Truth, Justice and the American Way: Marina Shapiro

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Marina Shapiro wants to bring New York to Little Odessa–to make Brighton Beach the next Little Italy or Chinatown, with a preserved identity and ethnic cuisine. The one missing ingredient: tourists.

As director of the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District, Shapiro, 24, has spent the last four years trying to change that. “We want to present Brighton Beach to Americans in such a way that they will want to come here to see it just the way it is,” she says from her office, a cubicle in the back of the Dime Savings Bank on Brighton Beach Avenue.

The idea has received mixed reviews from local merchants, most of whom are part of a wave of Soviet Jews who fled persecution in the former Soviet Union. That makes Shapiro’s job that much harder. “Making the older Russians reach out to Americans is a very difficult task,” Shapiro admits. “You’re sort of trying to turn the movement of a very heavy and loaded train around.”

But with one foot in a trendy life of yoga and sushi in Tribeca, where she lives, and the other with friends and family in Brighton, she keeps pushing. She certainly understands immigrants’ experiences: In 1992, when Shapiro was 13, she and her family escaped anti-Semitic attacks in their remote village of Kharkov and moved to New York.

Shapiro quickly embraced American life. At 16, she set out to live on her own while finishing up at Midwood High School. Two years later, she took a job as a stockbroker. She quickly tired of the long hours, though, and fell into an administrative assistant job at the BID. Since then, she has applied her business sense–which she continues to hone as an economics student at Baruch College–to bring out Brighton Beach’s potential.

Previous BID directors laid groundwork, transforming the shopping strip from a string of boarded-up storefronts to a bustling mall full of fur coats and chain stores like Rite Aid. In 1998, Shapiro went further with a campaign to get every store on the avenue to post signs and print restaurant menus in Russian and English. This year, for the first time, she is publishing a shopping and restaurant guide entirely in English. “If Americans are going to come here, they need to be able to communicate in the language they know,” she says.

While resistant at first, many merchants have come around. When Joseph Berov first opened Sankt Peterburg, a Russian-language book and music store, four years ago, he refused to translate his signs. “I thought we were in a Russian community, so everything should be in Russian,” he says. He has since watched American shoppers fill the area, and says he may soon post signs in English.

For merchants who continue to resist, Shapiro brings around a reminder that someone else has a say in the matter: the city’s Commission on Human Rights. Three years ago, after many non-Russians complained to Shapiro that they felt unwelcome in Russian stores, she toured commission representatives through the area looking for signs of discrimination against non-Russians. To date, no merchant has been fined, and she continues to invite the commission to make surprise visits.

By many accounts, she is helping business in Brighton. “Old people know us, but the new people come in and talk to us in English,” says Boris Gugilev, an employee at B+G Gifts and Housewares. “We need their business and we need to learn more and more about them.”