A Tribute To Coney Island Avenue

When we step out our front door and walk down the block, we can take a deep, slow breath of city air, and a closer, more generous look at the places and people around us, the stories they offer, the endless complexities they hide, the triumphs and tragedies that still await them.

A Tribute To Coney Island Avenue

I walked south along Coney Island Avenue on a drizzly Thursday morning this September. The sounds of traffic and Urdu and distant music thrummed in my ears, and I pressed my headphones more tightly against my ears so I could hear Ayesha tell her story.

“Ahmad and I had just stumbled past our first anniversary, each still learning the other’s habits and tics,” I heard her say, “when he was taken.”

The Pakistani American Youth Organization headquarters on Coney Island Avenue. (Image: Billy Richling)

Before she could explain further, though, I pressed pause. The din of live—not recorded—traffic, along with a gaggle of adolescent boys loudly complaining about the impending return to school, had overpowered the sounds of the story, and I had to cross to the quieter side of the street before I could refocus on Ayesha’s narrative.

This mingling of live and recorded sounds is an integral part of the experience of Coney Island Avenue, a new “soundwalk” project created by the Brooklyn-based director Brad Ogden. The six-part audio series, which was released this week, is designed to accompany a listener’s self-guided walk down the 5-mile-long Brooklyn thoroughfare from which it takes its name. The route crosses through an eclectic mix of neighborhoods and communities as it connects Prospect Park with Brighton Beach and the Atlantic Ocean.

“Each neighborhood feels like its own world, with its own language, food, architecture, and culture,” Ogden told Bklyner. “In many ways, it's a microcosm of the borough and the city at large.”

Along the way, we listen as a host of characters from different eras and walks of life talk about their memories, leave voicemails for unidentified loved ones, and worry about their futures. The most prominent of these voices, and the one that gives the project its narrative arc, is that of Ayesha, an immigrant from Karachi, Pakistan, who moves with her new husband to Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan neighborhood at the turn of the 21st century.

At first, Ayesha tells us, life in the neighborhood, which is centered around Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, is both aspirational and banal. While Ahmad works, saving up for a place in New Jersey, Ayesha wanders the block, observing as “mustachioed men” in restaurants prepare vats of aloo gosht and channa pulao. But on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda operatives fly planes into the World Trade Center, and the mood in the community changes drastically. Soon, unidentified men ask for Ahmad by name as he emerges from Friday prayers at the mosque, and lead him away to an undisclosed location.

Coney Island Avenue. (Image: Billy Richling)

“I worried about what he would wear on his way home,” we hear Ayesha say. “Less than a month had passed since the towers had come down, and eyes had hardened toward our skin, our clothes. The kurta shalwar would make him conspicuous on the subway. When he didn’t return, I found much more to worry about.”

While I walk south, I listen as Ayesha, voiced by Maryam Mustafa, searches fruitlessly to find her husband and make ends meet in his absence. Her story is a litany of visits to government offices in Manhattan and calls to family in Pakistan, of restless nights and uneasy conversations with neighbors.

“On the third day, I went to the mosque during evening prayers,” she says. “But the imam, the Pakistan Association leader, the taxicab company manager — all of them were in a rush to be rid of me. As if I was contagious. As if Ahmad was already guilty of an unspoken crime.”

Ayesha’s narrative is adapted from the short story The End of Coney Island Avenue by the Pakistani-born Brooklynite Roohi Chaudry, who was also deeply involved in the creation of the soundwalk. Most of Ayesha’s dialogue is lifted directly from the story, with few changes.

Coney Island Avenue. (Image: Billy Richling)

Though Ahmad is fictional, his story is a familiar one to many who lived in Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan in the years after 9/11. Immigration crackdowns terrorized the community. FBI agents apprehended neighbors at their homes, business, and out on the street. Thousands of families fled the borough, settling in Canada or returning to Pakistan. Storefronts abruptly shuttered. Still others, like Ayesha, attempted to pick up the pieces of their lives and go about their days under the harsh glare of discrimination.

“I was trying in this story to figure out how I write about the big systemic forces that shape all our lives, as well as the ordinary joys and indignities for characters that I really care about,” Chaudry said. “It's always felt false to me to speak about either one without the other.”

Roohi Chaudry.

As Ayesha navigates her treacherous new reality, we hear also from other denizens of Coney Island Avenue in different times and contexts. The name of each of the soundwalk’s tracks corresponds to the cross street at which it’s meant to be played.

In the Park Circle track, near the start of the walk, we meet Kerry, a young adult who “literally woke up with the impulse to see water.” While trudging past Beverley Road, a woman named Ginny outlines her vision for a “whole new neighborhood” with mixed-income housing, an amphitheater, and “a sprawling space for community but also for commerce.” Passing Foster Avenue toward the Kent Theater, we listen as an old-timey radio voice declares that “local movie theaters are doing their bit these dark days to keep up what remains of the public morale.”

Some of these passages are lifted from the play Coney Island Avenue by Charles Mee. Other bits are pulled from old Brooklyn Eagle articles and the 1939 film “The Great Man Votes.” The scattered, disconnected stories, linked together with ambient city noise and music composed by Sona Koloyan, create a sort of audio collage that blends with the varying soundscape of the street.

The Kent Theater on Coney Island Avenue. (Image: Billy Richling)

I listened as I made my way south along the five-mile avenue, peeking through the open doorways of barbershops and mosques, stopping by a deli to buy a coffee, dodging cars emerging from auto shops and gas stations. I passed by Bklyner’s old office above the 773 Lounge near Cortelyou Road, and made note of shuttered storefronts and in-progress residential developments.

