More than eight million people, eight-and-a-half billion square feet. Suffice to say, New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with space, all the more reason for us to occasionally get away from it all. But finding sanctuary in the city is not as hard as you might think. In “My Secret New York Sanctuary,” a new series by Narratively and WNYC, we get up close and personal with New Yorkers who use a little ingenuity to find solitude in some rather unlikely places.
Senses seem enhanced when standing on a beach at night. The sounds of the sea are crisper, the air is saltier and the sand crunchier, perhaps because darkness steals your sight. Waves unfurl with a crash, foam hisses as distant ships move silently on the horizon. It feels like the world’s end as you stare into the blackness. “It’s invigorating to be unhurried, unwatched on nature’s timetable,” explains Quito Ziegler, a 37-year-old Brooklynite who escapes to the city’s farthest edges in search of respite from the chaos of daily life. Not just any beach will do, though; it needs to be a completely empty one, and forbidden beaches are best.
Identifying as transgender (Quito prefers the non-gender-specific pronoun ‘they’ as opposed to ‘he’ or ‘she’), Quito is a working artist who is immersed in the queer and trans-art scene in New York. Originally a photographer, Quito branched into curating and organizing community, public and activist art, and today is at the center of this unconventional, fringe society.
“When you go to the beach at night it’s magic,” Quito adds. “You’re the only one there. You stand at the edge of the ocean and watch it go back and forth. You can squint your eyes and see the horizon. You can run around the water’s edge and pretend that you’re flying like a gull. You have the entire world to yourself somehow.”
An empty beach can be a necessary escape for those in the transgender community. “For a lot of gender-non-conforming and trans people, being in the streets can be a very trying and draining experience,” says Quito. Just last year, Islan Nettles, a transgender woman, died after a savage beating in Harlem. The attacker had shouted homophobic slurs. The beach, therefore is a vital refuge. “That sense of freedom and relaxation is difficult to find within the confines of the city,” Quito says. “It’s outside the purview of the law. We make our own rules and set our own community standards.”
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Conor McBride, an Irish documentary filmmaker based in New York, directed and edited this piece. Through film, audio and digital mediums he creates character studies relating to gender and performance.
Emily Kwong, a radio and multimedia producer based in NYC, recorded and produced the piece. Emily is an alumna of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and a production assistant for WNYC’s Education/Youth Reporting Unit. After graduating from Columbia University (’12), Emily taught digital storytelling in India through The Modern Story. You can follow her on Twitter at@emilykwong1234.
The supervising producers on this story were WNYC’s Karen Frillman and Narratively’s Emon Hassan and Noah Rosenberg.