Queer Riis Beachgoers Celebrate Community as Demolition of Nearby Hospital Looms
With major change to an LGBTQ-favorite park on the horizon, queer beachgoers rejoiced in the annual Ms. Colombia Walk even as they face an un-shore future.
As the summer season winds down across New York City, the mostly queer sunbathers at The People’s Beach in Queens’ Jacob Riis Park worry about the fate of their stretch of sand.
“Will they close the beach down and drag us out, for our own protection?” asked Victoria Cruz, nicknamed the “Queen of Riis.” Since 1963 Cruz has been a regular at Bay 1, the beach directly in front of the long-abandoned Neponsit Hospital.
In May, THE CITY reported on plans to demolish the crumbling hospital buildings that border the clothing-optional beach. According to NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) officials, the teardown is scheduled for after Sept. 16, “once beach season ends.”
Riis lies within Gateway National Recreation Area, part of the National Park Service, while the hospital sits on city-owned land.
Queer beachgoers plan to perform “closing rituals” for the building at sunset that evening, meeting up at the beloved Ms. Colombia memorial that hangs on a rusted fence surrounding the hospital.
The site honors the late queer icon Ms. Colombia, also known as Oswaldo Gomez, who is believed to have drowned at Bay 1 in 2018. Last Saturday, more than one hundred beachgoers gathered at the shrine for the 4th Annual Ms. Colombia Walk, the last on the beach before the demolition.
There, carefully placed roses poked through the chain-link fence, decorating two likenesses of Ms. Colombia draped in tulle and technicolor, topped off by replicas of her famous parrot Rosita.
“I asked Ms. Colombia, girl to girl, how she’d like to be remembered,” said Cruz, a longtime friend of Ms. Colombia. “And she told me, ‘As an artist who paints smiles on people’s faces.’”
Smiles were everywhere at Saturday’s celebration, many obscured by beards tinted green — the Riis icon’s signature color. The Ms. Colombia Walk featured dozens of decked-out beachgoers, promenading in everything from a recreation of the icon’s rainbow tutu dress to a silver-sequined bathing suit and matching cape.
They twirled and posed from the memorial down to the ocean, and then paraded to the beach nearest to 149th Street for a moment of remembrance on the rocks where Ms. Colombia’s body was found.
Carlos Villacres, who has organized the walk over the past four years, wore Slinky toys on his arms. The gathering proceeded without a permit, Villacres explained: “It’s about creating the feeling we had when she was here, and Ms. Colombia didn’t need a permit to be herself.”
But after the celebration, Villacres, like many on the beach, expressed concern about changes the hospital demolition will bring. Already this summer, the ocean at The People’s Beach has been closed to swimming due alternately to high bacteria levels and erosion, which has left underwater pillars exposed.
“And what about the asbestos in that hospital?” Villacres asked, echoing other beachgoers worried about environmental contamination on the beach.
“We’re already being harassed more than usual,” he added, pointing to the dunes to the left of the beach where an NYPD utility vehicle was parked.
‘A De Facto Nude Beach’
On August 21, Veronica Kirschner, who has frequented The People’s Beach since 2012, was ticketed and arrested there by federal Park Police on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
While many beachgoers there go topless, Kirschner often goes fully nude. Bystanders said that her nudity was the cause for arrest.
“Everybody pretty much knows what’s going on about the Park Police presence, it’s been escalated over the years,” she said.
The police utility vehicle, however, doesn’t belong to the Park Police, but to Carlos Febrera, the commanding officer of the 100th NYPD precinct. “We’re dedicated to finding a solution to troubles that doesn’t traumatize a nonviolent community,” Febrera said, in reference to nearby neighbors’ complaints about beachgoers “defecating, urinating, and having sex” in the nearby dunes.
“I had a conversation with the Parks Department about putting bathrooms there,” he said, motioning to the soon-to-be vacant plot where the Neponsit Hospital stands.
Beachgoers and neighbors alike are calling for closer bathrooms — the nearest facilities are three quarters of a mile down the boardwalk from Bay 1 — but plans for the plot remain vague, starting with the demolition date.
While a spokesperson from HHC said “we aim to complete all major demolitions before the 2023 beach season,” the Department of Buildings says that no demolition applications have yet been filed for the Neponsit hospital buildings.
