Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, Queens was on my mind. I’d been there a handful of times before, on a photography project with one of my best friends, and recently other excursions reminded me of it (namely Orchard Beach and Tibbetts Brook Park). It seemed appropriate to invite this friend and take a trip down there. I was wondering what being there would be like. Of course, some of my excursions are to places that are familiar; excursion revisits or places I’ve seen in passing before. However, I’ve never chosen one where I’d spent quite so much time quite so recently, and on top of it, for artistic pursuits.
I almost remembered how to get there. It had been almost a year since I’d been last, so I forgot some of the twists and turns, but we made it fine into a little parking lot between the Bathing Pavilion and a playground. Friend knows the place very well, but we established me as the day’s leader. As with most of these excursions I had particular parts in mind that I wanted to see but also wanted to explore and surprise myself.
We first headed into “the tunnel” (friend’s name for it), a passageway underneath the divided road leading into the park. Time was spent here on photography project and friend logged many more hours there than I. Since it doesn’t quite feel like “my” space, we moved through pretty quickly and emerged to the north in the enormous, B-shaped parking lot.
The concrete seemed infinite, and it was practically empty. I stared, then felt the impulse to take advantage of the huge space. A little sheepishly I set down my things and took a little, circular run around with my arms out, as if I was a child again. It was somewhat satisfying. It makes me think, we adults always want to be sitting or standing still, not exerting ourselves unless we make specific plans to (a la gym, jogging, etc.), but why? What is wrong with the spontaneous release of emotional reaction (here, to a place) by running or screaming or dancing?
As we walked northeast-ish in the vast parking lot, we spotted only a few cars. On closer inspection they all appeared to be driving lessons. Patterns of pretend streets emerged; careful braking and signaling were evident even from a distance. I wondered if we made the teenagers or parents nervous by walking across.
My first destination was a beautiful, arched, stone overpass. I am a sucker for old stonework. We had probably driven over this on our way, but I wanted to inspect. We exited the big parking lot by sidestepping a yellow painted gate and zipped across the highway-like boulevard to a median on the other side.
The median was sandy and grassy with some trash strewn about. Friend stayed while I walked under the underpass. I could not have been prepared for what I found there. First, the remains of what used to be an SUV or truck lay at the corner of the stone support. I kept staring and my eyes kept finding more debris – a rearview mirror, a piece of a vent, a bumper… I didn’t want to think what the fate of the occupants might have been.
Further, fully underneath the underpass, I found a small animal skeleton. My best guess was it was a raccoon. A few feet further lay its skull.
The patch of sand between the road and the underpass support was narrow and I got the feeling not many people walked here. I watched a handful of cars speed by, snapped one more photo, and went back out to rejoin friend.
We reversed our run across the road and walk around the gate back into the big parking lot. This time we walked near the north end of the lot towards the Marine Parkway Bridge – I wanted to get a better view of it. As we slowly passed, we watched a driving student practice parallel parking with cones and a construction barricade.
About halfway across we came upon a circle of police barricade-type fences. At first it wasn’t clear why they were there, but as we got closer the reason became obvious: a giant chunk of the parking lot’s concrete had cracked and separated from the rest. This about five by three foot chunk now sat in a hole four feet below the surface of the lot. I shuddered, imagining coming upon that in one’s car before the barricades were set up.
Of course I had to get closer and check it out. Friend and I slipped through one of the gates and I sat by the hole. The broken piece was covered in sandy dirt as if it had been there for a while. Cardboard boxes from cases of beer were also in the hole, though I couldn’t fathom why. I almost wanted to jump in and explore this underground world. It was hard to tell, but maybe the entire parking lot was raised up off the ground like that. Did this cave extend the whole length of the lot? Were there other mysteries down there? We wondered about the stability of the concrete sections we sat and stood on, then decided to move on.
As we continued west, I continued to be astounded at the scale of the parking lot. Had it ever been full? Is it full in summer these days? It’s so hard to picture as anything but empty.
Almost in the far northwest corner of the lot, a construction barricade smiled at us. Perhaps the cones and barricade the driving teachers were using were borrowed from the property?
We exited the parking lot and headed towards a pedestrian bridge that would bring us closer to the Marine Parkway bridge. This walk took us past a formal-looking, long, circle drive that led out to the beach. The scale was a bit different, and the bathhouse buildings less visible at the end, but it reminded me of the circle drive at Orchard Beach.
