50 Favorite Places #20
Or is it Plum? Over the years, it’s been called both. The “NYC Go” site describes “Plum” as a misspelling, then proceeds to assert the name derives from beach plums (plumbs?) indigenous to the area. Old photographs from the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society show the name spelled Plum. But at some point – and I’ve not been able to pinpoint exactly when, or why – the official spelling changed to Plumb. If you pull off the Belt Parkway into the rather tatty parking area today, “Plumb Beach” is what you’ll see on the official National Park Service sign.
Before it was either Plumb Beach or Plum Beach, it was Plum (not Plumb) Island, cut off from mainland Brooklyn by a tidal creek. Its isolation contributed to a colorful history, documented by my running teammate Keith Williams in his (sadly defunct) blog, The Weekly Nabe. I won’t go into the details – you can read Keith’s telling here – but the highlights include the world’s shortest ferry route, grandiose military plans, a squatters’ encampment, contraband liquor, illegal prize fights, and of course, because this is NYC, Robert Moses.
It was Moses who demoted Plum from Island to mere Beach. With Hog Creek filled in for the construction of his Belt Parkway, Plum(b) joined the rest of Brooklyn. And while it’s still not easy to get to by foot or public transit, it’s a cinch if you have a car. Classic Moses.
Since 1972, Plumb Beach has been part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service. It’s an unlikely national park. There’s not much of a buffer between it and the congested Belt Parkway, just a narrow strip of grass and a bike/pedestrian path. Even from the bike path, the beach and its adjacent tidal marsh are mostly hidden from view by scrubby growth. The trash-strewn parking lot and its permanently closed visitor center offer the only clues that something might be up.
Its unlikeliness is precisely what I like about it. Though Plumb Beach is no longer an island, it’s still a world apart. On summer weekends, beach-going families congregate on the sand west of the jetty, while kite surfers provide a show out on the water. The pious splash and lounge fully covered, next to sunbathers covered with practically nothing.
The wilder beach on the other side of the jetty is the domain of fishermen, off-leash dogs (the bane of my existence) and birders. Its dunes surround a shallow basin that transforms itself twice daily, going from lake dotted with swaying grasses to mudflats strewn with debris. From the beach, you wouldn’t know it was there.
Birders know it, of course. We desire the birds it conceals: herons and egrets and rails and shorebirds, swooping skimmers, diving terns, skulking sparrows. The other group who knows it are sexually marginalized men, also drawn by its possibilities for concealment, also motivated by desire.
There’s an undeniable awkwardness that comes from being fully kitted out as a Bird Nerd – convertible shorts, baseball cap, binoculars, spotting scope – in a place where others are kitted out in, well, nothing. And, I assume, an even greater awkwardness being naked or recently naked or about to get naked in a place where others are peering through binoculars while carrying powerful telephoto lenses. Sometimes, to combat the awkwardness, greetings are exchanged. But in general, the two groups occupy the space as though it’s two separate spaces, parallel worlds.
My two most vivid memories of Plumb Beach are of a regally long-beaked Whimbrel plucking crabs from the interior mud flats at low tide, and of a regally naked man liberating his hair from its messy bun before stepping into the lagoon that fills that same space at high tide, then floating there among the grasses.
It’s been a couple of years now, and I haven’t seen either the bird or the man since. Both have acquired a dream-like quality. In this sweltering pandemic summer, Plumb Beach seems more remote than ever, at least for the car-less, and the quantity of trash in its parking lot and along its shore has reached frightening levels. But it’s still one of my favorite places in the city, if only because the idea of multiple worlds hidden behind the Belt Parkway enchants me so.