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The Mystery of the Fish Living in Riis Beach’s Abandoned Hospital

The future is uncertain for Riis’s Queer Beach and the fish who live there.

12:30 PM EDT on October 12, 2022

One small bright orange fish, swimming in murky waters.

(Hell Gate)

On a recent August summer day, thirteen members of TRAN4NYC, a nascent group of trans community activists, were at Riis Beach to conduct outreach to queer beachgoers. Their focus was the future of Neponsit Beach Hospital, the long-abandoned building located steps from the ocean whose upcoming demolition, and the prospect of what might replace it, has sent ripples of anxiety throughout the community of queer New Yorkers who have for decades claimed the beach as a haven. Under a canopy tent in the middle of a buzzing beach, the group discussed their outreach objectives and socialized around a folding table packed with snacks and a vegan charcuterie spread.

At one point, a friend of the group named Quito approached the canopy. “Have you heard about the fish?” they asked. Eyes widened in confusion and then delight as Quito explained: Fish, they said, lived in the flooded basement of the hospital building. And they had proof—a six-second video on their phone, one that produced far more questions than it could answer.

That video appeared to unmistakably show three bright orange fish swimming around in an exposed stairwell of the building. According to Quito, who was so inspired by the idea of this piscine community that they had contacted a Parks Department official to learn more, an entire school of those fish—believed to be either koi or goldfish—was living unbothered, thriving, in the flooded guts of the Neponsit Beach Hospital. 

Quito offered to lead a tour to the fish. A group of roughly 20 people—organizers with TRAN4NYC and passing beachgoers who overheard the excited chatter—quickly gathered and made their way to the gate of the fenced-off hospital, where they were met by Kevin, a security guard.  

“We’re here to see the fish,” announced Quito. Kevin, seemingly confused by the gaggle of beachgoers beaming hopefully at him, stuck to his guns and delivered the heartbreaking news: “I can’t let you on to the property without a Parks representative.”

The group marched amiably back to the beach. As they left, this reporter approached the security guard. Appearing baffled by the attempted tour, he wondered aloud, “How do you even know about the fish?”

(Talia Jane / Hell Gate)

That day at Riis is when we learned about the existence of the fish, and we became obsessed with learning more. We reached out to Eric Peterson, the Parks administrator who had been in communication with Quito, the aspiring tour guide. Peterson was unwilling to speak with Hell Gate on the record, which as it turns out wouldn’t much matter because, it seems, no one has answers about how a school of freshwater fish came to be living in the basement of an abandoned hospital next to the ocean.

But officials with the Parks Department and NYC Health + Hospitals, which owns the site, confirmed to Hell Gate there are indeed fish living in the flooded basement of the hospital. While they did not provide specifics as to their quantity, how long they’ve been there, or how they got there, Stephanie Buhle, the Health + Hospitals deputy press secretary, told Hell Gate in an email coauthored by the Parks Department that efforts were underway to “remove and help rehome the fish before demolition begins.” Buhle added that Parks “mentioned they might be goldfish instead of koi.” Buhle did not respond to questions about where the fish will be rehomed and how they will be rehomed. 

Everyone we spoke with, in fact, seemed to only know that there are fish. The furthest back we were able to trace their existence was to 2019, when a Parks administrator learned about the fish when joining the team that oversees the care and maintenance of Riis beach. It’s as if one day, the fish in the basement of the abandoned hospital at Neponsit Beach suddenly just were. No one we spoke with mentioned feeding them or could cite an incident that could explain their arrival, though speculation varied from a mischievous beachgoer secretly accessing the property to dump the fish to the fish somehow landing there during Hurricane Sandy, which overwhelmed much of New York City in 2012.

We were confident that the fish existed—but we had yet to see the fish with our own eyes. So on a recent fall day, we made our way to Riis where a friendly, and likely bored, security guard (not the aforementioned Kevin) allowed us inside the fence after we announced we were a reporter curious about the fish. The security guard had himself seen one fish only a few days prior, he said. He led us to the side of the building, where in two separate locations, the flooded basement was exposed to the outdoors. We dropped some pieces of bread we had brought into the musty-smelling water, hoping it would lure some fish out, and waited. 

As we gazed into the water, we saw movement. And then it happened—two small, bright orange fish emerged into view. But were they koi or goldfish? We sent a photo of the fish to Melanie Stiassny, the Axelrod Research Curator of Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History, and asked her that question. “Hard to be sure at this resolution—but my guess would be a Goldfish,” Stiassny wrote back. One mystery, partially solved. 

Built in 1915 and used on and off as a tuberculosis ward and then a nursing hospital, the hospital closed for good in 1988. Since then, the building, emblazoned with huge graffiti at its top reading QUEER + TRANS POWER and KNOW YOUR POWER, has become a monument for the queer community that has visited Bay 1 of Riis Beach—known as Queer Beach, the People’s Beach, or Screech Beach, depending on who you ask—since the 1940s.

To queer New Yorkers, making the journey to Riis isn’t just a trip to the beach, but a gathering of community. “We’re visitors of the beach,” explained one TRAN4NYC organizer, “but this space is part of our cultural history.” That sense of community is why groups like the Audre Lorde Project, GLITS Inc., and TRAN4NYC have been organizing this past year to demand that queer New Yorkers be involved in planning for the future of the hospital site.  

(Talia Jane / Hell Gate)

Much of the heartbreak around the impending demolition stems from the sense of loss of a queer monument. On that day in August, Carter, a trans beachgoer, reflected on why the ruined building meant so much to him. “You’re out there swimming around unbothered and you look back and see ‘QUEER + TRANS POWER’ looking back at you, you feel safe. It’s like home.”

And the fish have now become part of the mythology of the People’s Beach. During TRAN4NYC’s outreach that day, the group encountered one beachgoer named Andrew, who was particularly energized by the prospect of the queer community organizing for the hospital. “Why are they taking away our asylum?” he exclaimed in dramatic fashion, throwing his hands up toward the facade of the building behind him. A TRAN4NYC organizer told him about the various rumors swirling around the building, including that it might become a playground. “Also, there’s like 200 koi fish living in the basement,” they said, a bold estimate based on the video of a few fish Quito shared earlier in the day. At that moment, Andrew began calling all of his friends over to get involved, using his bare back as a surface for his friends to add their names and emails to a contact sheet.

(Talia Jane / Hell Gate)

But while Parks and H+H had said they were working with the queer community as well as neighborhood residents to address concerns, it doesn’t seem that any suggestions on what to do with the space once the hospital is demolished made it into the City’s final plans—nearly two weeks after TRAN4NYC’s outreach event, and amid ongoing organizing efforts by the Audre Lorde Project and GLITS Inc., a flyer distributed at the beach by the Parks Department and H+H noted that the space would become “a grass field with a new ADA-compliant lifeguard facility and lifeguard parking lot.” Once the hospital is razed, the Queer Beach will become visible from the street, the comfort of privacy and seclusion erased.

As of the time of publication, demolition of the former hospital building has not yet begun, and still nothing is known about the future of the fish living in its basement. Hell Gate has followed up with Parks and H+H to find out more about the planned rehoming of the fish, how many fish there are, and if the City has definitively answered whether they are koi fish or goldfish. (After the story published, a spokesperson for H+H told Hell Gate in an email that "there will be a privacy screen on the beach when all is complete" and reiterated that "the fish are being rehomed.")

If you have any insight into how the fish made their way or how long they’ve been there, contact tips@hellgatenyc.com.

Additional reporting by Esther Wang.

(Talia Jane / Hell Gate)

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