We climbed up the ramps of the angular pedestrian bridge. Its architecture wasn’t particularly beautiful, but the view of the zebra- and caution-striped curved approaches to and from the Marine Parkway Bridge was pretty thrilling. The cars rushing by in bursts, the danger of the tight curve as evidenced by the markings, and the place’s importance as one of the few gateways to the Rockaways fascinated me.
We descended the ramps on the other side of the bridge. The sidewalk ended abruptly there, and we surmised that the main purpose of this overpass was to deliver people to and from the bus stop on this side. There was a cutout for the bus to stop in, but not much else, no shelter or bench.
We scooted across the dry grass, which also sort of felt like a median in the way that it probably saw no foot traffic. Another hasty run across Beach Channel Drive and we were on the water of the north shore. First we walked east a bit. There was a sidewalk and fence, as if this was meant to be a place to stroll or spend time. Every fifty or hundred feet there was a dilapidated park bench. Shells of various types lay around, likely dropped by seagulls or geese. I wondered if people ever used to fish here.
Feeling the pull of the bridge, I headed us back west towards it along the same path.
At one point the walkway and railing right on the water ended in an unceremonious, rocky pit. From there, friend walked on the sidewalk a bit away from the edge, and I walked next to the concrete and rock mound that flanked the water. Sad benches, were joined by trash cans in lining our path.
I got more excited as we got closer to the bridge. I noticed a couple of panels of newish chain link fence on top of the concrete/rock mound quite close to the bridge. It seemed pointless, but we figured it may have previously had more sections and was put up to keep people away from the base of the bridge, maybe post-9/11?
Friend had pointed out earlier that the shore walk we were on would take us into an arched tunnel underneath the bridge approach. And here we were finally at the entrance to that tunnel. I noticed the difference between being outside it on one side looking through, being inside it, and being outside looking the other way. The views and experience were quite different. The inside and outside of the it was marked up with spray paint. Not graffiti, probably, but notes about what parts needed repair.
Geese flocked on the other side. They looked like Canadian geese but a bit different. I’m no bird expert. I watched them power-walk away from us. No matter what, they all wanted to face the same way.
We followed our path back up next to the road. The next thing we encountered was a rundown Coast Guard station on our right. Through the chain link fence I saw several crumbling buildings, miscellaneous watercraft, and one main building that is probably still in use. In its time this probably would have been a nice facility.
A bit further there was a broad driveway leading to a small parking lot and perhaps to the water’s edge. There were Riis Park signs there, so we went in. I quickly noticed old train or trolly tracks in the concrete. They led straight up to the water. How cool that these remnants survived!
Piles of some sort of supplies and small, semi-abandoned, shed-like buildings lined the property. There was even a strange sculpture. I stood on it for a moment, peeked through the shed’s windows, and moved on.
A couple of men, maybe park maintenance workers, spoke to us as we passed their pickup trucks. “What’re you doing in here?” one asked. Uh oh, I thought, and said, “are we not supposed to be in here?” We weren’t in trouble, but the man reminded us we were on “government land” (Riis and nearby Fort Tilden are part of the Gateway National Recreation Area) and warned us “people get real worried when you start taking pictures of the bridge.” I thought it was pretty ridiculous, but of course was respectful to him.
We continued out towards the water, past the small parking lot and the dock for a seasonal ferry. A huge, lumpy sculpture accented the entrance to the beach. A sign on the other side explained tips for kayaking in Jamaica bay.
We stood for a bit among pylons that probably at one point held a dock to board the trains or their contents onto barges. This forest of water-smoothed, barnacled wood made a beautiful, contrasting frame for the cold, steel bridge. I listened now more intently to a sound I’d heard nearly all day: cars and trucks rolling over the corrugated surface of the Marine Parkway Bridge.
We then reversed our path through the lot, past the men, and out the driveway. We crossed State Road and zigzagged back through Riis Park/Fort Tilden. The buildings there were almost all marked with a large number on the side, probably to identify them back when this was all a military base. Secondary signs indicated various uses: There was a chapel, an art center for children, and many buildings for government employees or park workers only.
Finally the road we were walking on dead-ended into the beach. It was gorgeous. Only a handful of few people were there, sitting or walking with their children or dogs across the sand. There were big mounds of sand (probably from dredging), pylons, and rows of big rocks periodically punctuating the waterfront.
