"Gay Beach" at Riis Park, 1960. Courtesy of Randy Wicker.
Located on a mile-long section of Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, Jacob Riis Park was named after the turn-of-the-20th-century social reformer and photojournalist. Historically, New York City beaches have been popular public social gathering places for the LGBT community where they claimed certain sections as their own.
In the 1930s the beach was redesigned under the direction of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. When the park reopened in 1937, Moses hoped that it would be a more democratic version of Jones Beach due to its easy accessibility by public transportation and cars. By the 1940s the most eastern end of the beach had become a documented well-known destination for mostly white gay men to sunbath and cruise. Lesbian women also claimed a nearby area of the beach by the 1950s. By the 1960s, this area became increasing popular with a diverse LGBT presence including African-American and Latino/a men and women.
During the 1960s this area of the beach became clothing optional and was affectionately referred to as “Screech Beach” due to the gay presence.
“One of the best Gay Rivieras in the world…so crowded, nudes go unnoticed.”
New York Unexpurgated, 1966 guidebook
The LGBT Community Center National History Archive has a collection of photographs of the beach from this period. When the park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1972 with the creation of the Gateway National Recreation Area it became much more difficult to sunbath nude. In 1981, the Jacob Riis Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, this area of the beach maintains its queer identity as one of New York City’s popular and diverse LGBT public spaces.
Architect or Builder: Aymar Embury II (architect), Clinton Loyd (New York City Department of Parks Chief of Architectural Design), Gilmore Clarke of Clarke & Rapuano (landscape architect)
Year Built: 1936
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of a Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
Hugh Hagius, ed., Swasarnt Nerf’s Gay Guides for 1949 (New York: Bibliogay Publications, 2010).
Kelly Hankin, The Girls in the Back Room (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
Perry Brass, “Lost Gay New York: Riis Beach a.k.a., Screech Beach,” Queer New York June 25, 2010, bit.ly/2ex9H5z.
Petronius (pseud.), New York Unexpurgated (New York: Matrix House, Ltd., 1966). [source of pull quote]
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