Photos Alana Celli
They have been razed, abandoned, and burned to the ground. But a few of Brighton Beach’s historic bungalows survive, hidden among the neighborhood’s apartment buildings, commercial strips and multi-family houses. Clustered within a few square blocks bordered by Brighton 1st Street and Neptune, Ocean View and Coney Island avenues, they dot narrow pedestrian paths—lanes, terraces and courts, many not even on the map, some of which barely have room for pedestrians. “The bungalows are built like a maze,” says Pat Singer, founder of the Brighton
The bungalows were built on the old site of the Brighton Beach Racetrack. “Horse racing ended in 1910,” says Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn’s official historian. “Then, until about 1914 or 1915, automobile racing took place on the track. Many of the bungalows were built after the track closed in the late teens.” Vacationers would travel by subway and trolley to rent them for the summer. “Later,” Schweiger says, “many of the owners winterized these cottages, and used them year-round for their own families.” Many bungalows are still used year-round.
Well, the ones that are left, anyway. During the last decade, many of these quaint cottages, situated on tiny 40’x40’ lots, were destroyed by bulldozers: they’d been sold to developers, who tore them down to construct condo towers out of context with the surrounding architecture—some rising as high as 15 stories (“a fucking skyscraper for Brighton Beach,” as one resident once told the photoblogger Nathan Kensinger). The construction of many such towers went unfinished, and their shells loom over the neighborhood.
“I thought it could have been developed into an artsy section of Brighton Beach,” says Singer, “but developers saw them and some were in disrepair. They made an offer that owners couldn’t refuse. One owner was offered $500,000! They were like Pac-Man, buying up seven bungalows in a clip.”
Other bungalows were abandoned and frequently became the victims of arson. In the second half of 2007 alone, at least 13 fires were reported in the bungalow area. The manager of the local community board said the fires were set by squatters who had taken over the neglected properties. But others saw something more nefarious. “In my opinion, the bungalows were burned down by developers,” Singer says.
By 2009, the department of city planning finally released a long-requested “downzoning” plan that would have curbed what many saw as overdevelopment. But by that point, some residents felt it was too late. “When you talk about downzoning, it’s to preserve the area,” the head of the local Business Improvement District told the Daily News at the time. “There’s nothing to preserve.”