It’s a funny thing, this New York City of ours. There’s so much to do, so many places to be, that many of its far-off phenoms are forgotten. Due to the sheer size and scale of each borough (Brooklyn clocks in at 70 square miles, Queens at 110), the outermost reaches are often impossible to schedule into our hectic lives. Why check out Marine Park, at the southwestern fringe of Brooklyn, when Prospect Park is so close by and so comfortably familiar? Why head to the Rockaways in Queens when Coney Island has so many cute hipsters, “slumming it” on the Boardwalk? What’s more, New York City is and always has been a city surrounded by water; we were born as a Dutch shipping town in 1626, and for the next 350 some-odd years, this metropolis made its money through the shipping trade. As the shipping trade collapsed and the system went to railroads in the 1950s, we moved steadily away from our waterfronts and waterways.
But sometimes, on a gorgeous August Friday, with the temperature floating in the 80s and the sky speckled with cumulus clouds, all of this urban grandiloquence is gratuitous, and all one needs to do is hoof it to the beach. Which is what we did, at the start of last weekend. By “hoof it,” we mean riding our bikes through deep Brooklyn neighborhoods of which the aforementioned hipsters have never heard, like Mill Basin, Remsen Village and Marine Park. And by “the beach,” we mean our favorite beach of all time ever, the beach our grandparents would take us to in childhood: the spectacular Riis Park, in the Western stretch of the Rockaway Peninsula, a good forty blocks past the Terminal Station at 116th Street. Happy birthday Riis Park — because it turned 75 this July!
The Park is named for the crusading photojournalist, city reformer and Tammany enemy Jacob Riis, a Danish-born immigrant who chronicled the life of the indigent and destitute poor in New York City during the 1870s, primarily by snapping their picture and showing the rest of the world How The Other Half Lives (the name of his groundbreaking book). Riis Park, which was opened by the National Parks service in 1932, is a 262-acre beach right on the Atlantic Ocean. It was designed by that master of beaches (and destroyer of urban communities), Master Builder Robert Moses, and modeled after the highly successful Jones Beach, opened three years earlier. Riis Park’s most recognizable architectural wonder would be its two massive towers, looming over the Boardwalk; they’re built from tapestry brick, cast stone and tile, in a Byzantine/Moorish design. The original complex included 8,100 lockers, washrooms and a medical station, a glass-enclosed solarium, two restaurants and cafeterias, and beach chair and umbrella rental facilities. The New York Herald crowed over the newly opened beach, on May 7th, 1933: “Riis Park has been designed for the quieter enjoyment of the seashore without any artificial devices. In atmosphere, it is not unlike the English seaside resorts. The facilities provided all contribute to restfulness for the many and amusements of the out-of-door life.”
Of course, nowadays the Bathhouse is just a former shell of its beach-going glory. That’s why we came prepared, with heroes (from Landi’s Italian Salumeria, a Mill Basin original since 1927!), cheap Polish beer, a Frisbee, a kite, towels, bathing suits and a healthy sense of adventure. The waves were eight feet high, the kind that you don’t bodysurf so much as bodycrash; we had to drag our towels, etc. back three times, due to the high tide. It was an exquisite summer day, the likes of which are few and far between. As the sun started to set and the late August breeze picked up, we made our way towards the abandoned hospital complex just at the end of the beach; those tales of urban exploration (and the resulting eleven stitches in your urban historian’s left shin) are best left for private conversation. Shoot me a line and you’ll hear all about it.