Chapter 10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

An Interview with Jimmy Buff, Executive Director at Radio Kingston/WKNY

Kings Park Psychiatric Center
Kings Park, NY

The fortress is foreboding, intimidating, and sparks terror in my bones. The tingles I so rarely feel in these abandoned spaces begin to quake before I even start my approach up the long, curved driveway to the first of (literally) hundreds of structures that sit vacant on nearly 500 acres of land. Buildings 41–43 are connected, creating one of the more notable ruins on the property. As I make my final ascent, I can’t help but think about Jimmy Buff (known to many as simply “Buff”), my boss at Radio Kingston/WKNY. He grew up near Kings Park, and he’s hinted that he’s got a treasure trove of stories about the infamous complex of decay and wonder.

Once I enter the crumbling palace, known to be haunted by the ghosts of patients past, my imagination goes hog wild. I listen to the screams billowing up and down the corridors, the clink-clank of medical equipment, the buzz of electricity. The sounds of pain and anguish are deafening. Phantoms pass in and out of the many rooms. As I drift among them, I can’t get Buff’s voice out of my head. “I used to sit outside the windows of the hospital and talk to residents.” I want to know more. I want to hear what Kings Park Psychiatric Center felt like prior to its closure in 1996.

Months later, I get the fortunate opportunity to chat with Buff all about Kings Park. He gets candid, opens up about deeply personal experiences surrounding the notorious campus, in a conversation wrought with a vulnerable atonement for the actions of his former self. It’s exhilarating, eye-opening — and creates more questions than it does answers.

BLAKE: How’s it going?

BUFF: Good!

BLAKE: Before we start, tell us a little bit about who you are.

BUFF: My name is Jimmy Buff. I’m the Executive Director at Radio Kingston. I also host an evening program called Jimmy Buff Loves You. It’s not called that because I’m blissed out on love every day but because I need to remind myself that I need to love everyone — because I’m not always in that headspace.

BLAKE: So radio is your bread and butter.

BUFF: I’ve been in radio for 36 years. I started very young and was fortunate to take my first job at the top-rated rock station in the country at the time, WNEW FM. I describe that experience as “learning the bible from the people who wrote it.” The first line of progressive FM DJs were my teachers. Long story short, I first wound up in Woodstock in the 1990s, bouncing back and forth to NYC at the time, then I went over to work at the first internet radio station, and wound up back at WDST FM from 2005–2017 as the Program Director, which led me to the opportunity to help create Radio Kingston back in 2017. Creating community radio is the most amazing thing. It’s messy, it’s all the things radio isn’t supposed to be — and is supposed to be, which is to say, an open-source platform for the voices of the community that it’s assigned to.

BLAKE: Ah — so a space for folks whose voices are often put to the side or undervalued. When All-American Ruins started to unfold, that idea came up a lot. I’d wander through these abandoned spaces and wonder, “What stories happened here? Why don’t I know about them?” It can be difficult to find documented evidence about these spaces because many aren’t considered to have any sort of “historical relevance.” When I visited Kings Park [Psychiatric Center] for the first time, I couldn’t believe how massive it was. I didn’t know anything about it. As such, I was flabbergasted when you shared your personal connection to it. I’m so interested to hear about your experience growing up near it. How did Kings Park happen to you?

BUFF: Long Island is 120 miles long, and Kings Park is not the only psychiatric hospital on the island. There’s Pilgrim State, the since-demolished Central Islip Psychiatric Center. I grew up very close to Kings Park, a child of the great suburban migration.

BLAKE: And for folks who don’t know what the great suburban migration is?

BUFF: It began after World War II. Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred built the first suburban neighborhoods in Levittown. They were affordable, pre-packaged houses, all identical, all on the same acreage plots. People were encouraged to move from New York City to the “wild” of Long Island. Returning service members from World War II took advantage of these opportunities — but they were only provided to white service people. The practice of redlining was written into the code of places like Levittown, which prevented people of color from purchasing property in suburban neighborhoods across the country. The idea of living in a city where crime “ran rampant” influenced folks to move farther and farther east on Long Island. My family moved to Happhogue, a town on the north shore of the island, as part of that migration.

