Until the late 1860s, Brighton Beach consisted of little but farms carved out of sandy hills. It was known as the "Middle Division", a section of Gravesend, the only English town of the original six in Kings County. By the mid-1700s, the Middle Division had been broken up into 39 lots, the owners being descendants of the original European colonizers.
William A. Engeman developed the area as a resort in 1868; it was named by Henry C. Murphy and a group of businessmen in an 1878 contest to evoke the resort of Brighton, England. Working with — or, in some eyes, conspiring with — Gravesend’s surveyor, William Stillwell, Engeman acquired all 39 lots for the bargain price of $20,000.
The centerpiece of the resort was the large Hotel Brighton (or Brighton Beach Hotel), placed on the beach at what is now the foot of Coney Island Avenue and accessed by the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railway, which opened on July 2, 1878. After a series of winter storms threatened to swamp the hotel, an audacious plan was developed to move it in one piece 520 feet further inland by placing railroad track and 112 railroad flat cars under the raised 460 by 130 feet (140 m × 40 m) building and using six steam locomotives to pull it away from the sea. Engineered by B.C. Miller, the move was begun on April 2, 1888 and continued for the next nine days, being the largest building move of the 19th century.
Adjacent to the hotel, Engeman built the Brighton Beach Race Course for Thoroughbredhorse racing. In December 1887, an extremely high tide washed over the area, creating a new, temporary connection between Sheepshead Bay and the ocean. Wrote the "Brooklyn 'Daily Eagle": "Unless [Engeman] is very lucky the next races on the Brighton Beach track will be conducted by the white crested horses of Neptune."
Anton Seidl and the Metropolitan Opera brought their popular interpretations of Wagner to the Brighton Beach Music Hall, where John Philip Sousa was in residence. The New Brighton Theater was a hotspot for vaudeville. Visitors for tea at Reisenweber’s Brighton Beach Casino would be served by Japanese waitresses in full costume. And the Brighton Beach Baths was an enormous private club where members could swim, access a private beach, and play handball, mah-jongg, and cards.
In 1905, Brighton Beach Park opened its own area of amusements, calling it Brighton Pike. Brighton Pike offered a boardwalk, games, live entertainment (including the Miller Brothers’ wild-west show, 101 Ranch), and a huge steel roller coaster. It burned down in 1919.
Brighton Beach was re-developed as a fairly dense residential community with the final rebuilding of the Brighton Beach railway into a modern rapid transit line, known as the BMT Brighton Line (BQ services) of the New York City Subway c. 1920. The subway system in the neighborhood is above ground on an elevated structure. The opening of the BMT Brighton Line had conflicting consequences: although it made Brighton Beach viable as a year-round community, it was now much more feasible for visitors to return home in the evening rather than spend the night. This led to the closure of the Brighton Beach Hotel in 1924.
The years just before and following The Great Depression brought with them a neighborhood consisting mostly of first- and second-generation Jewish-Americans and, later, concentration camp survivors. Of the estimated 55,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York City as of 2011, most live in Brighton Beach. To meet the bursting cultural demands, the New Brighton Theater converted itself to the States’ first Yiddish theater in 1919.
Crowded Brighton Beach on a summer afternoon
Water sports on Brighton Beach
The proximity of Brighton Beach to the city's beaches (Brighton Beach Avenue runs parallel to the Coney Island beach and boardwalk) and the fact the neighborhood is directly served by a subway station makes it a popular summer weekend destination for New York City residents.
Brighton Beach's original Russian-speaking population arrived in the 40s and 50s and were primarily Jews from Odessa, Ukraine. During this time, Brighton Beach came to be known as Little Odessa. An annual festival, the Brighton Jubilee, celebrates the area's Russian-speaking heritage. In 2006, Alec Brook-Krasny was elected for the 46th District of the New York State Assembly, the first elected Soviet-born Jewishpolitician from Brighton Beach.
After the fall of the Soviet-Union in the 90s, the neighborhood's ethnic demographics changed. With a large influx of ethnic Russians from all the ex-Soviet Republics, as well as many Uzbeks and other Russian-speaking immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union, the area started being known as Little Russia, as it is known today.
As of 1983, Brighton Beach had a middle class, mostly Jewish, older population. 68.5% of Brighton Beach was non-Hispanic White. 17.3% was non-Hispanic black. 11.7% were Hispanic. 27% of Brighton Beach was of age 62 or older, while the national average of persons aged 62 or older was 13.9%.
As of 2010 increasing numbers of Central Asians were moving into Brighton Beach. Due to Soviet influence, they also speak Russian.
In 1983, the Community School District 21 operated PS 225, PS 253, and Junior High School 302. During that year, over 62% of its students read at or above their grade level, far above the national average.
P.S. 253 Ezra Jack Keats International School/The Magnet School of Multicultural Humanities
Brighton Beach is considered a hot spot for the "Russian Mafia," though public perception has been that organized crime "has largely gone away." In the 1970s, the most notorious leg of the mafia was the Potato Bag Gang, which served as a robbery gang for larger Russian crime syndicates in New York City. Marat Balagula was a crime boss from Brighton Beach who denies having any connection to the American Mafia or the Russian-speaking Mafia.
The first major Russian criminal element in Brighton Beach was the international Russian mafia group, known as Vor v zakone or "Vory". The first Vory crime boss in Brighton Beach was Evsei Agron, who controlled the area's crime during the 70s and 80s until his death in 1985. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90s, many ethnic Russian criminals illegally entered the United States, coming especially to Brighton Beach. During this wave arrived the infamous Vory Vyacheslav Ivankov, who dominated the Brighton Beach underworld until his arrest in 1995.
In the songs "Xero Tolerance" and "Hey Pete" by Type O Negative, Brighton Beach is mentioned as the place where Pete is going to kill his cheating girlfriend. The D train, which served the BMT Brighton Line until 2001, is his means of transportation in these songs. The full title of the band's faux-live album on which these songs appear is "The Origin Of The Feces - Not Live At Brighton Beach".
In the video game, XIII, Brighton Beach is one of the first settings of the game's complex plotline.
The French electronic music group Telepopmusik has a song on their album Angel Milk entitled "Brighton Beach".
In the space flight simulator Orbiter, there is a fictional base on the moon named Brighton Beach.
On the TV series The West Wing, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) hails from Brighton Beach.
On the TV series Bored to Death, unlicensed private detective Jonathan Ames investigates a case based at a Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach.
A Lifetime reality TV show called Russian Dolls, documenting the lives of young Russian-Americans and a group of Brighton Beach housewives spending time in a popular Russian nightclub, Rasputin Restaurant, premiered August 11, 2011.
In an episode of the CBS's Blue Bloods the storyline revolves around the murder of a Russian Mob associate who lived in Brighton Beach. Several scenes are shot on and around the boardwalk.
In Haley Tanner's debut novel "Vaclav and Lena" (2011) action takes place in Brighton Beach
In the episode "Witness" of the TV series Person of Interest (2011), Reese has to protect a Brighton Beach high school history teacher who's being hunted by the Russian mob.
In the Season 2 episode Deep in Death of the TV series Castle Russian speaking Detective Kate Beckett explains that when she is bored she likes to go to Glechik Cafe in Little Odessa and pretend to be Muscovite.
Brighton Beach is also mentioned:
In a Rilo Kiley song "Close Call", in which the lyrics "She was born on a Brighton pier to a gypsy mother and a bucket of tears..." are sung.
In a Little Brazil song "Brighton Beach", in which the lyrics, "I first met her Brighton Beach back in 1973..." are sung.