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For decades, the shoreline in the shelter of a derelict hospital at Riis Beach has been a queer haven. Soon, the buildings will be demolished.
Where do you go to be who you are? I don’t know you; maybe you’ve never needed to ask yourself that question. Maybe you walk around the world without sensing that it detests your mere appearance, to say nothing of your inner self. Some of us must answer this. We ask, How do you find the folks who’ll look at you and love what they see, who’ll love you more the more they know? I don’t know. Do you? Maybe you do, maybe you never will. You may not find them. But certainly, you’ll search.
It might occur to you, as it did to me, that sand and surf and seagulls cannot judge. Or possibly they can, but at least they can’t throw shade right in your face. What scavenger could manage that?
Why do you go where you go to be who you are? Do you even know? Did you find a place at the end of the public beach, where the longest train line ends, far enough from the place they call home so that no one will know you from there? A place where the norms are your norms? The elders showed you that patch of sand in front of Neponsit Beach Hospital — erected in 1915, transformed into a nursing home in 1961, damaged in a storm and shuttered in 1998. NIMBYed into stasis ever since. The elders remembered the old folks’ home, took shelter in its shadow. When you choose the margin, it is a safe harbor. You called it the People’s Beach, and she became the metaphorical mother of your house.
When what others called blight set in, you took over and made the fallen building your free state, just like the piers, the clubs in crumbling warehouses. She was like you or me — full of potential and actually valuable, but nobody could figure out what to do with her. Controversial, unguarded, easy to get into; razor wire on one side and on the other, a limp chain-link fence. But you knew what to do. On the beach you lay naked, dreamed of climbing into her empty rooms and peering through her broken windows at the colorful queendom spread out below. Did. You gave her your painted eyes; they told the world exactly where it could go.
What will you do without her when they make this her last summer? Can anything replace her? An annex to Riis Park, a hospital reborn in phoenix style, even more of that vast parking lot? God forbid, a luxury hotel? Nothing sounds right; so far no new idea rings in harmony with the humanity in place. You remember what they did to zhuzh up the Christopher Street piers, how everybody left. Still, the denizens stay resolute. Whatever happens to her, there will be something else. If there must be, even someplace else. — James Hannaham
“IT’S LIKE MY
When Samir Arboleda first heard about the queer beach in Queens, he was living in Washington Heights, about as far away as you could be from the ocean and still be in New York City. He made the trip, and since then he has been at the beach, known as the People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park, sometimes twice a week for more than a decade. “It’s like my second home,” he said.
He feels a sense of calm, of peace, but it is the people who make it for him.
He recalled a wedding that took place some years ago that captured the essence of the place. The couple, who had met at Riis Beach, had invited only a few people and had set up a humble line of candles and flower petals along the shore. But beachgoers began collecting seashells, grasses and brush from the dunes. This intimate moment suddenly consumed the whole beach. He still doesn’t know who they were. “We just gathered to hear the ceremony,” he said. “It was so pretty. So pretty.”
“JUST SHOW UP
AS YOU ARE.”
For Adair Green (right), one day at Riis stands out as a metaphor for the whole scene at the beach. Upon arrival, Adair, who uses the pronouns they/them, was struck by a spectacular sight: A chain of maybe 20 people, holding on to one another, stretched from the shore into the water and out toward the end of the rock jetty, where they were pulling someone back to shore.
From their first day at the water, they had felt safe on this “topless gay beach oasis,” as they put it. When they showed up after having top surgery, they felt the support of those at the beach who had undergone the same procedure. You feel confident, they said, to “just show up as you are.”
Later on that memorable day, they recognized the person who had been pulled out of the water; they had a chipped tooth. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, you all right?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, no, like, I was drowning. All these people helped me.’”
“I DO UNDERSTAND HOW THEY SEE ME. SOMETIMES I DON’T SEE IT FOR MYSELF.”
These days, Ralph Hopkins tends to avoid the cluster of people toward the rocks, an area he calls the Village. “It gets overwhelming at times for me,” said Mr. Hopkins, who has been coming to the shore since 1965 and whose status is reflected by his nickname; he is called the mayor of Riis Beach. “But I like it,” he added. “Don’t get me wrong. I like it.”
His reputation extends to the 1970s, when he would host legendary end-of-the-summer parties — everyone wore white at the first one — that transformed into an end-of-summer runway show, drawing fashionable people from all over the city.
Now 74, he hasn’t thrown a party since the ’90s. But he recently decided to hold one last event before the beach is changed forever. This Sunday, “Ralph’s Neon Oasis Beach Party” returns to the People’s Beach, with a flier reading, “P.S. One More Time.” He said: “I do understand how they see me. Sometimes I don’t see it for myself.”
“I LOVED GOING TO RIIS SO MUCH. I WOULD ALWAYS ASK TO GO BACK.”
Neariah Leiner (right), who uses the pronoun they, has known Riis Beach since childhood, having spent days there with a queer nonbinary parent. Now 19, they credit the welcoming, naked environment at Riis — and their upbringing in general — for helping them embrace their own queer identity. “It makes sense because the variety of the kinds of bodies that you’ll see at Riis Beach, it’s just not really something that you would experience anywhere else,” they said.
“I think it was a really unique experience for me as a kid. I loved going to Riis so much. I would always ask to go back.”
“I JUST FEEL PROTECTED, AND LIKE I CAN HAVE A GOOD DAY AND JUST BE MYSELF.”
For Timothy French, a 43-year-old artist born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, the great inspiration began on the beach, with a few Barbies and a miniature pool. Nearly a decade later, the results — hundreds of elaborate Barbie tableaux from around New York City, posted on the @plasticsinthecity Instagram account — all evolved from that first day at Riis Beach in 2013.
For Timothy, a trans and nonbinary person who uses they as a pronoun, Riis felt like the safest place in the city. They usually have their guard up in public spaces, but that dissipates at Riis. “I just feel protected,” they said, “and like I can have a good day and just be myself.”
Using dolls with different body types, ethnicities and hair colors, they depicted the people and scenes at Riis and in their life. “People are always like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is like Riis Beach but in Barbies.’”
“CHANGE IS ONE OF THE THINGS THAT’S BEEN INEVITABLE IN THE TIME THAT I’VE LIVED IN NEW YORK CITY.”
Edgar Scott has been coming to Riis for so long that he can recall when the nursing home was still open. He has a memory of the older residents staring at the water, holding onto the chain-link fence while he and his friends roamed freely along the beach. Once in a while, someone would pass a cigarette through the fence.
Back then, in the ’90s, his favorite day to visit was Monday. It wasn’t less crowded; that was when the hairdressers were there. “They always had lots of food, liquor and all kinds of stuff,” he said.
He always wondered what would happen with the abandoned hospital. “I figured that it would just be sold off, and it would be some high-rise development that would try to push us off the beach,” he said. But he is at peace with whatever is to come after the buildings are demolished. “Change is one of the things that’s been inevitable in the time that I’ve lived in New York City,” he said. “It’s lovely when it’s raw, but then sooner or later, modern development is going to come and put up a parking lot where trees used to be.”