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Day Drinking at the “Gay Beach of New York”

June 14, 2022

Story: Christian Rodriguez

photos: Christian Rodriguez


Day Drinking at the “Gay Beach of New York”

June 14, 2022

Story: Christian Rodriguez

photos: Christian Rodriguez

What does summer drinking look like at Jacob Riis? Six groups of beachgoers offer a glimpse inside their coolers.

New York’s beaches have long been a gathering place for the LGBTQ+ community, but Jacob Riis Park, a stretch of Atlantic coastline in Queens, is the most popular of them all. Originally opened in 1914, the beach is not just a popular sunbathing spot; it also has played an instrumental part in local, cultural and world history as the launching point for the first trans-Atlantic flight, a hub of activism following the Stonewall Uprising, and a site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Part of Riis’ explicit goal when it reopened in 1937 was to be “democratic”—a space that could be easily accessed through public transport—and from the 1940s to 1960s, it grew in both popularity and diversity as a space for queer community. In the ’60s, new rules made clothing optional.

Today, a technicolored patchwork of towels blankets the sand for miles as beachgoers turn Jacob Riis into a place to gather, be seen, dance and drink. To get a sense of how the beach was coming alive this season, I spent Memorial Day walking along the boardwalk—toward the sounds of reggaeton and dembow and the smells of salt and suntan lotion—to survey the drinking scene at “the gay beach of New York.” Here’s what a collection of beachgoers, and their coolers, had to say.

Willy and Ever

Is there anything missing from your cooler that you wish were in it?
Willy: Iceeeee!

What did you bring today?
Willy: We have some batch cocktails, Cosmopolitans and Margaritas. We wish for a nice Mojito.

Where did you guys come from today?
Willy: From Queens, New Haven—20 minutes, we’re local.

I’ve been meeting some people who traveled from far away.
Willy: Today? People take two subways, two buses to get here.

What does this beach mean to you?
Willy: I think it’s a safe haven. It’s not the best beach in the world—it’s not a Caribbean beach, it’s not Punta Cana. [But with] the energy here, you can be yourself and not have to worry about homophobia.

Ever: It’s more your people here.

If you could imagine the best beach day and then turn that into a drink, what would it be?
Willy: A little bit of lime, a hint of triple sec and vodka and then cranberry, and a little bit of mango syrup and some mint. A bit of sugar and ice, and then you shake it and then you deliver it. That’s what a drink as the best beach day would be. A little bit of everything, mixing perfectly.

Melanie, Ilana, Margret, Sam, Stef, Robbie, Jade and Diego

What does a beach and space like Riis mean to you?
Margret: This is the gay beach of New York. You have to be here! This. Is. The. Gay. Beach. You have to come. That’s all.

Ilana: This beach has very young energy, especially if you wanna party a little bit. There are no little kids running around.

Melanie: It definitely feels like the most accepting and lively space on Rockaway.

What’s your drink of choice now versus when you started drinking?
Margret: It’s unfortunate, but I think my drink of choice has actually remained the same, which is a Gin & Tonic. It’s not like the thing I’m most passionate about by any means, but it will rarely do me wrong, you know?

Ilana: I’ve always liked tequila, but I used to drink it with sugary drinks, like orange juice or definitely ginger ale. Actually, first it was vodka–orange juice. And then it was ginger ale–tequila or ginger ale–anything really. Now it’s just a shot of tequila and water.

Melanie: Like a water back almost!

Margret: Bro, that’s gross! [Group laughs.]

Stephanie: When I was 18, I would drink whatever I could find because I was not 21, but now that I am over 21, I prefer natural wine.

Sam: I drank very cheap liquors, like vodka, cheap vodkas to get truly smashed, but now I prefer more subtle drinks, like IPAs.

Robbie: I drank a lot of vodka and gin, and tonics. Now I feel like I have a lot of Margaritas and natural wine.

Melanie: We have natural wine in the cooler. There’s a lot of Red Stripe, some water, a little bit of Casamigos, some Bacardí and Gatorade… but it’s, like, 3 p.m. and we’re almost out of a lot of those things. So I wish we had… more tequila.

Robbie: Maybe a batch cocktail!

Stephanie: Mezcal!

Robbie: Like an artisanal drink. That was premade.

Stephanie: Something with passion fruit. But like fresh passion fruit, not passion fruit concentrate.

Alyssa and Blaine

What are you drinking today?
Blaine: This is a Patrón Margarita. It’s from the hot guy with the cooler. Honestly, if you’re looking for the best drink on this beach, he’s the one. I swear by that. As a frequenter, I’m here like three to four days a week.

You’re a regular! Are you out here during the week as well?
Blaine: All day, every day!

This is your first time this season?
Blaine: During the pandemic, [we didn’t come here]. So [this is] the first time in two years.

If you could imagine the best beach day and then turn that into a drink, what would it be?
Alyssa: It’s gotta be a little bit sweet and citrusy, a little salty.

Blaine: Perfect beach day in a drink, a fucking Margarita. It’s a goddamn Margarita!

Remy, Julian and Andy

What are you drinking today?
Julian: Wine, I love wine.

Remy: Wine and mezcal are definitely at the top.

What did you bring in your cooler today?
Remy: We mostly brought sangria and beer.

If you were to describe the best beach day in a drink, what would it be?
Remy: I would say a glass of wine… or a Mojito, a little Brugal.

What’s your favorite music to listen to on the beach?
Remy: Electro, Kiko, Dua Lipa, Eric Martin.

James and Darnell

What are you drinking today?
James: Today’s my first time here, actually.

Darnell: Same same!

What do you think about it so far?
James: I was in the Bronx. Coming from the Bronx to here, I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m not doing it.’ It’s a trip, but it’s dope. It’s a nice vibe. Everyone’s queer and free. Everyone’s just themselves.

Darnell: There’s no drama.

James: Everyone is free to be themselves, which is dope.

If you could imagine the best beach day and then turn that into a drink, what would it be?
James: I think it has to be frozen, cold, [with a] sugar rim, colorful and sweet.

Darnell: But strong! Kinda like a nutty.

James: You could be good on one drink, but you might get a second, but you don’t have to.

Nirma and Kyle

What’s your drink of choice?
Nirma: I was drinking Hpnotiq because it was cute. It was sweet, it was blue, it was colorful and it was unique. But now I’ve learned that that shit is whack and it’s trash, and now I drink whiskey straight, so, you know… [Laughs.]

What’s in your cooler?
Kyle: So we have several beers and seltzers and salsas and, you know, hummus and Bitchin’ Sauces. [I wish we had] ice cream. If I could have a magical cooler that held ice cream at a consistent temperature, I mean, that’d be winning, you know?

What does Jacob Riis Beach mean to you?
Nirma: Seeing all these beautiful people around here, being free, able to go topless, able to show love, it means power. It means liberation. It means freedom and it means community. And I love that and I’m happy to be here.

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Tagged: culture, queer bars

Christian Rodriguez is a New York City-based photographer with a Dominican background interested in creating work that dives into his diasporic roots. He has been published in the New York Times and New York Magazine, among others.