Okay, technically Fort Tilden isn’t a neighborhood as such. At least, it’s not one any more.
New York Harbor is dotted with a lot of places like this – former military bases, built in one war or another, and long since decommissioned and left to whatever fate held for it. In most cases fate ordained they be swallowed up by a huge national recreation area that straddles two different states and three distinct land masses. And what this means is that if I don’t mind a bit of crumbling fortress in my nature, I’m just a subway or bus ride away from wilderness. Or, in Fort Tilden’s case, from the beach.
You actually see some of the old barrack buildings first – former meeting houses, storage sheds, a chapel. Old parade grounds are turned into Little League ball fields and soccer pitches. I followed the main road past them all, passing a corner of the grounds given over to a public garden; I saw about four or five couples in the garden when I was there, each tackling the initial cleanup and tilling of their little plots.
A few dozen yards beyond that, the path turned pedestrian-only and got a little wilder, winding through thick brush on either side. I could hear the ocean tantalizingly off to the south, just through the trees – but there were huge chain link fences thrown up, dotted here and there with signs warning that I was passing through a Protected Wilderness Area. A couple of smaller paths veered off into the woods still – some leading to old sheds with tumbled-in roofs; I peered into a couple, but there was nothing in them but extensive galleries of graffiti and some old soda bottles. Kids’ places – the kind of spots that younger teenagers find out about by word of mouth, party spots out of the eyes of grownups or forts. Out of respect I left them be instead of going inside.
The path finally came to what looked like a huge cement hatchway leading directly into a hill – it was the old casemate for a cannon that once stood guard over the dunes. A set of stairs lead up the hill to a viewing tower on top, but I ventured inside the casemate instead. The tunnel stretched clean through to the opposite side of the hill, with two other corridors leading off to the left and right and also open to the light themselves. There was much more graffiti, and some broken beer bottles amid the soda bottles. Along the corridors were some very dim rooms; I tried using my cell phone as a flashlight, but it wasn’t strong enough, and I thought about coming again with a proper flashlight. Then in the very next second I thought of about twelve different horror movies where someone blunders into a dark room with a flashlight and disturbs The Eldritch Horror That Hates The Sun And Eats Them In Punishment.
Opposite the casemate was a smaller path heading south, and hopefully to the beach. I started that way – and got no more than 20 feet along when a little boy in a Gilligan hat rounded the corner and skipped towards me. “That way’s the path to the beach!” he told me, skipping past.
“….Thank you,” I said, blinking. Nice to have confirmation.
The path didn’t quite go directly to the beach – it wound through the brush and scrub along a huge dune first, curling over hills and through grasses, and dipping down to a pond at one point. But finally it crested the dune, and I slogged over soft sand between brush until I was dumped out onto the beach proper.
…I grew up in New England, but the beach I knew growing up was on a bay, where there was always some kind of island or distant shore ahead when you looked out to sea. My parents also live in the inside of Cape Cod Bay now. So it was a small shock to look out over the water at Rockaway Beach and see….nothing. Open ocean stretching ahead, and nothing but.
I head west along the beach. It was nearly deserted ; only a few joggers and bikers, pairs of guys standing at the waters’ edge with fishing poles and beers as their girlfriends huddled behind makeshift windblocks further inland. I passed the wreckage of a boat, something I assumed was left over from Hurricane Sandy; most of its structure had long since been picked over for scrap, but the toilet was still there, lying on its side next to what looked like a scrap of linoleum flooring. The part of the hull which would have borne its name had been long since broken off or spraypainted over. Further down the beach was a ruin that looked like another, smaller casemate – a huge round cement platform, and a short tunnel behind it. One mouth of the tunnel had been covered in bright green spirals of graffiti that reminded me of the cave art at Newgrange.
A huge building perched on jetties lay beyond that. I thought it was another military building, but as I got closer it looked more like an old motel; except the rooms were impossibly small. And some had tattered flags still draped over each doorway. I ducked under the jetty supporting it – only to see another, and peering underneath I saw yet another beyond that. And further up the dune between them, a fenced-off pool and thatch-roofed shed. It was the Silver Gull Beach Club, closed and waiting for summer and looking so desolate that even though the paint on the waterslides was still bright and spotless, I thought it had been shut for good.
I ducked under all the cabana buildings and kept walking. There were a lot more shore birds on this part of the beach – flocks of gulls and the occasional tern, some of them trying to crack clams in the waves, but most just standing on the beach, briefly taking flight as I passed by. But the Oystercatchers were new on me. They were funny little sandpipery things, with black backs and long bright red beaks, either digging at the waters’ edge or sitting in pairs further back from the waves. They were a lot shyer than the gulls; some pairs would be outright spooked as I walked past, warning each other away from me with whistling calls that sounded almost like spring peeper frogs. Other pairs were much more low key, and would simply stand up from where they were squatting in the sand, walk about ten feet inland as I passed and then sit right back down again.
The shells were a lot more stationary – the usual line of shells strewn down the beach, washed there by the tide. But what was a surprise was the size of them; I’m used to scallop shells and mussels and quahogs just a couple inches long, just big enough to fit in the dimple of the palm of your hand. But these were the biggest quahog shells I’d ever seen – each one about the size of a baked potato. Much too big for the hungry gulls to have caught them, I guessed – there must have been some storm that churned everything up and hurled them all on to shore, cracking them open and turning the beach into a seafood buffet table. I even saw a big horseshoe crab. I picked up first one quahog shell, then another, captivated by their size and thinking I surely could find something to do with them – use them to hold pocket change, maybe, or paper clips or something. But after picking up five in the space of only three minutes I warned myself to hold out for shells that were especially big or colorful.
And I still collected eight. Plus a shark eye moon snail, lying way inland underneath the cabanas. I was reverting to the kind of beachcombing I did as a kid on Cape Cod, going full-on magpie and dragging home all sorts of pretty things without any idea what exactly I would be doing with them or whether they were fit to take home.
After a couple hours I turned back, my pack loaded with shells, stopping to climb up to the observation deck at the casemate. To the north was the city – huge skyscrapers, a couple bridges, a subway snaking across one. And to the south – the scrub and dunes giving way to open ocean. And almost no people. It’s a beach view I like best – wind taking the edge off the sun, no people, nothing but me and the open water. I just stood and drank it in for a long while before heading back.