Demolition of long-abandoned medical center could expose gay bathers

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A city plan to demolish a long-abandoned hospital and nursing home in the Rockaways has drawn attention from all sides – including those who want the building left in place to protect a Historic beach haven for New York’s queer community.

The Public Hospitals Agency announced last month that three crumbling buildings including the former Neponsit Adult Home on Beach 149th Street would be demolished at the end of the summer season. The land would then be turned over to the Department of Parks and Recreation and eventually house a park, with space for monitoring facilities and parking, officials said.

“It’s been an eyesore to the community for a long time, and there really wasn’t a good plan for it for a very long time,” City Councilman Joann Ariola (R-Queens) told THE CITY. “I think it’s going to be a positive addition to the community.”

But those flocking to the sand behind the beachfront building — including a historically black and brown community of trans and queer sunbathers, and some nudists — fear the destruction of the buildings that served as a shield could ruin their “utopia.”

The fence of the old hospital directly borders the beach, where bathers built a monument at the end Ms Colombiaa beloved New York queer icon whose legacy they have celebrated every year since his death in 2018.

LGBTQ New Yorkers have congregated at Bay 1 — the first beach in federally-run Jacob Riis Park — since the late 1950s, historians say. Queer authors, including Audre Lorde and Joan Nestle, mention the beach by name as a haven in their works.

The closed Neponsit Beach Hospital overlooks “The People’s Beach” at Jacob Riis Park, April 20, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Many members of the community now believe that tearing down the hospital and building a park for the children to play in would make Bay 1 less safe.

“There are so many places in New York that we don’t feel comfortable in. Riis is our home, our dance floor, our wedding venue and our burial place,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, Founder and Executive Director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender. The company, or GLITS, said THE CITY.

“This is land taken from us, when more queer people are homeless than ever before,” Doroshow said.

Her organization is working on a proposal to create a community land trust on the land once the hospital is demolished, and possibly build a health care facility that focuses on transgender New Yorkers.

“As a trans person, the people’s beach is the only place I can go without hiding parts of myself, physically and in my mind,” said Daniela Simba, who started a blog for trans people and attended a gathering called Riis Beach Public Focus Group.

GLITS organized the April 9 meeting at Today, a gay club in Ridgewood, to organize community members around the land trust proposal.

“We deserve sacred space, and we’re building it right now,” Simba said.

A representative from NYC Health + Hospitals said they look forward to working with community stakeholders and the Parks Department to renovate the grounds.

“Our expectation, in conjunction with the Parks Department, is that there will be a new lifeguard facility and necessary parking constructed,” spokesman Chris Miller said.

A spokesperson for the National Park Service, which operates Riis Park, did not respond to requests for comment.

A short story

The Neponsit Home was first built in 1915 as a tuberculosis hospital and later used as a children’s hospital and to care for veterans after World War II.

It closed in the mid-1950s but reopened in 1961 as the first New York City-run retirement home. Other plans floated for the site included a proposal by Robert Moses to demolish the hospital and build a swimming pool and sports fields as part of an expansion to the adjacent Riis Park.

The building remained a nursing home until September 10, 1998, days after a Labor Day storm when more than 280 elderly residents were rushed from the nursing home in the middle of the night after bricks were allegedly fallen from the facade, according to reports at the time.

This photo of a group of young men hanging out at Jacob Riis Park in the 1940s was part of public records documenting life in the LGBT community.

This photo taken at Jacob Riis Park in the 1940s was part of public archives documenting life in the LGBT community.
The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections

The move – which has become permanent – sparked outrage from residents, their families and local activists who argued the building’s structure was safe and believed the facility was closed as part of the move. a plan by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani to privatize public hospitals.

Residents were dispersed to other city-run facilities, which advocates and their families say was distressing.

The Health and Hospitals Corporation voted to officially close the hospital in October 1998, but demolition was halted by a federal judge following a lawsuit filed by Legal Aid on behalf of two residents. Health and Hospitals later settled for $5 million.