It’s funny being at the beach in cold weather. It might be even more beautiful then, when it’s deserted and the water feels like it’s off limits. We watched the sizable waves come in (are they this large in summer?), and wandered on the beach for a bit.
We then found our way to one of the round landings that leads up to the “boardwalk” (it’s in quotes because it’s concrete, not wood). Here, the sand transitions seamlessly into the landing’s pancake flat steps and surface.
We walked along the horseshoe-shaped path of the boardwalk, then took a little detour into the dilapidated handball courts. Nature has started to win the battle here, with weeds growing tall through the cracks in the concrete, and one fence weighted down by vines leaning on the wall. I wondered if the golf course on the other side of the fence was in equally bad shape.
We hopped back up to the boardwalk and continued until we saw the first duo of buildings. During the swimming season they contain restrooms, first aid, and a snack bar. We walked around and peered in their windows. These curved, twin structures and their relationship to each other reminded me so much of the ones I visited at Orchard Beach. And, in fact, we were at the other end of the long, oval drive we saw earlier in the excursion, meaning that the approach to these buildings is also incredibly similar to Orchard Beach. Perhaps this is the Robert Moses influence I’m seeing?
Walking still further on the boardwalk we came to a second circular landing. This one had a four-sided clock as its centerpiece. None of the faces agreed on the time, and none of them were correct either.
From here, the building I really wanted to see, the “Bathing Pavilion,” was in sight down the boardwalk.
We chose to walk around the back of it first, though I knew the view of it from the beach might be most exciting.
The architecture is quite interesting. Four smallish buildings are tied together with brick and metal fence enclosures to become one, with a (right now at least) unreachable, concrete-floored courtyard in the center. Even from the back the whole thing struggles between neoclassicism and utilitarian modernism: The towers and pagodas that jut up out of the building are unnecessarily ornate and geometrically complex. Yet, the towers, especially since they look out onto an enclosed courtyard, remind me of prison guard towers. Their glass block windows and the plain-ish brick of the entire facade bring a functional, everyday look.
Around the back entrances are enlarged, black and white photos of Riis’s past glory: a full parking lot, bathers in old-style swimsuits stretching in sync, and more. A plaque also notes the building’s history. It was built in 1932! I was surprised Robert Moses didn’t weasel himself a mention here.
We continued around to the east side of the building. The courtyard, which I was very curious about by this point, seemed almost within reach through this gates of this formal-looking entrance.
Continuing around to the beach-facing front of the building, I caught another glimpse of the courtyard. I could tell now that its current use was as winter storage for lifeguard chairs and other junk.
Concrete highway barricades lined the front of the building. They were stenciled with “NPS – Gateway NRA Storm Surge Protection”. Maybe these help channel high water around them and through the fences to the courtyard rather than into the building? But it was hard for me to see how they could be totally effective in preventing water damage.
At last we were at the front of this interesting building. Here again I was struck by the architectural contrasts. Those towers are even more prominent here, and they grow out of boxy brick structures that look like intersecting cubes. The center of the building is most clearly modern – stocky concrete pillars support curved glass with more concrete on top. This part especially, but other aspects of the structure too, remind me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. I couldn’t get enough of looking at this impressive but hard-to-decode building from all different angles.
Before moving on I noticed a couple of little details: Seagulls on the beach and on the building’s roof, and a funny piece of graffiti on the even more modern garage-type gates.
Before we ran out of steam I wanted to walk down to a semi-abandoned-looking building at the far end of the boardwalk.
Friend said it was some sort of recovery facility, and that made sense (we caught a glimpse of the sign confirming that later). There were high barbed wire fences all around, and bright lights and security cameras mounted on the outside of the building. We saw no signs of human life. Indeed, it could have passed for abandoned.
We were getting tired so we looped back around along the street to the parking lot.
Dropping friend off in Brooklyn I was treated to some bonus sights. First, I’d always seen a train bridge wearing a black suit from my drives on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This is sort of near friend’s house, so we went over to look at it. I want to know more about this bridge and why it’s wearing clothes, but that will be an excursion for another day.
Back on my way and on the BQE I spotted a magnificent sunset next to the Manhattan skyline. While going under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade I snapped a couple of blind pictures, one of which I cropped to be good enough to show here.
What an end to what a day! I have a feeling I’ll be back to Riis Park and Fort Tilden sometime, and friend will too.