The Strange and Stubborn Beauty of Jacob Riis Park

November 2005.

I waited for the others beneath the sodium lights in the parking lot; my breath trailing pink from my lips and dissipating into the pre-dawn gloom. I tried not to think about how cold it was going to be on the beach.

The plan—that is: using clandestine means to appropriate a school van, traveling to Jacob Riis Park, filming the sunrise and dedicating the remainder of the morning to improvising scenes for a group film project—had seemed inspired. Now, however, running on less than three hours of sleep and stalled somewhere between Drunk and Hung-over, inspiration devolved into trepidation; so many things might still go awry.

The eight others gathered shivering and bleary eyed, more or less on time; we piled into the van and sat off.

We stopped in the small parking lot east of the bath house pavilion as the wind howled and buffeting against the sides of the van. No one else was ready to face the cold just yet, so I tumbled out into the bitter gale and followed the northeastern wall of the bath house to the beach; turning southwesterly, I continued along the beach promenade. Beyond the southwestern end of the bath house, I struggled to set up the tripod and Bolex in the arctic bluster.

I exposed a single frame and counted: one one-thousand, two one-thousand… the beach looked like the Sahara in miniature; wind sluicing sandy arroyos in the dunes…

…Sixteen one-thousand, seventeen one-thousand; I triggered the shutter, exposing a second frame…

…One one-thousand, two one-thousands…behind me a German shepherd and his owner eyed me with vague curiosity…

…One one-thousand, two one-thousand…the sun crested over the horizon…

…One one-thousand, two one-thousand…

Back at the van, one of my cohorts had drawn a smiley face in the condensation lining the windows.  Inside everyone was napping; as they stirred, there were muttered demands/pleas for coffee. It was decided that I would stay behind to further scout the location.

I found myself drawn to the green-tinged concrete embankment edging Rockaway Beach Boulevard just north and east of the bath house. An iron railing—ruined and rioting with rust—crowned the embankment; below, a stairway descended into a wide, square, pedestrian tunnel. More than a foot of brackish water flooded the space; bluegrey paint flaked from the walls. Such desolation and decay invoked for me the landscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

From here my memories blur into a series of staccato sensory impressions in my mind— the tang of salt water, smoke and coffee; goose flesh clothing naked skin, fingers clumsied with numbness  loading spool after spool of film; nine souls clamoring with ideas to harness the strange and stubborn beauty with which we found ourselves so unexpectedly confronted.

June 2007

My then girlfriend phoned me several times during the day; suffering from a deeply unsettled feeling. As we talked, she only grew more listless.

I found her waiting for me when I departed my job for the day.  She was visibly agitated, wound to a point of nearly collapsing.

Unbidden, the flooded pedestrian tunnel flashed before my mind’s eye.  I asked her if she wanted to go to the beach.  And with a mixture of dubiousness and curiosity, she agreed.

Together, we drove out to the park.  She was immediately underwhelmed—“this place is really rundown.”  But as we explored, her shoulders loosened, her jaw unclenched.

We found the tunnel completely dry—I had expected that it was always flooded.  As we stepped into it, I realized it was wider than I remembered. My girlfriend—an accomplished musician and composer— noted the clipped , amplified echoes the space imposed on our voices. She began to sing; her voice reverberating from the walls. She zigzagged around the tunnel, voicing a single tone in three bursts, listening closely to the subtle changes in timber affecting her echo.

As we approached the northern end of the tunnel, she pushed me against the wall. Had echoed foot falls not warned us of others approaching, we almost certainly would have been caught in flagrante delicto.

I have since travelled to Jacob Riis Park on approximately three dozen occasions—more often than not with a camera in tow. I have marked the landscape’s ebb and flow to rhythm of the tide of seasons: I have watched sideways snow drift into dunes taller than I; marveled at the spiny stalks of the sparse vegetation tinged with the rusty reds by the harbingers of spring.

Regardless of season, the temperature can fluctuate by as much as fifteen degrees in as many minutes. One can explore from sunrise to sunset and encounter no one; or, as many as four different film crews and crowds of people along the beaches.

Under the aegis of a collaborative photography project, Emily accompanied me to Jacob Riis Park in early 2010 on three occasions.

At the close of this stunning collaboration, I thought that I may have finally captured everything the park could offer. However, just as before I found myself trying to catch a snowflake on my tongue and the memory of watching the sun set from inside one of the many overgrown bunkers peppering the dunes of Fort Tilden would overtake me; or, in a dream I would find myself standing in the tunnel, dark water lapping at my shins.

