Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
There is an urban legend commonly whispered among schoolchildren in southeast Queens, New York City, that goes like this: A high school girl has been babysitting for some kids in her neighborhood. (In local retellings, it’s usually Bayside, Glen Oaks, or Bellerose.) One day, she’s putting the kids to bed and sees a life-size clown statue in the corner of the room. She inspects it and concludes it’s just a recent, unpleasant addition to the nursery. Satisfied that her charges are safely asleep in their beds, she heads to the den and flips on the TV. A news channel announces: Escaped Mental Patient On The Loose from Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, Believed To Be Dressed As Clown.
The rest of the story is prone to variation. Tamer versions have the hapless babysitter call the parents and the police, who remove the deranged clown to a padded enclosure where he is never again to be seen. Others recall the clown hacking the unsuspecting babysitter and sleeping kiddies to bits. In these accounts, the clown remains at large to this day.
The children who pass along this story do so on ragged scraps of paper, in hissed, stolen gossip. Each weekday, they are trundled by tired parents or aged buses along a winding path framed by massive buildings on either side. To reach the two regional middle schools and single district high school in a cul-de-sac at the road’s end, a driver must take its passengers past older structures, decrepit ones with bars on their windows. Barricaded abodes squeeze and shadow the road, until the vehicle finally emerges into a courtyard of tasteful stucco and slate playgrounds. The schools glimmer in the morning sun, as precious offspring are placed safely in the hands of their teachers. A snake of SUVs and hybrid sedans creep away from campus and directly onto the tree-lined Long Island Expressway. The brand-new grounds are a welcome substitute for the older local schools, all in desperate need of funding. It’s a shame they were built behind a cluster of mental hospitals.
Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, established by the Lunacy Commission of New York State, took up residence in Queens in 1912. The name of the outpost, a portmanteau of Creed’s Moor, is a lasting jeer at the previous owners; the large plot of land on which the Center was built was originally billed as a farm, though moors are notoriously useless for producing crops. The state-owned plot, purchased from the Creed family in 1870, was first lent to the National Rifle Association and National Guard as a firing range. Situated in a far-flung corner of the borough, its activity only irritated some livestock and their owners. The first hospital building took in 32 patients and quintupled its population in six years. When it ran out of beds, patients slept in abandoned barracks left on the property.
An onslaught of development in the mid-20th century sought to catch Queens up to its shinier siblings, Manhattan and Brooklyn. Farmlands like the Creeds’ were destroyed in favor of housing developments and strip malls. Commuters took up residence from the head to the tail of Long Island, a land mass whittled by the Atlantic to resemble a Florida-bound flounder. Creedmoor continued to establish outposts along the island as if punctuating its shape, defining the vertebrae of the fish’s spine. The number of admitted patients to the Center swelled to over 7,000 by the 1950s, filling over 50 massive, dingy yellow outposts to capacity.
Along with the purchase of the moor, the state bought one of the few neighboring farms that had been left undeveloped. Working on the farm became a component of treatment for the patients. The labor was thought to be therapeutic, budgets were tight, and the number of mouths to feed kept rising. Felons deemed too insane for prison were sent to the most secluded regions of the vast premises.
In a dark basement, Dr. Lauretta Bender would place a soothing hand on the head of a trembling child, and turn it to the left or the right. A schizophrenic child, she believed, would yield to her touch; a normal child would turn away. Those deemed psychotic by her diagnostic tests would be administered the fruits of her most recent labors, the newly experimental electroconvulsive shock therapy.
The advent of antipsychotic drugs like thorazine allowed many patients to return to the world beyond the bars of the windows. Some went on to lead normal, happy lives, adding daily pills to their habitual, all-American nine-to-fives. Many went back behind bars, greeted this time by cold prison floors. Others tried the former, served a stint in the latter, and ended up huddling for warmth beneath layers of clothing on the city streets.
