A ‘Time Capsule’ in Photos, Just in Case a Beach Changes
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An imposing building — an eyesore to some, a sentimental landmark to others — has long fortified a section of the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, transforming a swath of shoreline along the Rockaway Peninsula into a summer haven for the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
“The building was a physical barrier, it was safety, it was privacy,” explained Yael Malka, a photographer who identifies as queer and who has frequented the beach for nearly a decade.
The People’s Beach, the name given to the patch of sand in front of the Neponsit Beach Hospital building, has been a hot spot for L.G.B.T.Q. beachgoers since the 1940s. The crumbling structure once operated as a tuberculosis hospital and later as a nursing home before it was shuttered in the late 1990s. New York City plans to demolish it later this year.
The building’s removal has sparked fears among the L.G.B.T.Q. community that its absence will fundamentally alter the sense of security and camaraderie that its protection had fostered.
In response, The New York Times sought to document the “last summer” at the People’s Beach, as it exists in its current form. The article was published online Friday and appears as a photography spread in Sunday’s newspaper.
“The goal for us was to create a time capsule of this moment in history and really document the people and the places and the textures of this beach and this community before it undergoes a major physical change,” said Tanner Curtis, a Times photo editor who worked on the project.
Mr. Curtis heard the building was coming down and approached Jeffrey Furticella, a photo editor on the Metro desk, in May. They agreed on a long-term, visual assignment, and decided that one photographer’s eye would create “the most cohesive body of work,” Mr. Furticella said.
And Ms. Malka, a New Yorker who knew the People’s Beach from her frequent visits and had photographed it before, was the right person.
“It was important for us to have someone with an intimate connection to this place,” Mr. Furticella said.
Ms. Malka visited the beach roughly two dozen times over the summer. She captured a mix of people, moments and environmental scenes to create a comprehensive patchwork of a unique place.
“The beach is about joy and beauty and celebration and resilience,” Ms. Malka said. “But there’s also this sense of impending displacement and uncertainty we feel when we’re there.”
Ms. Malka intentionally slung her camera behind her back when approaching subjects before introducing herself as a photographer. People were very open, she said, crediting the disarming aura of the People’s Beach.
Melissa Guerrero, a reporter for the Metro desk who accompanied Ms. Malka on one of the visits to conduct interviews for a series of related vignettes, echoed the sentiment. “Every person described their own version of paradise when they got there,” Ms. Guerrero said.
Ms. Malka took roughly 2,000 photographs on film and captured video footage with a Super 8 camera. A finite amount of film each day forced her to be more patient, precise and deliberate. “I had to slow down and really think about the intention behind these photographs,” she said.
“There’s a preciousness to film that you don’t have with digital,” she added.
In addition to capturing compelling people and communal frivolity, Ms. Malka prioritized photographs of the setting itself: the colorful landscape, the condemned building, and elements like a chain-link fence that separates the beach from an adjoining neighborhood. (On one occasion, she rented a kayak to take photos from the water.)
Although the city has expressed interest in remaking the newly vacant space into something that will serve the community that has thrived there for decades, exact plans remain unclear. For now, the lot is designated to house lifeguard facilities and, likely, a parking lot.
“It’s a tale that resonates on a much broader basis,” Mr. Furticella said of the project. “It’s the way that public spaces evolve over time. Communities are constantly being impacted by forces that are greater than them.”
Many of the people Ms. Malka spoke with said that, despite the uncertainty, they were optimistic that the spirit of the beach would remain intact and that it would continue to exist as a place of freedom and safety.
“Queer people will always find a way to keep a space that is sacred to them,” Ms. Malka said. “I think this will live on as the gay beach of New York for a very, very, very long time.”