Demolition of Long-Abandoned Medical Center Could Leave Queer Beachgoers Exposed
Those who flock to the sands of Bay 1 on Riis beach — including a historically Black and brown community of trans and queer sunbathers — fear tearing down a long-abandoned medical center that acted as a shield will ruin their “utopia.”
A city plan to demolish a long-abandoned hospital and nursing home in the Rockaways has drawn scrutiny from all sides — including those who want the building to stay up to protect a historic beach haven for New York’s queer community.
The public hospitals agency announced last month that three crumbling buildings comprising the former Neponsit Adult Home on Beach 149th Street would be torn down at the end of the summer season. The land would then be turned over to the Department of Parks and Recreation, and eventually be home to a park, with space for lifeguard facilities and parking, officials said.
“It’s been a community eyesore for a long time, and there really wasn’t a good plan for it for a very long time,” local City Councilmember Joann Ariola (R-Queens) told THE CITY. “I think it’s going to be a positive addition to the community.”
But those who flock to the sands behind the seaside building — including a historically Black and brown community of trans and queer beachgoers, and some nudists — fear tearing down the edifieces that acted as a shield will ruin their “utopia.”
The former hospital’s fence directly borders the beach, where beachgoers have built a monument to the late Ms. Colombia, a beloved NYC queer icon whose legacy they’ve celebrated each year since she died in 2018.
LGBTQ New Yorkers have congregated at Bay 1 — the first beach in the federally operated Jacob Riis Park — since the late 1950s, according to historians. Queer authors including Audre Lorde and Joan Nestle mention the beach by name as a safe haven in their works.
Many in the community now believe tearing down the hospital and putting in a park where children play would make Bay 1 less of a safe space.
“There are so many places in New York City that we are not comfortable in. Riis is our home, our dance floor, our marriage place and our burial ground,” Ceyenne Doroshow, founder and executive director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, or GLITS, told THE CITY.
“This is about land being taken from us, when more queer people are homeless than ever,” Doroshow said.
Her organization is working on a proposal to create a community land trust on the plot once the hospital is torn down, and eventually 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 to 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 the Riis Beach Public Focus Group.
GLITS hosted the April 9 meeting at Nowadays, a queer-friendly Ridgewood club, to organize community members around the land trust proposal.
“We deserve a sacred space, and we are building it right now,” said Simba.
A NYC Health + Hospitals rep said they looked forward to working with community stakeholders and with the Parks Department on renovating the land.
“Our expectation, working in coordination with the Parks Department, is that there will be a new lifeguard facility and necessary parking built,” spokesperson Chris Miller said.
A spokesperson for the National Park Service, which runs Riis Park, did not respond to requests for comment.
A Brief History
The Neponsit Home was first built in 1915 as a tuberculosis hospital and was later used as a children’s hospital and to treat veterans after World War II.
It closed in the mid-1950s but reopened in 1961 as the first city-run nursing home in New York City. Other plans floated for the site had included a proposal by Robert Moses to tear the hospital down and build a pool and sports fields as part of an expansion of the adjacent Riis Park.
The building remained a nursing home until Sept. 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 reportedly fell from the facade, according to reports at the time.
The move — which turned permanent — prompted outrage from residents, their families and local activists who argued the building structure was safe and believed the facility was closed as part of a plan by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to privatize public hospitals.
Residents were scattered to other city-run facilities, which advocates and their families said was distressing.
The Health and Hospitals Corporation voted to formally 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 has been documenting and maintaining a creative archive of Riis beach for eight years now. The beach takes its name from the famed urban photographer Jacob Riis, who helped fund the original Neponsit hospital.
“One hundred years earlier, Riis photographed what he wanted to see not exist, i.e. poverty and suffering,” Berntsen told THE CITY. “Today, I choose to engage with photography at Riis by photographing what I want to see continue to exist,” he said.
Berntsen lives in north Brooklyn, and, like many fans of the People’s Beach, regularly makes the trek to Bay 1 to connect with LGBTQ beachgoers there.
“I think of Riis as Utopia,” he said. “To me, it’s the most perfect place that exists.”
Don’t Go Changin’
The building has remained closed for the past 24 years — standing empty through two major hurricanes, Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, and countless other storms.
The beach in front has continued to be a haven for the city’s queer and trans communities, although tussles with police are not uncommon.
“There’s definitely heavy policing, and more so on the LGBTQ side, especially during the height of summer months,” Jahlove Serrano, president of the GLITS board told THE CITY.
In 2016, an artist and photographer was arrested by Parks Police officers at Bay 1 for public nudity, although he said his towel slipped, according to reports.
“Queer people have always had to carve out spaces on the margins,” Quito Zigler, a southern Brooklyn resident who’s been frequenting The People’s Beach for 13 years, told THE CITY.
“Even in NYC, 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 for a place as queer as Riis to last this long,” they said.
There have been multiple plans and ideas suggested for the oceanfront space in the decades since. But the building has remained vacant, which many nearby residents were fine with.
“We were happy with the buildings just the way they were,” Amanda Agoglia, the president of the homeowners association for the Neponsit neighborhood, told THE CITY.
The empty structures were at least quiet and, residents said, better than the possibility of a homeless shelter or low-income housing — although those 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 homeowner in the area, told THE CITY.
Gorman said she would prefer a hospital there, to address the lack of quality health facilities in the area. The peninsula’s only hospital is St. John’s Episcopal, more than 100 blocks away, following the shuttering of Peninsula Hospital in 2012. Other residents worry about rodents fleeing the demolition and infesting their homes, as happened with Hurricane Sandy.
“A park is needed there; it would serve a lot of people,” Mike Scandiffio, a 19-year resident of 149th Street, told THE CITY. “It’s been an eyesore, that’s for sure, but it helped a lot during Hurricane Sandy. It stood and broke the wind and waves.”
But last year, a piece of the chimney from one of the buildings broke off and landed in a driveway two blocks away, Agoglia said. Other parts of the buildings have also collapsed.
“That’s what prompted the city to say — this could be a big lawsuit, let’s take it down,” she said.
Health + Hospitals allocated nearly $23 million for costs related to demolition, including environmental remediation, a spokesperson said.
The agency is attending a community meeting next month where officials will discuss any construction concerns for nearby homeowners 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 have been in longer and harder fights.”
Charlene Cooper, 53, grew up going to Riis close to Bay 1, and the experience has resonated with her into adulthood, she told THE CITY.
“I saw you there, and I saw you free,” she said at the Riis Beach Public Focus Group. “And somewhere down the line that allowed me to decide that I want to be free too.”
Riis beachgoers along with nearby neighbors say they want to make sure there’s still some form of shield similar to what the soon-razed buildings provided.
“They’re free to run around naked and whatever they’d like to do, that’s their privilege, that’s their beach,” said Agoglia, the homeowners association president.
“Just as long as we can have some privacy.”