Thus, I was thrilled when Emily asked if I would return to the park with her on one of her infrastructure excursions.

The morning of the excursion offered a hint of spring as a counterpoint to the chilly winter air.  I was waiting curbside when Emily pulled up outside my Brooklyn apartment. With my Polaroid camera and some Advil she had advised me to invite along to ward off a threatening headache, we sat out.

Traffic on the B.Q.E. moved at a reasonable clip. But upon merging onto the Belt Parkway we were greeted with the usual slow-going congestion which continued until just before exit 11S.

As we whizzed by Floyd Bennett Field, I noted a hole in the fence—hoping to edify some future excursion.

The open grating of the Marine Parkway- Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge sang the song of the tire’s tread; the fork at the southern end of the bridge fed us into an eastward curve and we spooled easily westward again onto Rockaway Beach Boulevard.  As we passed over the pedestrian tunnel, I noted a large puddle gathered by the roadside—perhaps the tunnel was once again flooded.

From the small visitor lot, Emily and I gathered our things and set off on foot, angling across a thin median of sand and crab grass past a dumpster toward the tunnel.

I was disappointed to find the space once again completely devoid of any standing water.  However, It was notable free of the typical detritus which collects there.  Also, the bigoted epithets we had noted scrawled on the walls during our previous pilgrimage here were now obscured with a coat of fresh grey paint.

At the north end of the tunnel, I paused for a minute to look back; remembering all the times I had stood similarly contemplating the composition of one image or another.  I felt no urge to continue on, but after several minutes I sensed that Emily was anxious to press onward and we ascended toward the enormous parking lot—empty except for a handful of vehicles ostensibly operating under the auspices of teaching teenagers to drive in a location where concentrated effort would be required to hit anything.

With a northeasterly heading, we traipsed across the parking lot, slipped around a gate and crossed towards the stone archway where Beach Channel Drive passes under the westbound lane of Rockaway Beach Boulevard.  Carefully sticking to the median as cars raced along, Emily explored beneath the underpass; I waited, poking at various items trapped amidst the brush growing in the sandy median with the toe of my boot.  As we retreated to the parking lot once more, Emily reported that there was a raccoon skeleton lying by the side of the road beneath the archway.

Our path veered toward the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge.  However, about two-thirds of the way across the parking lot we encountered a circle of metal crowd barricades.  The barricades demarcated an area where the lot had collapsed into what appeared to be a large sinkhole—upon further inspection it seemed the sandy foundation had eroded rather significantly causing the concrete to collapse under its own weight.

Emily was intrigued with this find.  She examined it from all sides, stopping just short of climbing down into the crater; which contained, among other things: an empty twelve pack of Corona Light and the sound of steady stream of water trickling through a grate.  The beer appeared to be a recent addition, the layers of silt and dead grasses covering the fallen section much less so.

Leaving behind the parking lot’s wide, uninterrupted expanse, we approached the dark stone pedestrian bridge spanning Beach Channel Drive.  I had passed by this bridge on a number of occasions, but never crossed over it.

I was immediately impressed with the fact that Jacob Riis Park, despite its state of rampant disrepair, has a distinguished character to its dilapidation; this is not the case with the channel side of the peninsula.  Upon crossing this pedestrian bridge, the distinguished charm was overtaken by a litany of hazards: sidewalks collapsed before ending with inexplicable abruptness; benches consisted of two crumbling concrete legs sans any wooden slats, if that. Everywhere: brittle bits of cracked shells crunched underfoot.

We neared the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and the whirring noise we had heard as we paused at the northern end of the pedestrian tunnel hummed like an electric current in the air. I had been convinced it was the wind vibrating the bridge much like a blade of grass pressed flat between the thumbs of either hand resonates stertorously when one can blows across it. Emily had posited it as the sound of car tires on the bridges metal grating; and she was clearly correct.

Ahead the pathway edging the channel passed beneath the base of the bridge through a rounded arch. On the other side a flock of birds resembling Canadian Geese—only with shorter necks, smaller heads and darker faces—waddled around. Emily rushed at them with her arms out in an effort to entice them to take flight. Instead the flock moved in a sporadic wave away from her—the inverse of a child fleeing the advancing tide on the shore.