Photographer Chris Berntsen documented and maintained a creative archive of Riis beach for eight years now. The beach is named after famous urban photographer Jacob Riis, who helped fund the original Neponsit Hospital.

“A hundred years earlier, Riis photographed what he wanted not to exist, which was poverty and suffering,” Berntsen told THE CITY. “Today I have chosen to engage in photography at Riis by photographing what I want to see continue to exist,” he said.

Berntsen lives in North Brooklyn and, like many People’s Beach fans, regularly visits Bay 1 to connect with LGBTQ beachgoers.

“I see Riis as a utopia,” he said. “To me, it’s the most perfect place there is.”

ain’t gonna change

The building has remained closed for the past 24 years – empty due to two major hurricanes, Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, and countless other storms.

The beach in front continued to be a haven for the city’s queer and trans communities, although clashes with police were not uncommon.

“There is definitely heavy policing, and more so on the LGBTQ side, especially in the height of the summer months,” Jahlove Serrano, GLITS board chairman, told THE CITY.

In 2016, an artist and photographer was arrested by Parks Police officers in Bay 1 for public nudity, despite saying his towel slipped, according to reports.

“Queer people have always had to carve out spaces for themselves on the fringes,” Quito Zigler, a south Brooklyn resident who’s been going to The People’s Beach for 13 years, told THE CITY.

“Even in New York, one of the most queer places on Earth, how many permanent queer spaces are there that are more than a few years old? It’s a rare phenomenon that a place as strange as Riis lasts for so long,” they said.

“The People’s Beach” at Jacob Riis Park is packed on a hot summer day, August 15, 2017.
Chris Berntsen

Several plans and ideas were suggested for the beachfront space over the ensuing decades. But the building remained vacant, which suited many residents.

“We were happy with the buildings as they were,” Amanda Agoglia, president of the Neponsit Neighborhood Homeowners Association, told THE CITY.

The empty structures were at least quiet and, according to residents, better than the possibility of a homeless shelter or low-income housing – although these would have required land use changes .

“As long as I don’t see a homeless shelter, I’m fine with botanical gardens or a hospital,” Patricia Gorman, a longtime landlord in the area, told THE CITY.

Gorman said she would prefer a hospital there, to address the lack of quality healthcare facilities in the area. The Peninsula’s only hospital is St. John’s Episcopal, more than 100 blocks away, following the Peninsula Hospital’s closure in 2012. Other residents worry about rodents fleeing the demolition and infesting their homes, such as it happened with Hurricane Sandy.

“We need a park there; it would serve a lot of people,” Mike Scandiffio, a 19-year-old resident of 149th Street, told THE CITY. “It was a horror for sure, but it helped a lot during Hurricane Sandy. It came up and broke the wind and the waves.

But last year, a piece of the chimney from one of the buildings broke off and landed in an alley two blocks away, Agoglia said. Other parts of the buildings also collapsed.

“That’s what prompted the city to say – this could be a big lawsuit, let’s take it away,” she said.

Health + Hospitals has allocated nearly $23 million for costs related to the demolition, including environmental remediation, a spokesperson said.

The agency is attending a community meeting next month where officials will discuss any construction issues for nearby property owners and other local stakeholders.

For organizations like GLITS, they hope to have a say in the future of the site.

“I found comfort and home at Riis Beach as a gay, black Latino raised in the Bronx,” Serrano told THE CITY. “We had longer and tougher fights.”

Charlene Cooper, 53, grew up going to Riis near Bay 1, and the experience resonated with her well into adulthood, she told THE CITY.

A sign welcomes visitors to

A sign welcomes visitors to “The People’s Beach” at Jacob Riis Park, April 20, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I saw you there and I saw you free,” she told the Riis Beach public chat group. “And somewhere down the line that made me decide that I want to be free too.”

Riis beachgoers as well as nearby neighbors say they want to make sure there is still a form of shield similar to what the soon-to-be-razed buildings provided.

“They’re free to run around naked and all they want to do is their privilege, it’s their beach,” said Agoglia, president of the owners’ association.

“As long as we can have some privacy.”

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