BLAKE: So you were a teenager towards the tail-end of all that.

BUFF: Exactly. We were products of the time, when car culture was becoming very prevalent, especially for unevolved teenagers. Kings Park was a compelling place to go because even in the 1970s, it looked Dickensian. Foreboding, dark, and in our minds’ eye, it engendered rooms of torture or experimental brain equipment. And that’s what we’d riff on because you could hear people yelling through the open windows at the hospital. Our view of mental health back then mirrored the type of treatment going on at the time. Vastly different from how we view mental health now. For my first year and a half of high school, I went to an all-boy Franciscan Catholic school about two miles from Kings Park called St. Anthony’s. There are paths along the Nissequogue River that led straight to Kings Park, so we’d cut class and go hang out there.

BLAKE: Must’ve looked a lot different then than it does now.

BUFF: I remember when I went back in the mid-1990s right after it closed and felt amazed at that. What were they going to do with those structures? It’s a small city of highrises.

BLAKE: That might’ve been the biggest shock to me. From Google Maps, I didn’t realize the expansiveness. I didn’t even hit a tenth of what’s on that property. The surrounding neighborhood really seems to clash with “The Psych Center,” which I learned a lot of people back then called it.

BUFF: Yes. I don’t know what year Kings Park was built —

BLAKE: — first round of buildings opened in 1885.

BUFF: That makes sense. It was all potato farms out there. There was no year-round community at the time. As these neighborhoods began to sprout up around it, however, there was definitely a sense that having a psychiatric hospital in the vicinity wasn’t necessarily something to be desired. You always hear people worried about whether some external force is going to affect their property values or not. My guess is: it did.

BLAKE: Anywhere on Long Island, you can see economic patterns. Where the money was and where it wasn’t. Where it is, currently — and isn’t. I noticed the progression of “up-kept” buildings — getting closer and closer to Kings Park. What’s curious to me is the attempted beautification — Kings Park is now a city park. There’s something almost ironic about what it looks like now vs. what it was. Which reminds me: the first time we spoke about it, you said something about you talking to folks outside their windows?

BUFF: It wasn’t rooted in an honest intent to communicate. It was a curiosity — or worse, just teen angst poking at something. That’s being kind to myself and my friends at the time. I said to a friend of mine recently, “You know, I was funnier twenty years ago.” And he said, “Kinda makes you wonder why you thought that stuff was funny in the first place?” That’s exactly what I did. Because that stuff was “ok” to laugh at 20 years ago. Him saying that put all of that into perspective. We didn’t have the sensibility to think, “Oh, those are people who need connection. Maybe we can provide some.” We didn’t have the courage to openly mock people, but we sure did chuckle about it later. You hear, “Oh, those were different times.” You and I have talked about songs like that. There are songs I just won’t play now. They were written at a different time, and I choose not to play songs that have a certain effect on people.

BLAKE: How do you think the abandonment of Kings Park has had an impact on that community? Economically, culturally, politically, environmentally?

BUFF: I imagine it took hundreds and hundreds of people to staff the whole place. So: think about our area, for instance. When an employer like IBM pulls out, then there are all these jobs that are no longer there, and the people who live around there are all left to sort it out. I was just driving through Watertown, NY on my way to Canada. Their economy is built around the army base there, Fort Drum. We’ve seen army bases close in years past, in other parts of the country, and the devastation that has on the immediate community around them. I can’t imagine there are many people living in that area voting to cut the military budget. I would venture to say that the “pro-peace” movement isn’t —

BLAKE: Maybe not as prevalent up there.

