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Long Island’s Secret History

Hidden in plain sight, from abandoned asylums to Einstein's couch


The roads go nowhere, closed off to traffic by cinder blocks and thick chains. The windows are barred. The signs say ‘Do Not Enter’—not that many would want to. In fact, entering this abandoned, disintegrating building is a Class B misdemeanor that comes with a jail sentence of up to one year.

We enter through a back door blocked by a crumpled aluminum awning, an old plastic Christmas tree, still decorated, mangled underneath. Getting to this spot takes a two-mile-long trek around boarded-up buildings, through piles of rubble from others that were knocked down, desolate patches of woods and uneven ground littered with empty Georgi vodka bottles and old hypodermic needles stuck in the cracks of broken cement slabs.

The abandoned Kings Park Psychiatric Center, Building 93, overlooks Nissequogue River State Park.


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This is no walk in the park.

Through the door, a musty smell, like that of old books, hangs in the air, as well as the strange rush that comes with walking into an off-limit place where time has stood still for more than a half century.

“The adrenaline,” says John Leita. “Do you feel it? I’ve been here so many times I don’t feel it the same way anymore. I wish I did.”

Leaving the last bit of sunlight behind, darkness takes over. It’s a little after 11 a.m. and the sun enters in beams through cracked window panes. The one bright doorway—the only way out aside from miles of underground tunnels—is a long cluttered hallway away now. Graffiti covers the walls. But even those left alone by vandals aren’t completely bare. Decades of paint layers blossom in speckled petals as the walls peel, revealing a rainbow of different colors.

“It’s like a garden,” Leita says pointing and smiling.

Welcome to the morgue.

At least that’s what it was before this condemned asylum was shut down. Where are we? Well, we can’t tell you that or there’s a slight possibility we’ll get arrested, or even worse, fined. So ask us in about six years when the statute of limitations is up. But here in the middle of Long Island, at a hospital that could be any hospital, in a morgue that could be any morgue, canvas straps are piled on the ground, stirrups, metal chairs, gurneys, thick bars—sometimes two sets—cover every window. And silence. Although the glass panes are mostly shattered and there’s a chill in the air, no breeze enters these windows. The building sits visible from the main road, yet it is barely noticeable, blending into the background, vacant except for broken down machines and busted lab furniture.

David Rothman of Rothman's Department Store in Southold, and Albert Einstein spend summer together on the North Fork in 1939.

“Every abandoned building has a story,” Leita says. If only these walls could talk.

To those like Leita, they can.

URBAN EXPLORERS

They don’t have Ph.D.s in history or an address at the local university. Their workplaces are the remnants of a past that most of Long Island seems to have forgotten.

They are street historians, and John Leita is one of them. He is something of a celebrity around these parts, an expert on all that’s hidden on Long Island. You may not know his name but there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been to one of his websites. The creator of LIOddities.com, a Halloween favorite for many locals, and LI-Ruins.com, Leita is a former electrical engineer-turned-street historian, part of a network of urban explorers across the country in search of beauty in unexpected places.

For the past 10 years, he has done what thrill-seekers across Long Island have been doing for decades—trespassing—in order to record and preserve a history that textbooks often ignore, before it’s too late.

“There’s a real urgent feeling to document history,” Leita says. “There are all these things that are trying to take these buildings down—environmental, people, etc.—all these different forces want to take it down and then there’s me, one force who wants to preserve it.”

He’s not alone.

Brooklyn Water Works in Freeport, now abandoned, was constructed from 1889-1891. Water was supplied via a conduit to Brooklyn until the mid-'50s.

Neil, a 15-year-old from Kings Park, has been sneaking into the long-abandoned Kings Park Psychiatric Center for years. It is one of many empty psychiatric hospitals on Long Island, including Central Islip State Hospital, now part of the New York Institute of Technology, and most of Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. Abandoned hospitals like these are often the most appealing to urban explorers, not only because of their dark history, but because they are massive, covering acres of land with hundreds of vacant, boarded-up rooms to explore, some filled with old patient files, clothing and the remains of a bygone era when lobotomies were the norm.

“I’ve been in that building about 20 times,” says Neil (who declined to use his last name for this story), sitting on a bench looking up at Building 93, the tallest building of the complex, through long strands of blond hair. “But I’m taking a break.”

When his parents found out he had been sneaking into the condemned building with friends, Neil was banned from going back. And with security now heavy around the building, he’s taking no chances.

“I wish I could go back in,” he says. “I wasn’t trashing anything, I just like to walk around for the adventure of it all.”

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