NEW YORK — What is it about Coney Island Avenue?
That’s what Brooklyn College sociologist Jerry Krase wonders as he rides the B68 bus along this 5-mile commercial strip, which is populated at various stops by pockets of West Indians, Latinos, Pakistanis, Indians, Orthodox Jews, Chinese, Russians, Israelis and Ukrainians.
How do so many different kinds of people live so closely yet so peacefully?
As the bus moves south from Prospect Park toward Brighton Beach, the store signs change from English to Arabic to Hebrew to Chinese to Cyrillic. Bearded ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in black coats and fedoras share the sidewalks and store aisles with veiled Muslim girls and sari-clad Hindu women.
At Glenwood Road, a Moldavian Jew and a Pakistani Muslim cut hair at adjacent barbershop chairs. At Avenue I, a Muslim grocer boasts that a third of his goods are kosher. At Avenue R, Tayba Islamic Center sits next door to Chabad Jewish Center.
Elsewhere in the world, some of these people — Muslims and Jews, Russians and Ukrainians, Pakistanis and Indians — are at each others’ throats. Here, Krase says, “They grasp it almost immediately: This is not the place for that.”
It’s not just Coney Island Avenue; it’s America, says Philip Kasinitz, associate director of the City University of New York Center for Urban Research. For every gated community that segregates groups of people, he says, there’s a neighborhood that integrates them at a subway stop or shopping strip. “Big cities, and some suburbs, are quite good at it,” he says, “and New York is better at it than most.”
Coney Island Avenue isn’t the Champs-Elysees. It’s noisy, busy, homely: a street of car washes, auto body shops, electronics stores, health clinics and storefronts that traffic in phone cards, discount travel, international money transfers, cellphones, insurance.
There is variety in dining, from Tzar Boris (“Russian Noble Food”) to Thai Aroma, El Alamo, Casa Italia (kosher Italian) and HFC, which sells halal fried chicken, pizza and bagels across the same counter.
There’s a Walgreens and a Staples and not much else in the way of name-brand retail shopping. The avenue is not even mentioned in the mammoth AIA Guide to New York City. “Architecturally, historically, it really has nothing to point to,” says Brooklyn historian Ron Schweiger, “except for its ethnic diversity.”
That, and its tranquility in a crowded, abrasive city where almost anything — a car accident, a slight, a fight — can turn into something bigger — a demonstration, a boycott, a riot. [more]