The path immediately swerved back towards Beach Channel Drive offering a scenic view of a chain link fence skirting a small shack. We took to the shoulder along the westbound lane of Beach Channel Drive for twenty yards until we reached a parking lot. Emily—who has an adorable and freakishly acute sixth sense for this sort of thing—noticed there were train tracks leading away from the road and back through the parking lot toward the channel. I knew she would remain unsatisfied until we explored the area.

The lot contained only a handful of cars. And as we moved towards the channel, two men inquired what we were up to in suspicious tones. Emily, who is far more adept at unexpected social interactions than I, explained that we were exploring. The closer of the two men, eying her camera, informed us that we should be mindful of being on federal property and that government types did not take kindly to people photographing the bridge. Assuring them we held no such intentions, we followed the tracks to their end at the beach’s fringe. Here: a series of rotting pilings, arranged in a pattern of approximately seven pilings across—with perhaps six feet between pilings—stretched some fifty yards into the channel. The rails and pilings suggested that some sort of cargo had been offloaded here. Perhaps this was the point where the Nike missiles deployed at Fort Tilden were delivered during the Cold War.

Retracing our path, Emily and I crossed over Beach Channel Drive to the northeast corner of Fort Tilden. Noting the signs distinguishing the private residence from the Rockaway Artists Alliance and Rockaway Theatre Company’s respective buildings, we drifted east.  As we emerged onto Beach 169th Street, we turned toward the ocean.

The late afternoon sun had emerged in all its golden radiance as we edged closer to the incoming tides, shuffling backwards just enough to prevent the waves washing over our shoes.  We lingered and the sun at our shoulders grew heavy in the sky.

Winding our way along the beach promenade—which from the air resembles the Greek character omega—we noticed a gas line shut-off valve hiding in crawlspace by a rusted, partially collapsed fence separating a private gulf course from the decrepit handball courts. We passed the open toed horseshoe shape of the rest room and summer-season snack bar structures that echo the shape of the promenade. Further on, Emily snapped a photo of the four faced clock tower which has never in any of my visits shown the same time on any of the faces.

The bath house with its peculiar architecture—Emily commented on the muddled mélange of influences, i.e. Arabesque, brick, Brutalism and prison architecture, a reference to the towers at the rear of the structure—was to be our final stop.

I have never felt any particular affinity for this building.  And it was not until I first photographed it, that I realized why I feel this way.  Despite its seeming symmetry, the building is willfully asymmetrical. Further, the majority of the park echoes this skewed symmetry over and over again. I know Robert Moses chose to name it after documentary photographer Jacob Riis; this strikes me as odd.  Certainly Moses would have been familiar with Riis’ images; particularly, their lack of concern with formal symmetric compositions. On the contrary, Riis’ images derive their potency from the balancing of asymmetrically arranged content within the frame.  I cannot help but think there must have been some sort of conceptual disconnect between the design of the park and its naming.

Such concerns aside, I was disheartened to note many of the trees planted evenly on either side of the main entrance have been uprooted, cut down or otherwise mangled.  In the early winter, these trees produce crimson red ‘berries’ which stand out against the brick at dusk.

After circling three-quarters of the bath house, we made our way east again—the playground and then the baseball diamond passing to our left, the beach and ocean to our right. As we reached the fence bounding the Neponsit Rehabilitation Center, we turned onto Davis Road—an alley running between the baseball diamond and the fence— and at Rockaway Beach Boulevard headed westward to the car.

On the return trip, traffic flowed smoothly on the Belt Parkway; however, as is to be expected, the B.Q.E slowed our pace to a near stand still.

Before dropping me off, Emily asked if we could take a detour to see the elevated tracks she had noted from high up on the BQE. She described them ‘wearing a suit’.

We found parking near my apartment and walked a route similar to the one I take during my daily commute. The concrete structure supporting the tracks is indeed clad in black material as part of the MTA’s extensive rehabilitation of the Culver Viaduct. Emily and I walked as far as the Smith-9th Street station—the station with the highest elevation in the NYC subway system. Her enchantment with only the most cursory of introductions gives me the sneaking suspicion that this is destined to become an excursion of its own sometime in the very near future.

Folk wisdom holds that a haunting occurs when a spirit clings to an earthly location. I do not especially believe in ghosts; however, I have encountered certain places and people which have come to haunting my inner world—as if the human soul is not unlike a haunted house.

I am honored and deeply grateful to have been able to visit, once again, this haunting location with one such dear, haunting soul— and see the strange and stubborn beauty of this desolate place touch her in much the same way it has always touched me.

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