BUFF: Then see how relational people’s experiences are to their belief system at that point. This is all to say: I’m sure it had to have had an effect on the community around Kings Park. I’ve been an avid trail runner for about 30 years or so. About ten years ago, I had this sudden urge to run the entirety of the green belt trails on Long Island, basically the whole perimeter. That trail runs directly through the grounds of Kings Park. When I did, all those memories we talked about a few minutes ago came flooding back. I was appropriately appalled at myself with some of the things we did there.

BLAKE: When I first started going to these spaces and poking about, the thing that came up for me the most was the idea that there are so many ghosts inside the walls of American ruins. I’m not talking about ethereal, paranormal stuff. I’m talking about literal stories that, for some reason, feel trapped inside. I keep going back because I feel like I have this responsibility to pry away at the walls and let those stories come out, even if I don’t know what they actually are. It feels like a way of respecting some of the economic, social, cultural, environmental disasters that’ve happened anywhere abandoned buildings exist. Plus, it excites my imagination. When we first connected on this topic of abandoned spaces, I saw how excited it made you. I wonder what it is for you about these spaces that peaks your interest?

BUFF: One of my earliest childhood memories is exploring an abandoned farmhouse with my father, near to where I grew up on Long Island. Now, on that lot sits a 14-story office building. At the time, there were still a lot of open patches of green. There was something so compelling to me about the fact that this place had once held life, held a family, and felt so very empty at that moment. I’ve always been attracted to those places I think perhaps because there is a touchstone to a nostalgia of my own past that, for a long time, I was trying to reconcile. At the same time, there’s a mystical aspect, a romantic aspect to it. Hearing you describe wanting to let those stories out — yeah! Understanding that there were stories. They are the places where lives have happened.

BLAKE: On the romantic aspect of it: when I first started going to these places, I did research on that feeling in the pit of my stomach that would happen when I was a kid, going to this abandoned dairy farm down the hill from my house. I couldn’t put a name to it. This one word came up in my research, not even an official word, is anemoia. The sensation of longing for a past that doesn’t belong to you. C.S. Lewis wrote about the idea of “sehnsucht,” sort of like vicarious nostalgia. When I go to a place like Kings Park, I know it’s impossible to find every single person’s story. But, I have the opportunity to explore these spaces and let my imagination run wild, which makes me feel like I am connecting to the people who once occupied it. And honor them. Even though I have no idea who they are.

BUFF: That’s an amazing thing to have nostalgia for a past that perhaps didn’t exist. My brothers and my late sister and I would trade stories of growing up. I would have no memory of something one of my siblings shared, something so vivid to them. James Hillman, a great American psychologist, wrote about this idea in his book The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life, that nostalgia is like a vacation for the mind.

BLAKE: It is. I feel like we’re living in a time right now where the mind is possibly the safest place for some people. I feel like, in the context of the country right now, these places represent a lot of touchpoints of where we’ve gone wrong as a society. Do you feel similarly?

BUFF: Yeah. What comes to mind is the HBO series The Newsroom with Jeff Daniels. In the opening scene, he’s on a panel, and he’s asked what makes America great. He says, “It’s not great.” He says, “We used to do things in this country.” Then he starts to wax nostalgic about an American past that was only true for white males. There’s this feeling in the country right now like something’s being taken right now — a way of life that never actually existed for most people here. It certainly didn’t and hasn’t existed for the historically excluded. There’s this, “You’re taking this — you’re taking my statues — you’re taking this all from me.” It feels like a theft of memory or nostalgia. But it really didn’t exist that way.

BLAKE: Thank you so much for joining me to chat about this stuff. It’s a blast for me to chat with people who understand the depths of why these places feel so important right now.

BUFF: I just hope I’m not the only person texting you pictures of a run-down-husk-of-a-place that you actually don’t wanna go to!

I suppose we’ll never know all of the stories nestled in the walls of buildings 41–43, buildings 93, 21, 17, and so many other of the All-American Ruins that make up the sizable ghost town once known as Kings Park Psychiatric Center. But getting to hear Buff’s version of events feels like a good start.

www.allamericanruins.com

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All-American Ruins

All-American Ruins

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