‘The People’s Beach’ is a Queer Landmark That Deserves to Live On

Issue 274

Bay 1 at Jacob Riis Park has been a seaside refuge for queer and trans beachgoers for decades. That could soon change.

Nicky Yeager Oct 7, 2022

Ever since the queer community in New York learned that the abandoned hospital on the city property behind Bay 1, the first beach in Jacob Riis Park, is being redeveloped — which is expected to dramatically change this historically queer beach — a sense of anxiety has hung over summer’s end. The City has stated its plans to demolish the old Neponsit Beach Hospital as soon as mid-October, but talks are ongoing over what will fill the lot directly behind Bay 1 in Queens Community Board 14 meetings and among NYC Health and Hospitals officials and city council members.

Abandoned since 1998, the old hospital has functioned as a physical shield between the conservative Rockaways neighborhood and openly queer beachgoers who, out of direct sight, feel safe flocking to these sands where all types of bodies, gender expressions and public displays of affection are welcomed. When the building comes down to expose people who have historically been considered “deviant” and undesirable in public space, the delicate balance of this unofficial queer beach may well be jeopardized. 

This summer, Bay 1, referred to as ‘Riis Beach’ and sometimes known as ‘The People’s Beach,’ was busy as ever while rumors circulated that the hospital lot could be redeveloped as condos. The property deed, however, only allows for building a healthcare facility or a park on the land. Whether these restrictions will help maintain Bay 1 as a queer-friendly space remains to be seen.

“I was on that beach when I was homeless, because it was the one place I could go as a teenager where community would hold me.”

Councilmember Joann Ariola (R-Queens), elected in 2021, told The City in August that the land will become a passive park with trails and promised that a playground would not be built, a possibility queer beachgoers have long opposed due to concerns that placing a children’s playground so close to a de facto nude beach would be used as a pretext to target queer beachgoers.  In an email to The Indypendent, Councilmember Ariola was more vague about what she supports. “I support the community that I represent, so I am in favor of what my constituents want to see developed at the site. It’s important to remember that people live here all year long – for them it is not just a summer weekend destination, it is their entire life, and we need to think of their needs.” 

•   •   •

On Friday, Sept. 16, an intimate group of longtime beachgoers and queer community members held a closing ritual for the Neponsit Hospital. Local artist and advocate WILLIE the GENIUS led the ritual, honoring the spirits of those passed in the hospital along with members of the group’s ancestors and lost loved ones, inspired by Black and Indigenous traditions such as Yoruba (Ifá) and Voodoo. WILLIE spoke to the hospital’s history, first built in 1915 for children suffering from tuberculosis at the behest of muckraking photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis. 

Since at least the 1940s, queer folks have been visiting the beach; writers from Audre Lorde to, recently, Torrey Peters have described Riis Beach in their books. “We’ve been marginalized so many times,” WILLIE said, connecting the physical marginalization of tuberculosis patients here at the edge of the city to later marginalization of stigmatized HIV and, most recently, monkeypox patients. In 1985, once the hospital had been converted into a city-run nursing home, Mayor Ed Koch attempted to move 10 AIDS patients there for treatment with the potential to add more, but a lawsuit filed by residents of the Rockaways and broader pushback driven by HIV stigma blocked the move from happening.

This divide hasn’t gone away: There’s a “general hostility,” says organizer Jah Elyse Sayers, or at least a perceived one, between queer beachgoers at Bay 1 and nearby Neponsit neighborhood homeowners. According to David Henkin, whose family members have lived at one of the only two houses that directly face Bay 1 since 1948, members of the homeowners association have been eager to work with the police to surveil the beach. 

“The local community would love to see the elimination of the community at Riis Beach,” says Petr Stand, an urban designer and planner working with organizers. 

Yet not all members of the neighborhood feel negatively towards the beachgoers, including a small group of queer residents of the Rockaways and homeowners like Henkin’s family.

Ceyenne Doroshow and a friend at Jacob Riis Pride on Sept. 17. Photo: courtesy.

At the closing ritual, after members of the group shared experiences and stories on the beach, another organizer asked if anyone else would like to speak, and Henkin came to the middle of the circle to express support. “I thought it was really important to show up,” Henkin told The Indy. “We, the family, really wanted to make sure that the folks working to protect Bay 1 knew that they have friends in the community,” he said. “We’re super concerned that — you know, when the hospital comes down, we want to make sure that the community continues to have a joyful space to be.” 

