by Katie Schlechter
Over Memorial Day Weekend, Riis Park Bazaar launched in the Rockaways. Named after the celebrated journalist and photographer known for capturing the conditions of marginalized communities in New York City, Jacob Riis Park is Coney Islands’ quieter, more remote cousin. An iconic, yet abandoned Art Deco bath house built in 1932 looms over the boardwalk—a tangible reminder of a livelier past.
In 1937, renowned urban planner Robert Moses opened a public beach at the northern tip of Jacob Riis Park to create an accessible getaway for working class New Yorkers. By the 1960s, “The People’s Beach” had become a trendy hangout for gay men. Today it is commonly known as a safe and accepting space for LGBTQ individuals and people of color.
A walk down the shore reveals the laissez-faire sentiment of the short strip of sand. Men, women and gender-nonconforming sunbathers alike go topless as often as not, and g-strings and speedos are common motifs. Acceptance of different bodies, sexualities and gender expressions is the law of the land, which makes the space feel particularly safe for those who do not conform to societal norms and expectations in these categories.
When the team in charge of the Brooklyn Night Bazaar announced their upcoming programming at Jacob Riis, many longtime beachgoers feared how it could transform their beloved summer refuge. Conversations around privilege and gentrification swirled around on social media and comment sections on the few articles about the bazaar.
Despite the online vitriol, LGBTQ beachgoers like Ted Mcguire and Victoria Cruz were relatively unphased by the bazaar’s move. Taking a “more the merrier” stance, they only asked that any new arrivals to the People’s Beach simply respect the space. “We have no problem with people coming down here, but just don’t f***up what we have,” said Mcguire, alluding to people breaking park rules by littering or lighting bonfires at night. “We are a nonjudgmental group. We’ll accept you, but don’t disrespect,” added Cruz.
Mcguire and Cruz distance themselves from the idea of the People’s Beach as an exclusive space, and are adamant that its accepting character means that they welcome newcomers with open arms. “This is the People’s Beach—that’s what it’s called,” he said, “Everyone is welcome.”