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The uncertain future of a historic LGBTQ+ safe space: New York City’s People’s Beach

Written by on June 28, 2024

(NEW YORK) — The summer season in New York City is informally marked each year by the hoisting of Pride flags on The People’s Beach, a queer haven tucked away on the far eastern corner of the city’s Jacob Riis Park in Queens.

“When I was a runaway, when I had no community at all, I came and I witnessed something that I never even knew existed: that was a sense of family,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, activist and founder of LGBTQ advocacy group GLITS. “People fed me, people dressed me.”

This has been a popular gathering place for the LGBTQ+ community since the 1940s, shaped by its beachgoers into more than just a spot to sunbathe and swim. It’s a place of direct and indirect social activism, where queer joy is at the heart of the jumble of music, umbrella and bodies packed tightly along the shoreline each weekend.

But the land directly surrounding the beach is drastically and quickly changing. The recent demolition of an abandoned building, a $50 million building restoration plan and erosion threaten the future of this safe haven, some activists and beachgoers told ABC News.

Beachgoers are concerned it could become the next in a long list of lost LGBTQ+ spaces across the nation.

“This fight is bigger than just me. It’s bigger than just us. It’s about us fighting for our space in New York City,” Doroshow said. “This is considered our Mecca. This is our Fire Island, our Hamptons, our Boca Raton — this is the place where we can celebrate this as a space where you don’t have to [spend] out of your pocket to celebrate life.”

Gentrification inches toward The People’s Beach

The People’s Beach was once shielded from the rest of the world by the hulking Neponsit Beach Hospital, which was opened in the early 1900s. Local beachgoers say it acted as a barrier between queer beachgoers and any disapproving, discriminatory glares from beyond the park’s boundaries.

Even when the building had blocked the beach from view, the NYC LGBT Historic Site Project found that queer beachgoers long reported being harassed and given citations by Parks law enforcement for violations such as men’s bathing shorts being too short.

In 2023, NYC Health + Hospitals demolished the building, leaving the beachfront barren and open to the gawking eyes of all nearby. The loss of the seemingly protective barrier is a reminder of those historical tensions, and has stoked concerns about increased surveillance over the area.

The demolition came hand-in-hand with the announcement that the nearby historic park bathhouse about a quarter of a mile away would undergo a $50 million restoration, with plans to revitalize the landmark with restaurants, a bar, pool, event spaces and 28 hotel rooms.

Beachgoers fear a high-end restoration will ushering in a new era of gentrification on a beach known for its economic accessibility, pushing out lower-income and queer beachgoers.

“I want to make sure that the beach is accessible for the poor and working class of New York to come,” Berntsen said. “It would be great if we could build more of this infrastructure to the beach. My hope is that it’s not at the cost of it being an accessible beach financially to the people that go there.”

However, the National Park Service said it’s excited for the renovation: “The Bathhouse is emblematic of over half a century of the quintessential NYC seaside experience,” said Jen Nersesian, the NPS superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area, in the 2023 announcement.

She continued, “Its restoration will connect beachgoers with this heritage and provide a new suite of visitor opportunities for generations to come.”

All of this is happening as erosion causes closures on parts of the beach — including the main strip of The People’s Beach where the LGBTQ community is known to gather on Bay 1 and 2.

In 2023, the NPS placed about 360,000 yards of sand on the beach. One year later, much of the sand has since been washed away due to intensifying weather conditions, creating unsafe conditions for beachgoers.

Some feel as though the beach is both literally and figuratively being pulled from under them.

“The problem really becomes about the uneven development,” said Jah Elyse Sayers, founder of research and archival group The People’s Riisearch Group at CUNY. “Whatever erosion will be naturally happening, it’s not also accompanied by the usual accretion of sand … Our literal beach is shrinking. The building that really defined the space and held the space is gone.”

The National Park Service, which manages the park, has not yet responded to ABC News requests for comment on beachgoer concerns.

Taking care of their own

Historical marginalization has routinely forced the LGBTQ+ community to take matters into their own hands — a trend reflected in the actions being taken by Riis beachgoers.

“It’s queer to take care of each other,” said Gabriel DeFazio, a Jacob Riis beachgoer who has helped raise funds to improve the beach.

Local activists say they are raising money and have gathered more than 6,000 signatures to form a community land trust on the empty, former Neponsit Beach Hospital lot right in front of the queer part of the beach.

The soon-to-be renovated bathhouse is far enough away that it provides little benefit for LGBTQ beachgoers on the eastern side, who only have a single food stand and a handful of porta potties despite the beach’s popularity.

Instead, they hope to build a health and wellness community center with a focus on the LGBTQ+ community in the hospital lot that offers services like therapy and hosts essential beach functions like bathrooms, changing rooms and food vendors.

“People need to feel that they have some self-determination and a place where they can go and celebrate community and develop the rules that they feel are appropriate to govern both their actions and the use of the land and their relationship to this overall environment,” said Petr Stand, a leader at Project Abigail, which designs sustainable solutions to gentrification.

The People’s Beach also didn’t have a wheelchair accessibility mat or extra wheelchairs available for beachgoers, hindering the ability for some patrons to get on the beach. Within 24 hours of asking the LGBTQ community of beachgoers, advocates say the funds were raised to buy these materials.

“We deserve concession stands. We deserve all the accommodations, we’ve had to create our own safety around wheelchairs,” Doroshow said. “That’s community taking care of community.”

Project Abigail, GLITS and urban planning, design and development nonprofit Hester Street are working together to create a plan for the center and other community initiatives around policing, wellness, and more.

Amron Lee, a project associate at Hester Street said a community policing strategy with trainings on de-escalation and harm reduction can will address some of the expected tensions that may come with new developments: “What you start to see, when that happens in any space is more surveillance, more harassment, maybe different populations, or different groups of people being in much more tension with each other.”

NYC Health + Hospitals told ABC News that “engagement with City partners on the future of the site beyond the current lifeguard complex remains ongoing,” but did not respond to requests for comment on the community’s involvement in future plans.

A world without The People’s Beach

Sayers, who grew up by the beach in South Jersey, didn’t think they would feel comfortable on the beach after coming out as trans. That changed when they came to Riis beach.

“I got out here and immediately could see just other visibly trans people, people who didn’t seem to care how their gender was being perceived. People all different kinds of bodies, like shirtless, not shirtless, like tiny bottoms, big bottom, whatever, just like people were wearing whatever, doing whatever talking, playing,” Sayers said.

Slowly, they went from going to the beach in a tank top and long shorts to feeling comfortable in beachwear once again. They felt at home alongside the Riis community — a feeling they hope can one day extend beyond Bay 1 and 2 for the LGBTQ+ community.

“I would love for this beach to feel less important, but that would require that we felt safe everywhere,” said Sayers. “If there’s a safe space, it also means that there are unsafe spaces.”

Berntsen is staying positive amid the developments, focusing on the community’s historical ability to stand strong against change.

“This has been a space of joy and liberation, long before then,” said Berntsen. “Witnessing the shifting landscapes, both literally, because of climate change, and social and economic landscapes of Rockaway over the last 20 years, I felt it’s really important for the community to understand that this is a community that can withstand these changes.”

To do so, Sayers urges community members to keep coming despite concerns.

“The only reason we’re able to be here is because people came here. Another reason people will be able to continue coming here is if we keep coming here,” Sayers said.

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