On the grounds of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, what was once a massive, self-sustaining psychiatric hospital, joggers and their pets casually roam between structures so deteriorated by time and asbestos that the complex has been frequently cited as "inhospitable to be redeveloped." Wandering some of the remaining wards and their tunnels on a snowy day this January, I found the air to be as thick with mold as with the history and failure of America's rehabilitation programs.
Operational from 1885 to 1996, the center spent its 111-year run alleviating overcrowded hospitals within Brooklyn borough limits. A farm colony asylum, it put patients to work tending livestock and growing their own food as a form of therapy. Overtime, the immense population of the asylum (peaking at 9,303 patients in 1954) essentially drove the development of the town around it, Kings Park, as staff and their families moved closer to their place of employment.
The campus, in its prime, contained over 100 buildings, including a power plant, a piggery, and a railroad spur. A mirror to developments in mental illness treatment methods, Kings Park was one of the first institutions to use shock therapy and lobotomy, and later saw a sharp population decrease following the invention of thorazine. As a result, the population was dwindling by the 90s, and many buildings were shut down. In 1996, the State of New York closed the facility and the few remaining patients were transferred to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center.
Today, while Long Island's other large mental institutions have all seen lucrative redevelopment, Kings Park sits fallow, the location of several horror movies and a designated part of Nissequogue River State Park. Hundreds of past patients have been buried in a potters field along the grounds' perimeter, but even park workers struggle to remember the graves' exact locations. Most of the structures are heavily boarded up, but curious explorers are still able to get in through massive holes in fences and the sides of half demolished buildings, and then continue through the underground steam tunnels into other, better secured structures.
As frustrated as patrolling park officials may be with the perpetual stream of trespassers, the fascination runs deep with Kings Park, and it's unlikely anything will quell the curious until the grounds have been leveled or redeveloped. At least two personal websites have been devoted solely to King Park's history. To many, Kings Park is simply "ruin porn" at its best, with the added bonus of a seedy past, but it also offers a rare opportunity to experience a long-gone part of the American health care system from inside one of its crumbling institutions.