Nicknamed the “People’s Beach,” Jacob Riis Park at the southern most edge of Queens was designed as a public beach that might cater to every aspect of New York’s economic landscape, from its rich to its poor. The grand Art Deco bathhouse built on the site was meant to act as a symbol of this democratic shore, but today the structure sits more as a mostly empty eyesore.
Opening in 1932, the public beach was named in honor of New York social reporter and groundbreaking documentary photographer Jacob Riis. Himself an immigrant (from Denmark), Riis championed the inhabitants of the slums around the infamous Five Points area.
Once easily accessible public transportation was established from the city to the shore, the beach was finally crowned with a magnificent Art Deco bath house, which added a level of opulence to the site that many of the local visitors had not experienced. With two octagonal red brick towers and sweeping curved changing rooms more akin in style to Berlin’s vanished Templehof airport, it was a lavishly tiled and glittering gift to the city’s less well off.
But time and neglect soon caught up with the bath house, and in the 1990’s ownership was transferred to the federal Gateway National Recreation organization who planned on completely renovating the site. But after $20 million in restoration, funding dried up and the bath house was left abandoned. The windows were boarded up and the bath house started to be covered by sand dunes and weeds. In addition to the ravages of time, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy devastated the area.
In recent years, attempts have been made to make use of the bathhouse, with stalls from restaurants like Fletcher’s Barbecue and Ample Hill Creamery now taking up residence, along with a rotating list of pop-up vendors under the banner of the Riis Park Beach Bazaar.
Know Before You Go
Take the 2 or 5 train to Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College and then board the Q35 bus on Avenue H (between Nostrand and Flatbush). Take that to Beach 169th and Rockaway Point Blvd (first stop after crossing the Gil Hodges Bridge).