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Fort Tilden Beach Reopens to a Changing Neighborhood

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits Fort Tilden.

[In Fort Tilden, a semi-abandoned military installation in the Rockaways, a temporary collection of art installations is luring in a new summertime crowd. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Over the past decade, the somber military ruins of Fort Tilden have, like the rest of the Rockaways, steadily grown in popularity with visitors from nearby Brooklyn. Special shuttle vans from Williamsburg and Bushwick have sprung up, the latest offering cold brew coffee and croissants to ease the journey, while numerous articles have chronicled the fort's burgeoning topless beach scene, which the Times recently described as "Bushwick by the sea." This summer, after a one year hiatus caused by Hurricane Sandy, the beach at Fort Tilden has reopened to visitors, along with a temporary "arts festival" titled Rockaway!. Organized by MoMA PS1, the exhibit is luring even more new visitors out to this narrow Queens peninsula, while the pace of transformation in its neighborhoods quickens.

The stated intent of Rockaway! is to "celebrate the reopening of Fort Tilden and recognize the ongoing recovery of the Rockaway peninsula." As part of that goal, several art installations have been placed throughout the abandoned structures of this historic district for visitors to seek out. The strongest piece is The Forty Part Motet, Janet Cardiff's sound installation based on an English choral arrangement from 1573, which is here on loan from MoMA after a recent "transcendent" stint at The Cloisters. The exhibit also includes sculptural works by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas and several site-specific installations by recent Rockaway homeowner Patti Smith. Unfortunately, the tide of good intentions behind these installations does little to elevate them beyond a collection of works whose main commonality appears to be how little they have to do with the history of Fort Tilden, with the pre-existing culture of the Rockways, and with the looming specter of rising tides and climate change.

As a public relations tool, however, Rockaway! has been as successful as Kara Walker's recent piece at the Domino Sugar refinery and Industry City's 2013 show "Come Together: Surviving Sandy." Both of those exhibits provided a boon of free and mostly positive publicity for development projects that are speeding up neighborhood transformation, one radically altering the Williamsburg waterfront, the other encouraging the gentrification of Sunset Park. Lurking beneath the surface of the favorable press that Rockaway! has received is a similar subtext encouraging a shift in demographics. At least one project participant expressed hopes that the exhibit "will attract a new crowd" to the Rockaways, led by "artistic torchbearers" Patti Smith and Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1 who conceived of Rockaway! and who also recently bought a home here near Rockaway Beach.

Brooklyn's ongoing colonization of the Rockaways is mostly concentrated around the growing foodie scene in Rockaway Beach, where the newest arrival this summer is Bushwick mainstay Roberta's, and where the oversaturation of outsiders has locals expecting that they will be gentrified out of the area soon. In this neighborhood and nearby Fort Tilden, the biggest wave of interlopers may be yet to come, with the impending theatrical release of Fort Tilden, a SXSW prizewinning film chronicling the misadventures of two "vapid" girls riding fixed-gear bikes to the beach via Brooklyn. And in another sign of troubled waters ahead, the normally supportive Times skewered the old fort's overcrowded beach scene this month, saying that "it may be a matter of time before Fort Tilden is declared over."

This abandoned locomotive repair warehouse now contains a new installation by musician Patti Smith which was created specifically for Rockaway!. This is the first time the building has been opened to the public, according to a volunteer from the Rockway Artists Alliance, a 20 year-old arts group based in Fort Tilden.

Smith's piece, titled "Resilience of the Dreamer," is meant to refer to the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when many Rockaway residents' homes were reduced to piles of debris. Smith moved to the area just before the storm.

The piece presents a pristine gold bed with white sheets, which will be left to rot inside the building.  Raccoons have already explored its surface.

The colorful accumulation of debris already located inside the structure, which was popular with photographers for many years, has been shoved to the side to make way for Smith's piece, which now sits center stage.

A side room contains a second piece by Smith, who had this sink brought into the space, and then filled it with white stones. The message of the piece, written by the artist in pencil, is obscured by years of pre-existing graffiti art.

After its recent, impeccable installation at The Cloisters, Janet Cardiff's sound piece The Forty Part Motet is now installed in Fort Tilden's diminutive chapel. On this day, its neighbors included a bouncy castle and a DJ playing LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem.

Inside the chapel, visitors in swimsuits and carrying beach towels tweeted, chatted, and filmed their fellow visitors. The faint strains of the Macarena could be heard outside, competing with Cardiff's arrangement of choral music.

At the ruins of Battery Harris East, which once housed a 16-inch artillery gun, beach-going visitors searched for the work of Adrián Villar Rojas, who had created several nest-like sculptures for installation.

Only one piece resembling Rojas' nests was immediately apparent. It had fallen to the ground and cracked, and was propped up against a wall in the graffiti-covered battery.

On the old viewing platform atop the battery, visitors took in the flawless panoramic view of the ocean and the city. None of Rojas' nests were visible.

Lower Manhattan, a 13-mile drive away, felt like a distant afterthought to the forests and beaches of Fort Tilden and to the unique community of Breezy Point nearby, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy.

The empty paths along the back roads of the battery are overgrown and spotted with ruined buildings. Fort Tilden's long history as a military installation spanned from World War I through the Cold War, before it was decommissioned in 1974.

Patti Smith has installed a series of sharp-edged granite cubes throughout the overgrown campus, all etched with short, familiar quotes from Walt Whitman, whose poetry frequently references Brooklyn, not the Rockaways.

Angular and decidedly unnatural, the cubes are plopped down in several different environments: tilted over in the sand, lurking in the overgrowth. Their isolated placement feels like a missed opportunity to directly engage with the fort, which is rarely open to public art installations.

Curious beachgoers were more intrigued by nearby bunkers, buried in the sand. A shorefront road that once ran along this beach has not been repaired after being destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. 

Inside the bunker, an impressively elaborate composition of runic graffiti covers the walls, which have been used as a canvas for many years by enterprising artists. 

On the northern side of the peninsula, at Riis Landing, another of Smith's cubes sits alone in the sand. "I sing the body electric," this one flatly states, one of Whitman's most recognizable lines. It is not clear if the cubes will be removed after Rockaway! ends.

Sidelined nearby is a truly impressive site specific sculptural installation created by artist Peter Lundberg in 2002. Having survived Sandy, this monumental piece is deserving of much more attention, but is neither new nor supported by PS1.
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