Coney Island Avenue is not, in the traditional sense, beautiful. It does not have the tree-lined medians of nearby Ocean Parkway to the west, or the landmarked Victorian homes of Ditmas Park to the east. It is something altogether more interesting and complicated: a seemingly endless string of mostly small, immigrant-run businesses, a staging ground for the minutiae and mundanities of its inhabitants’ lives, a hodgepodge of people and experiences and memories stacked alongside and on top of each other.

In the 1970s, before it was Little Pakistan, Coney Island Avenue was the heart of an informal Antique Row; at least 30 shops selling secondhand goods and nostalgia-dusted furniture to bargain hunters lined the street. The first mosque in the area, Makki Masjid, opened near Glenwood Road in 1982, catering to an initial wave of Pakistani immigrants that came primarily from Kashmir. By the ‘90s, its membership had swelled so much that latecomers to Friday prayers had to kneel on the sidewalk out front. Other South Asians, including Bangladeshis, settled in nearby Kensington.

Makki Masjid remains a neighborhood pillar—”If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of America, Makki Masjid holds the torch for Little Pakistan,” Bklyner reporter Zainab Iqbal wrote in 2018. But nearly all of the antique shops have disappeared, themselves relegated to the history they once sought to preserve.

Coney Island Avenue, the soundwalk, asks us to reflect on those places and people that have come and gone, the memories and stories that are baked into the sidewalk and may not be visible at first glance. Ayesha, speaking to us from 2001, references restaurants—"Bukhara, Pride of Punjab, Bihari Kebab House"—that can no longer be found on the Avenue. Further south, a man named Jake laments his lackluster sex life while looking at a picture of his husband's grandparents standing in front of a pharmacy they owned on the corner of Locust Avenue in the 1950s. On the corner now, there is no pharmacy, only a yeshiva building and a former funeral home, itself shuttered and awaiting some new, still-unknown use.

Brad Ogden.

Ogden and Choudry’s project comes on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in a moment of reflection and reckoning over the long-term impact of that day and the days that came after. It also arrives in the midst of a global pandemic that has battered New York’s immigrant communities, and less than a year after the end of the presidency of Donald Trump, which instilled fresh fear in many Muslim New Yorkers.

Though those battles have left many with lingering anxieties, Brooklyn’s South Asian community has also thrived, becoming more politically engaged and making a mark on the city’s streetscape. Coney Island Avenue has framed itself as a celebration of that perseverance, and Ogden and Choudry are encouraging listeners to support nonprofit organizations that serve South Asians in Brooklyn and across the city.

“In some ways, this post-Trump pandemic era feels about as dark as the time when the story is set,” said Choudhry. “I find that dispiriting, considering that twenty years have passed since 9/11. But I also think: this is a story about a young woman alone fighting to make a life for herself somehow in the midst of tumult. And we're still finding that resilience, here in Brooklyn, here in this pandemic, over and over again.”

Of course, that mixture of resignation and persistence, the sense that progress and memory have become jumbled together in some tumultuous, timeless cycle of irony, may resonate with you even if you don’t have any connections to Little Pakistan.

About two-and-a-half hours after I left Park Circle, I arrived at the southern terminus of Coney Island Avenue, near Brighton Beach. I had walked through not only Little Pakistan but portions of Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, passing storefronts emblazoned with Russian and Yiddish and Chinese.

I made my way toward the waterfront and pressed play on the sixth and final portion of the soundwalk. Coney Island Avenue offers no resolutions to its stories; we learn that Ayesha gets a job at a salon in Manhattan that helps her pay the rent, but not what has become of Ahmad. Instead, the final chapter jumps back in time, to Memorial Day 2001, six months before “the September when everything changed.”

Ayesha reminisces about a day she and Ahmad spent on the beach at Coney Island, drinking soda, playing arcade games and people-watching on the beach. The pair remains outside even after it begins to rain, she says, letting the drops “dribble down our clothes and cool our sunned skin.”

“We let the day end that way,” the story concludes.

Brighton Beach. (Image: Billy Richling)

As I stood on the damp, mostly-deserted beach, facing west toward the Coney Island amusement area, I thought about this decision to look backward to a simpler, happy memory, rather than forward toward the uncertain future. And I reflected on my own family’s relationship with September 11th.

My father never spoke to a therapist about his experience escaping from the 24th floor of the north tower that day. But he did speak about it, often, to everyone else: friends, neighbors, the electrician reviewing our circuit breaker, the waiter who lingered for conversation, and my mother, siblings and me. When, two years ago, advancing dementia wiped the memory of the day from his mind, it felt like both a relief and a betrayal. He was finally free from the pain. In some crucial way, he was also gone.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll listen to an old college radio interview I did with my dad on the 9/11 anniversary in 2014, when I was an undergraduate and he was still healthy. We’re talking about a tragedy, but at least we’re talking. When I listen, I wish I could travel back in time and shake my younger self by the shoulders, encourage him to savor that moment a little more, to appreciate the simple joy of a conversation that time would eventually take away.

Of course, none of us can go back to the way things were before, whatever our specific “before” is. But when we step out our front door and walk down the block, we can take a deep, slow breath of city air. We can spare a closer, more generous look at the places and people around us, the stories they offer, the endless complexities they hide, the triumphs and tragedies that still await them. We can think about how lucky we are to be here together. We can take a moment to wonder in amazement where all the time has gone. Then we can turn our attention to where we want to go next.