Chapter 9: The King of Letchworth Village
Cedar Springs was often the butt of a joke.
If you misbehaved, your parents might threaten in jest: “Keep it up, and we’re gonna put you in Cedar Springs.”
If you had an unreasonable crush on someone, your friends might say: “Let it go, or you’re gonna wind up in Cedar Springs.”
If you wore an eccentric outfit to school, you might hear a whisper: “Look who’s bound for Cedar Springs.”
Because it was the only psychiatric hospital in my hometown Colorado Springs, you were bound to make and/or hear a comedic reference to Cedar Springs at least once. My childhood crossed the late ’90s into the early 2000s, well before mental health awareness became a national discussion. I struggled in a silo with my own undiagnosed mental health issues, as did many of my friends. If mental health ever was discussed, it was done in hushed tones, out of the spotlight.
Growing up, my family often tried to play the game of keeping up appearances (until my parents got divorced and we stopped caring about seeming picture-perfect). I often felt trepidation when it came to expressing my strange bouts of unforeseen darkness to my parents. They weren’t unavailable by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, my parents have always rushed to my aid whenever I’m in a crisis. Back then, however, I didn’t know how to communicate my internal struggles; I didn’t want to disturb the peace. My typical sunny disposition could become clouded out of nowhere, a possession of sorts. It started in 2002, during puberty. I began to navigate the day-to-day by the skin of my teeth as dark and dangerous thoughts shot rapid-fire through my head. Bullet after bullet of insidious ammunition popping off without warning, darkening the skies until they became blue again, usually after a couple of days. I think I knew, at least subconsciously, that my parents were aware of my struggles, but that didn’t make it easier to talk about. I didn’t know how. Naturally, this shifted with age, and by the time I was in college, I was far more capable of opening up to my parents about what was going on with me mentally and emotionally.
Still, I kept many of these internal battles to myself, dipping my toe into therapy a few times, even once successfully keeping the same therapist for about two years — but the throws of addiction prevented me from ever seeking real, sustainable help. It wasn’t until my mid-20s when I admitted powerlessness over my addictions and began to get a handle on them — and their roots. Even after getting sober, it took me almost seven years to finally come to terms with the fact that something was off. I no longer had to feel ashamed of and started to talk about my mental health openly, actively seeking treatment. I didn’t have to worry that I’d hear some asshole mutter, “I heard that guy lives at Cedar Springs.” I started to consider my options, got a psychiatrist, and opened up to the possibility of medication. It took 18 years, but in 2020 I was finally able to start healing. It was no longer an option to ignore the truth.
We’re fortunate to live in an era when the global consciousness is awakening to the grim reality of an international mental health crisis. Part of my own healing journey was learning that I’m not alone, that millions of people also have to traverse the daily struggles of complicated emotional and mental landscapes. The history of mental health, especially the past 100 years, is fascinating and layered. As the concept of mental health has evolved so has science. No longer are the days of inhumane psychiatric institutions. While every town has a Cedar Springs, many of them have been closed completely, only the shells of the buildings remaining, serving as reminders of the horrors of the past and how far we’ve come.
I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of exploring an abandoned mental health facility. Maybe it’s the macabre in me, my deep love of horror. Back in the spring of 2020, when I reconnected to a lifelong fascination with All-American Ruins and started to research potential spaces to visit, at the top of my list was the hope of finding an abandoned asylum. Imagine my surprise when several results populated within a 100-mile radius of my home. Many of the ones still standing seemed appealing: Kings Park on Long Island, Willowbrook on Staten Island, Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in Middletown.
However, the one location that I kept coming back to was Letchworth Village.
The incline is long. As I pull into the parking lot, I’m instantly confused: there are only two abandoned structures, both boarded-up. I look down at Google Maps and wonder if I’m in the right place. I study the map, get out of my car, begin to walk, and immediately realize my mistake. There are several buildings in the distance, all located on one giant circular driveway, looping around about half a mile of land.
I quickly realize that Letchworth Village has been converted into a public park. Many of the buildings are locked, some poorly fenced off, others wide open, no “NO TRESPASSING” signs in sight. I begin to walk the perimeter and wonder if I’ll be able to access any of the buildings, having seen the insides of some in photographs online.
I wrap around the first building on my left which appears to be a dormitory of some sort. As I round the corner a magic spark passes through my skull, creating a tidal wave of electricity that ripples across the park. My imagination kicks into overdrive, and I’m back in time. It looks like I’ve landed somewhere in the 1970s. The massive sprawl of Letchworth Village is crawling with patients, spirits wandering around the property aimlessly, nowhere to go.
Letchworth operated from 1911 to 1996. In its heyday, it boasted over 130 buildings, its own functioning town, with decades of reputation revolving around rumors of unsanitary, abusive, and dangerously overcrowded conditions. Together with the infamous Willowbrook State School, Letchworth Village entered the national spotlight in 1972 after Geraldo Rivera produced a news segment about the reprehensible state of affairs at both institutions. Bobby Kennedy had already sparked a public crusade against Willowbrook in 1966, notoriously comparing the conditions at the institution to a “snake pit.” But public pressure only mounted substantially after the WABC broadcast of Rivera’s Peabody Award-winning piece. Sadly, reports of abuse and neglect dated back to the early 1920s; by the time Rivera produced the segment, it was too late. In 1996, the juggernaut of Letchworth Village closed completely.
