnamed by Dutch settlers after the word for rabbit, konijn, which abounded there in the 1600’s. The cost: the price of a subway ride. Even the subway ride heightens the sense that you are about to enter a different world. From lower Manhattan the D train rumbles across the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River and then, after sinking underground for a few miles, shoots out again into the sunlight, traveling on elevated tracks that give the illusion of skirting the very rooftops of the modest homes it passes on the way to its ocean destination.
Less than an hour after setting out, I leave the cavernous Coney Island subway stationits great size is a reminder of the amusement park’s vanished heyday. Then, passing Nathan’s Famous (allegedly the home of the hotdog) I find myself on a boardwalk overlooking a splendid beach whose sheer width would be the envy of many an upscale seaside resort.
Even with the weekend influx of people, the sense of spaceon both the beach and the capacious boardwalkis exhilarating for dwellers of a crowded city like New York. Along the boardwalk to the west is an open cemented section where disco Latin dancing takes place on weekend afternoons, with uninhibited, bathing-suited dancers joyously taking part. Still further on, a fishing and crabbing pier juts far out into the oceana kind of meditation platform from which hopeful anglers gaze over the railings into the sea below. On both sides of the pier swimmers leap into the surf. Virtually the only language to be heard at this end of the boardwalk is Spanish, and with few exceptions, all are people of color, exuberant in their love of life.
But what happens if you walk in the opposite direction on the same boardwalk? The same wide beach is on your right; but as you near Brighton Beachthe next town up from Coney Islandthe language changes from Spanish to Russian, and the skin color changes from brown to white. Brighton Beach is now a largely Russian Jewish immigrant area, and entering it, you are caught up in an abrupt shift from Latino rhythms to a more subdued Eastern European way of life. In the late afternoon, elderly Russian immigrants sit on the benches that line the boardwalk. The womensome in kerchiefs, some holding umbrellas as parasolsgaze out toward what might easily seem the Black Sea. Other women, following the European custom, stroll together arm in arm, along with young parents pushing baby carriages.
Several boardwalk cafes serve as a gathering place for Russian family groupsthe Tatiana, the Volna, the Moscow. Their waiters and waitresses are often new arrivals. Late one summer when I stopped at the Volna with two friends, a young woman in a white apron, on being asked a question, shook her head and replied with a single carefully rehearsed sentence: I am only here one day. But seeing the same waitress a year later, we found her relaxed and almost confident in her use of English, which had by then become quite workable. Moving back from the boardwalk to Brighton Beach Avenue, one passes the Millennium Theater, where Russian-language films are shown. Signs along this main shopping street, beneath the elevated subway tracks, are mostly in Russian, and even books and videos displayed in shop windows and outdoor stalls are in Russian.
The juxtaposition of these two different worlds barely a mile apartdark-skinned and Latino, white and Eastern Europeanis not only a commentary on the diversity of American life, but alsoas with the Volna waitresson the rapidity with which new arrivals are assimilated. Whether Latinos or Eastern Europeans or people from other parts of the world, however, they face the challenge of preserving the core of their cultural identities in the midst of an already overly homogenized American society.