Neponsit Property Owners’ Association President Amanda Agoglia said residents are concerned about air quality issues from rodent fecal matter and asbestos that will become exposed during demolition. She also noted that a project manager provided a timetable stating that loud demolition work would not occur before 9:00 a.m.
In September 2021, a spokesperson from then-City Councilmember Eric Ulrich’s (R-Queens) office said that the firm Urbahn Architects had been hired to plan the demolition.
Urbahn’s Nat Barranco, the principal in charge of the Neponsit project, told THE CITY Thursday that “our client asked us to direct media inquiries back to city agencies,” citing HHC and the city’s Parks Department.
A series of community meetings, beginning in the spring and ongoing, with residents, beachgoers, and local politicians about the future of the plot indicated a preference for a park there, though neither HHC nor Parks have confirmed what the park will look like.
Councilmember Joann Ariola (R-Queens) said the land will become a passive park.
“That’s what the community decided on,” she said. “It will have paths and trails and lovely foliage. There will be no playground or anything of that nature.”
While Agoglia said she would like to see a playground on the plot, queer beachgoers have long opposed a playground next to the sand, concerned about a children’s play structure so near to a de facto nude beach.
Instead of the lifeguard trailers that HHC says will occupy the back portion of the plot, GLITS, a NYC-based advocacy organization for the transgender community, is hoping to make it a community land trust.
That means GLITS would own the land and lease it as a space for community assets, like a trans wellness center that founder Ceyenne Doroshow envisions on the plot.
Petr Stand of Project Abigail, which advises nonprofit organizations on applying for government funding and provides planning expertise, has partnered with GLITS in this quest. Stand said that both HHC and the city Parks Department have met with him about the proposition, but that GLITS and Project Abigail have not yet submitted proposal documents for the six-month-long review process.
As far as the beach goes, Daphne Yun, a spokesperson for the National Parks Service said that “we will identify appropriate management strategies for any anticipated impacts to adjacent NPS property.”
But beachgoers worry about a prolonged closure of Bay 1 as a result of the demolition, or a complete refiguring of the beach itself after the loss of the iconic buildings.
Kerbie Joseph of the Audre Lorde Project showed a photo of Lorde and her family on Riis in front of the Neponsit hospital in 1968 as a testament to the beach’s longevity and central place in queer history.
“Community will always be community,” she said. “It’s sad that you can be here today and not know that in two years it could all be completely different.”
When Queer Spaces Disappear
Even in an LGBTQ-friendly city like New York, when queer spaces close down, they often don’t come back.
“Spaces tend to disappear if they are not representative of those who are in power,” said Stand.
According to the Lesbian Bar Project, in the late 1980s, there were about 200 lesbian bars across the country. Now, there are just 21, and only three self-identified lesbian bars in New York City.
Ken Lustbader of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project noted that the historic gathering spots for queer people have usually been bars, restaurants, and other commercial venues designed to make money. The People’s Beach is unique as one of few outdoor, daytime venues where the queer community congregates for free (apart from the cost of parking).
“Who has access to capital, who has access to leasing a space or sharing one, those are barriers of entry that in New York are pretty high thresholds,” Lustbader said.
Particularly for trans and queer people of color, welcoming spaces are hard to find.
Doroshow noted that she still does not feel comfortable at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, the site of historic resistance to anti-LGBTQ policing.
“I don’t feel safe or celebrated there; that’s not a space for us,” she said, despite more recent, widespread efforts to educate New Yorkers on the roles of Black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson in the fight for queer rights at Stonewall.
The story is different at Riis. Cristina Pitter, who uses they/she pronouns, is a trans-inclusive sex educator who frequents the beach.
“Being able to have freedom, liberation and ease regarding bodies and acceptance is important,” they said. “It means being able to come to a place where there is healing, a place of release from the wilds of the city. It would really be a shame to see that further diminished.”
Several Ms. Colombia walk celebrants shared this sentiment, and Cruz called Bay 1 “my second home.”
Lounging in his tent on the sand, Villacres said that he will continue to enjoy the beach, rain or shine.
“I’ll never not come here,” he said. “Just give us some bathrooms and let us keep our own culture.”