Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Black Friday Asylum Field Trip!

I never go shopping on Black Friday because I refuse to join a frantic mob of any kind, especially in the name of Christmas. This year, rather than participate in retail madness, I decided to visit the grounds of a condemned asylum- which was much more peaceful in an unsettling sort of way.

The Kings County Asylum, located on St. Johnland Road in Kings Park, New York, has a very interesting past. I am completely fascinated by it's history and I was able to tour the grounds on November 26th with a group of other curious, odd people who hate Christmas shopping.

When I have an interest in something I get pretty lost in the research of it.  One can imagine how, for the occupants of this property, a sense of time was skewed. The grounds are vast and now, teeming with wildlife. The Kings County Asylum was established as a branch of the Brooklyn hospital in 1885. It was built as a farm colony to alleviate the overcrowding in the Brooklyn facilities. Farming was considered a form of therapy. Founders thought the fresh air and open spaces would do patients good.

However, by 1895 Kings County Asylum became overcrowded too and the state took control, renaming it Kings Park State Hospital. It was a completely self-sustaining estate, meaning patients and staff worked and lived on the grounds. Eventually the name changed again to the Kings Park Psychiatric Center. In 1996, after 111 years, the facility closed.

Today, the northern portion of the grounds, bordering the Long Island Sound, has become the Nissequogue River State Park, so it is preserved from development. There is some interest in building up other portions of the property, however, what is most likely buried underground presents safety and health hazard for contractors. Over the years when old buildings were taken down, they were collapsed into their foundations, which were then covered over.

My main interest is in the history of the first 10 years of the asylum's existence, (from 1885-1895) when it was a working farm.  There are no buildings left standing from this time, I am told. A park ranger also said that medical record ledgers from that time period are most likely buried somewhere in the basements of old buildings that are inaccessible due to safety hazards.

Black Friday was a gloriously sunny and mild day this year. I didn't even need a coat as I walked the property photographing the buildings. Although the state has tried to develop this area into park grounds, there is something unnerving about the place nonetheless. I have to admit that some of the comments made by the well-meaning tour director gave me that get-me-the-hell-out-of-here sort of feeling.

For instance, while observing the Surgical building, constructed in 1928 and used for "state of the art" medical treatments, the guide said that lobotomies were good in that they gave patients a sense of peace that they otherwise could not experience.

Also, patients who died and were buried on the grounds had only numbers as grave identification "to protect their privacy."

In addition, with the introduction of laws regarding patients rights- patients "lost their purpose," because they were not able to do much of the physical work on the grounds that they did before, (like digging canals all day).

It looks like these buildings will all be razed, ultimately, since they are ruined beyond repair and completely dangerous in every way imaginable. It's sad because they house an important piece of local history, but it's not surprising. Nevertheless, the nameless, numbered people who lived, worked and died there deserve to be remembered. I;ve been thinking of ways to do that via fiction. Maybe I'll write a book and call it "One Flew Over Polluted Park." Seriously, I am thinking about writing about it.

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Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

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