New Jersey’s nudists face a summer of being naked only in private after October’s superstorm closed their beach in Sandy Hook, cutting off drinking water and possibly littering the sand with live ordnance.
The barrier spit, a 30-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, is part of the fourth-most-visited U.S. recreation area operated by the National Park Service. On summer weekends, as many as 5,000 people head for secluded Gunnison Beach, where swimsuits are scarce and sunblock is super-strength.
A season’s parking is $75, though regulars call Gunnison priceless because it’s New Jersey’s only clothing-optional beach, and one of few along the U.S. East Coast. Hurricane Sandy left it off limits, with no scheduled reopening, according to Daphne Yun, a spokeswoman for the Park Service.
“It’s been my place of choice for so many years,” said Lois Flicek, a 62-year-old school secretary who has visited Gunnison since the 1970s. “It’s not about wearing or not wearing a bathing suit. It’s about being comfortable.”
For Flicek, the possibility of missing a season is a double blow. The Oct. 29 hurricane flooded her apartment along the Shrewsbury River in Atlantic Highlands, ruining about half her belongings.
Sandy swept through Gateway National Recreation Area, established in 1972 to serve one of the most urban areas of the U.S. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, New York, where saltwater breached two freshwater ponds that are crucial to migrating birds, reopened Nov. 23. Parts of Great Kills Park on New York’s Staten Island, which lost a marina, are open to visitors.
Sandy caused $348 million in damage to 69 National Park Service properties, according to Mike Litterst, a spokesman. He didn’t have a breakdown of costs for Gateway.
The Park Service says it won’t allow activity on Sandy Hook until the area is safe. Technicians continue to probe for live explosives, possibly tossed from the ocean’s floor, that are remnants of Sandy Hook’s past as a U.S. Army proving ground and Cold War-era defense base.
“There’s no running water for toilets and no drinking water,” Yun said by phone Dec. 11. “There’s damage to some historic buildings, and sand displacement.”
Americans generally frown on public nudity, be it discreet breastfeeding or full-frontal frolicking, and what constitutes indecent exposure varies by local law. Foes around the country have closed nude beaches by arguing they have become spots for casual sex, littered with condoms and pornography.
In Florida, a state with more than 1,350 miles of sandy coast, South Beach tolerates toplessness, and Miami-Dade County maintains Haulover Beach as clothing-optional. In 2009, a California court upheld citations for exposure on beaches where it had been tolerated. In Massachusetts, nudity is banned at Cape Cod National Seashore, which is run by the same federal agency that operates Gateway National, home to Sandy Hook.
A 1999 New Jersey law led to a nudity ban on Higbee Beach in Lower Township, leaving Gunnison as the only legal alternative. Even Asbury Park, with a thriving gay and lesbian community that values tolerance, refused to consider a 2010 proposal to allow topless sunbathing, on the grounds of indecency.
Dale Distasio, 58, of Atlantic Highlands, predicts her first tan lines since before 1975, when the Gunnison crowd was “me and a bunch of foreign old men.”
“There’s so much freedom in coming out of the water and not sitting in a wet swimsuit,” she said by phone Dec. 11.
Distasio, who retired from a career in food sales, says most people have the wrong impression of socializing naked on the beach. She described Gunnison as a “neighborhood” of hippies, musicians, senior citizens, volleyball players, and nurses, doctors and other professionals.
“People say, ’Oh, Gunnison Beach, the sex beach,’” she said. “People think there’s all this hanky-panky. You can’t do anything on our beach that you can’t do on every other beach in New Jersey. The biggest misconception is there’s a lot of slap- and-tickle going on out there.”
Distasio said friends are stressed about the canceled Polar Bear Plunge, traditionally the first weekend after New Year’s Day, when 60 to 70 beachgoers skinny-dip in the near-freezing Atlantic Ocean.
“Nudists don’t relax until they get their clothes off,” Distasio said. “Being able to come out, be with their friends, unwind, get rid of their job for the weekend, so to speak.”
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