The archipelago of New York City has over 520 miles of coastline, lined with innumerable sandy beaches. Some stretch for miles, others just a few yards, but during the high heat of summer—and during what is already on track to be the hottest year ever recorded—when it feels like the entire population of the city has fled to the water’s edge, it can be difficult to find a public beach that isn’t crowded. Luckily, hidden along coastal inlets, rivers, and bays, there are dozens of secret beaches—places that are either closed off to the general public or unregulated by the government, down dead-end roads, in empty lots, and at the edges of neglected, polluted waterways. While these might not be the most pristine beaches in the city, they are rarely crowded with visitors.
Instead of battling traffic to reach Fort Tilden, scrummaging with the masses at Orchard Beach, or fighting for a piece of sand at Coney Island, perhaps there is a different way of interacting with the city’s waterfront. The 20 beaches included here were explored on foot while documenting the shoreline of all five boroughs, and represent just a few of the places where those seeking solitude can quietly contemplate the city’s changing waterfront. As sea levels continue to rise at a dramatic rate, many of these hidden beaches may soon be washed away, but as long as New York City remains above water, there will always be new stretches of sand to explore.
While the public beaches on the oceanfront of Coney Island are often overcrowded, the other side of the peninsula contains a series of small, private hideaways along the wild shoreline of Coney Island Creek. In the unmanaged overgrowth of Calvert Vaux Park, sunbathers, fishermen, and homeless campers have each found their own space. Once known as Stink Creek, the waterway is now relatively clean.
Near the mouth of Coney Island Creek, an abandoned boat looms over a secluded beach in a tidal inlet. Teenagers traverse this overgrown cove, hidden along the border of Calvert Vaux Park, to access an even wilder waterfront space nearby.
Further up the creek, several of the waterway’s famous sunken wrecks are accessible from a sandy beach maintained by Home Depot. This isolated area, located behind a parking lot and protected by fences and gates, has been designated a "Public Waterfront" by the Department of City Planning.
At Coney Island’s western end, the spacious homes of Sea Gate look out over a long swath of private beachfront. This gated community, badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, is protected by guard booths and roaming security. At Coney Island’s opposite end, another private beach (pictured at the top of this essay) is hidden away on the campus of Kingsborough Community College.
Down in the Rockaways, another private gated community controls almost the entire western end of the peninsula. The vast beaches of Breezy Point are part of a well-guarded enclave and offer expansive views of the Atlantic. Many homes here also suffered severe damage during Hurricane Sandy.
While the oceanside of the Rockaways is lined with popular public beaches, the Jamaica Bay side of the peninsula has several quieter spots. Near Hammels Wye, an undeveloped park at Beach 88th Street looks out over the bay. Seen here in 2010, the space remains in rugged condition.
Though the breached landfill at Dead Horse Bay’s bottle beach is now a well-known destination for tour groups and crowds of visitors, the polluted shoreline of the Edgemere Landfill remains largely empty. Located in a much more remote area, the crumbling landfill has several beaches looking out onto Jamaica Bay, which are sometimes roamed by packs of wild dogs.
At the head of Jamaica Bay, in the ghost town of Meyer Harbor, located on the shores of Hook Creek, a unique sandy landscape is dotted with the ruins of homes torn down by Robert Moses.
In Staten Island, the entire east coast is lined by an impressive series of popular public beaches, while the island’s west coast, along the Arthur Kill, is dotted with unfrequented beaches, often found at the ends of dirt roads. This sandy spit, in a salt marsh at the mouth of Mill Creek, looks out onto the deceptively clear waters of the kill.
North on the Arthur Kill, a concealed beach looks out over the Outerbridge Crossing. Homemade benches, shacks, and a muddy racetrack for trucks are nearby. Despite its relatively healthy appearance, the water here has been heavily polluted for decades by raw sewage, industrial contaminants, and oil spills.
One of the most unexpected and picturesque beaches in the city can be found in a large empty lot near the post-industrial wastelands of Bloomfield, Staten Island. Though the water here may be continually fouled by oil spills, the views of the Chemical Coast of New Jersey are unparalleled.
A similarly post-industrial beach lines Brooklyn’s Bushwick Inlet, among the crumbling bulkheads. Hidden behind a chain link fence, the inlet has long been a popular hideout for neighbors and a stopover for canoeists navigating the East River.
There are only a handful of beaches on the island of Manhattan, and most can be found along the coast of the Harlem River. This idyllic spot in Swindler Cove Park, while not exactly a secret, is still a lesser-known refuge, and one of the nicest beaches in the city, thanks to an extensive renovation of the shoreline here by the New York Restoration Project (NYRP).
Further north along the Harlem River, on a dead-end street and behind a metal barricade topped with barbed wire, another small beach is hidden away. In recent years, the waterfront of the Harlem River has seen a remarkable influx of new parks, trails, and green spaces.
At Inwood's North Cove, James "The Birdman" Cataldi has worked for many years to transform this muddy, trash-strewn inlet on the Harlem River into a green haven. Today, a pure spring gushes out from a pebbly beach into an area that was once a communal dump.
Further north, the Port Morris waterfront along the East River is only now emerging from a similar period of neglect. The NYRP recently launched the Haven Project here, in hopes of transforming this section of Bronx coastline into a green space. For now, a rocky beach at the end of East 132nd Street, mainly used by fishermen, looks out over a burnt out pier and North Brother Island.
Many of the nicest small beaches in the Bronx are hidden on City Island, behind locked gates or at private beach clubs. This sandy cove looks out over Hart Island and Rat Island.
Most of City Island’s beaches, like those at Breezy Point and Sea Gate, are ostensibly off-limits and only open to local residents. A few exceptions are scattered around the island, along with a few residents who will open up the gates for visitors.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012.