Tense moments occur frequently between the United States Park Police — the law enforcement agency responsible for patrolling the beach — and beachgoers, some of whom sunbathe and swim nude. In August, Veronica Kirschner was ticketed and arrested there by federal Park Police on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but bystanders stated her nudity was the cause for arrest. In mid-September, police disrupted both the hospital closing ritual and festivities the following day, on Saturday, Sept. 17, during a series of events called Jacob Riis Pride planned for the last big beach day of the season. According to Sayers and organizer Ceyenne Doroshow, on that day police trotted horses through a crowd, the horses then defecated in front of the food area, and beachgoers were left to clean it up. 

Doroshow believes that Councilmember Ariola made a personal call to the police that day, and says that Ariola has never met with her or the other organizers fighting to protect Riis Beach, despite their efforts. “I don’t want to shock her,” she says. “I want to sit and talk with her.”

•   •   •

Since news of the hospital demolition began spreading in September 2021, two petitions have been created, one by an individual beachgoer, and another later by GLITS (Gays & Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society). 

Doroshow, who is the founder and executive director of GLITS, says the most important thing is for input from the LGBTQ+ community to be heard. “Considering Stonewall is not really a community place,” she says, and not a place where Black and brown queer and trans people feel comfortable in the modern day, “what I want to do here is provide.” When asked how long she’s been going to the beach, she responded, “Oh, Christ… At least 40 something years. I was on that beach when I was homeless, because it was the one place I could go as a teenager where community would hold me.”

Organizers from groups like GLITS and Project Abigail, and unaffiliated regular beachgoers, have been speaking at Queens Community Board 14 meetings and working to present a new proposal for the hospital lot: Apply for historic landmark status and establish a land trust to be run by the community. The GLITS website offers the plan’s mission statement. “To secure Riis Beach in perpetuity for long-term, sustainable community use and preserve both its history and cultural importance to the diversity of New York City.”

Why is it that the only two options we are offered in our cities are urban decay or gentrification?

Turning that dream into a reality will be an uphill battle as the mayor and the local council member, in this case Ariola, hold most of the power in determining land use decisions like this one. But were it to succeed, the advocacy group would steward the land. Doroshow imagines opening a health and wellness center geared toward trans people — to fit the health-related deed restrictions — as well as hiring former sex workers and formerly incarcerated people who face severe barriers to employment. “All ran by us,” she says. 

•   •   •

These proposals may be news to many in the queer community who have heard about the redevelopment; most of us are simply expecting the worst. What the space will look and feel like come next beach season is wholly uncertain with the protective privacy wall of the hospital gone, increased police presence, and a civic struggle potentially escalating. 

When it comes to changing Riis, a prevailing sentiment is something in the vein of “just leave us alone,” a presumption that any greater government involvement at the site spells bad news. Queer communities, including the Black, brown and working-class trans people for whom Bay 1 is especially significant — and who don’t have Fire Island to escape to — are used to a feeling of mistrust and skepticism that resources will genuinely be allocated with them in mind. For some, it feels like the destruction of the hospital is the beginning of a familiar cycle — Queer and trans people of color being pushed to the margins of urban space, making do with a non-conventionally desirable space, building that space up as a place of gathering, belonging, abundance, and care, and then, ultimately, being displaced all over again. 

The case of Riis Beach echoes that of the Christopher Street Piers. These piers, also a haven for queer homeless youth in New York, grew heavily policed along with the gentrification of Greenwich Village in the late 80s and 90s. Starting in the summer of 2000, a movement of queer and trans youth of color fought back to preserve access to the piers for themselves and future generations.

Why is it that the only two options we are offered in our cities are urban decay or gentrification? For decades, you find yourself next to a crumbling hospital with asbestos in it and where the only bathroom is three quarters of a mile down the beach, and then one day, people start talking about bettering your environment somewhat, and just like that, they want to drive you out. What would it look like to be able to ask for more? To feel secure that asking for resources means you will actually receive them? How would space be organized differently? In a city where free, public space is disappearing for everyone, it has already never been a real public good for groups like Black and brown queer people of color. 

In the coming months, GLITS will be planning more focus groups, seeking volunteers and building their proposal. It may not be until next summer that the future of Riis Beach is front and center for the community, but for a plan this ambitious, strong mobilization will be needed. Another fight for a pillar of queer life in New York City is coming up.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper and website. Our independent, grassroots journalism is made possible by readers like you. Please consider making a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home. 

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