My father grew up in the house we live in now, three blocks and a long, uphill walk from the Creedmoor site. He remembers a different Bellerose, one where he and his friends were forbidden to play around the mental hospital and farm by worried parents. But the pristine rolling lawns of the grounds were too tempting; the neighborhood boys often took to the hills with their wooden toboggans after a particularly enticing snowfall. When we drive past a certain exit on the Long Island Expressway, my father sometimes waves a finger over the passenger seat at some overpasses and trees, saying, “In my day, this was all Creedmoor.”
The administration of antipsychotic medication, an outpatient treatment that did not require 50 buildings’ worth of beds, caused the patient population at Creedmoor to dwindle from 7,000 to 500. Today, only a few active buildings remain, relics of an empire for patients who require something more than pharmaceutical care. Purged of its reluctant participants, the farm became a public park in 1975. With too little money to fill it or even demolish it, one of the Creedmoor outposts—referred to as Building 25—was left abandoned for 40 years. Amateur photographers who delight in grotesque, abandoned locations have published pictures of its interior. Multicolored pigeon droppings form stalactite formations that coat the walls and ceilings; wallpaper and paint peel back to free the asbestos beneath; a collection of rusted cash machines and typewriters, already outdated when they were left behind, rust by a broken window. But you would never know Building 25’s interior decay from the outside. Its façade, better-kept than those of many still-active facilities, bears no mark of the deterioriation within.
I attended one of the intermediate schools constructed behind Creedmoor. My mother says she never truly got used to the dismal morning drive to deposit me behind a mental institution for eight hours a day. My father worked as a clinical psychologist, performing evaluations of at-risk students in public schools and overseeing outpatient treatment at a clinic in Staten Island. He had a long commute from our home in Bellerose to the clinic each morning that required him to leave while I was still eating breakfast in my pajamas. One day in eighth grade, I came downstairs to eat and noticed that he, too, was in his pajamas. He was going, he informed me, to a conference at a new clinic for children that Creedmoor had built in a lot right next to my school’s campus—today, we could walk to our respective day jobs together. I passed that lot every day on my way home from school, but I had never noticed that the perpetual construction had come to an end. I was stunned to learn that there was something new being created for an institution that had seemed so static and quiet beside three schools of screaming children. He came home that day to report that the new facilities were beautiful and modern, worthy of comparison to the brand new schools that now mark the campus.
After the creation of the new center, I always wondered why my father didn’t transfer jobs to work closer to home, but deeper down I knew that his work in outreach was more important to him than it was to cultivate a new career to avoid a commute. Some evenings, when he and my mother locked the office door, I knew he was telling her horror stories from work: parents abusing their children and children abusing their parents. And these were the patients deemed well enough for outpatient treatment, leaving my mother to wonder about the condition of those who remained in the facilities next door to the school.
Only once in my three years on campus did I ever see someone emerge from the remaining Creedmoor buildings. We had just been released for recess. In the distance, I noticed a slow row of people emerge from a Creedmoor side entrance. They milled around the enclosed playground, some stalking the perimeter, others half-heartedly tossing a basketball. I thought of all the times kids in my middle school would ask each other if they were “in the wrong building,” a joke I now understood as a cruel jab at the actual sick people who were our neighbors. I stood paralyzed by this realization. A few minutes later, a guard rounded the Creedmoor patients back into a line. Our lunch aide blew the whistle, signaling the daily headcount and the dreaded return to math class. The inmates returned to their respective institutions.
On January 28, 2014, Raymond Morillo escaped from Creedmoor during a psychological evaluation. Though he had recently maxed out his 1998 sentences for slashing and manslaughter, authorities deemed the 33-year-old too dangerous for the city streets and sought to place him behind a new set of bars. Around 11:30 a.m., Morillo quietly exchanged clothes with an insider friend and strolled off of the premises. The hospital did its best to hush up the breach, and my mother only found out a week later in a community newsletter: Garage Sale, Church Fair, Escaped Convict. By this point, Morillo had been caught boarding a Greyhound bus outside Memphis, Tennessee, one step away from anonymous freedom out West. I have not been back to my middle school for several years, but I can already hear the phony, prepubescent chatter: Those in the know can guarantee that Morillo evaded capture by donning a clown suit.