It’s sunny and cold, a few days after Christmas. The afternoon sky massages my skin, reflecting my own sense of personal freedom, a fortunate opportunity to once again safely put on my explorer’s hat as the pandemic enters its third deadly wave. During the first few months of the pandemic, the word “prisoner” often bounced around in my head. However, my privilege preceded me: I was no prisoner. I had 1,100 square feet to myself, food, a warm bed, technology to communicate with loved ones and work, income, access to nature, and a variety of options to stay engaged with life on the outside. Though I had to wind through my own mental health experience, I know nothing of the pain that the pandemic has brought to so many people.
I am reminded of this as I scale a busted chain link fence on the backside of what I learn is a central medical office. Through the windows I can see clumsily-hung holiday decorations. I enter a back door that says “Free Candy.” I’ve just passed the threshold into the crumbling building when a voice whispers in my ear: “It’s all for show.” I scream, run down an empty hallway, and land behind a wall. I catch my breath for a moment then slowly peek out to see a young man in his late 20s/early 30s staring back at me, about 50 paces away. We gawk at each other for a moment, then I hear him say, as if he’s right next to me, “Don’t worry. I won’t bite you. Yet.”
He winks. My stomach turns right-side-up again. I begin a slow approach back, inching closer and closer, and start to question him.
Who are you? What are you doing here?
“I should ask you the same question,” he claps back with a laugh. I’m within a few feet of his short (we’re the exact same height), pale body when he extends his hand. “Exactly as I said: it’s all for show. Geraldo Rivera will be here in an hour, and they’re worried.” He points to the holiday decorations. “Those haven’t been up all season. Christmas was three days ago; they tacked those up this morning.” Staring at the shoddy lights and mistletoe, I realize it’s 1972, and I’m here on the day Rivera and his film crew have come to expose the Village.
“I’m Carl,” my new friend chuckles.
“Want a tour?” he giggles.
You have time?
He laughs again, something I come to discover Carl does a lot. “Buddy, that’s all we got here. Come on.”
He turns and begins down a dark hallway. “Better turn on that little light of yours,” he scoffs. I glance down and see I’m carrying a clunky old flashlight. “You’re gonna need it.” I flick the switch and begin to follow Carl. We pass by exam rooms, some of which still contain ancient equipment. It looks painful. I go to ask what each of the machines do, but Carl beats me to it, almost as if he’s reading my mind. “Don’t ask ’cause I don’t know.” Large shelves covered in art supplies gather dust, lining the walls in a few of the rooms. Ice clings to the ceiling in most of them, the sound of dripping water igniting an eerie sensation that travels down my spine.
I’m glad I have a new friend to show me around.
“Friend, huh?” Carl remarks cheekily. We walk into one of the larger rooms, and I notice that it’s packed to the brim with afternoon light. I run my hands along the brick walls: the construction quality is pitch-perfect, not like anything you’d see nowadays, shoddy, incomplete, and cheap, with a lackluster assembly.
Are we going to get in trouble?
“No. Look at yourself,” Carl mutters. I look down at my chest. I’m decked out head to toe in a patient uniform, a simple cream-colored gown and trousers. I look like Carl. “See? You’re fine. They don’t know who half of us are anyway.” I glance back down at my outfit and run my palm over the coarse material. It doesn’t feel very good.
We proceed to a small bathroom at the back of the room. It’s big enough for one person. I ask why there are two doors. “If the patients revolt, silly,” Carl chides. “The attending doctor will have somewhere to run.” The sink is tiny. I go to wash my hands, but the faucet won’t turn on. “Don’t bother. Half the plumbing here doesn’t work.”
Carl motions for me to follow him out of the bathroom and down another dark hallway. We pass a staircase, and I ask Carl if we can go upstairs. “Those are caving in,” he sighs. “Unless you want to get caught and wind up here forever.” We enter a larger bathroom at the end of the hallway. The only sink is in the back corner, but it’s fallen off the wall. “Theo had a meltdown,” Carl laughs. A tilted painting of a King of Spades rests directly on the brick.
What happened to Theo?
“Nobody knows,” Carl states solemnly as we continue down the hall. I go to take a sip of water from a nearby drinking fountain, but Carl grabs my arm. “Don’t,” he warns sternly. “You don’t know whose mouth has sloshed all over that thing.” He brings me into an old office, and I see a lamp on the large metal desk that’s wedged between two brick walls. I approach with caution and see a case file open on the desk. While Carl begins to rummage through a filing cabinet, I turn on the lamp and look at the case file.
It’s Carl’s. I stare down the page, touching the paper softly. Scribbled on the case file are two sections: Primary Affective Disorder under which just one word, Depression, is written, and Secondary Affective Disorder, which has a whole slew of words underneath it: Anxiety neurosis, Antisocial personality disorder, Alcoholism. I go to turn the page, but Carl’s hand grabs mine and yanks it away. “You know as well as I do that none of that’s accurate,” he sneers. “It’s 1972. If it was 2020, that paper would only say one thing: cyclothymic personality disorder. Just like you.”
Just like me?
Confused, I cock my head at Carl as he takes my hand in his and leads me out of the building. What the hell is he talking about? It won’t be until months later that I learn that Carl is right when my psychiatrist confidently assigns a diagnosis: cyclothymic personality disorder. It’s on the bipolar spectrum. I’m immediately put on medication, and it changes my life. At the time of my diagnosis in May of 2021, I feel relieved that my symptoms have a name — and a solution.
Carl isn’t so lucky. “I’m stuck here because nobody knows how to handle my behavior,” Carl laments. “I’m working hard to show them I’m better. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I can leave…” His words trail off as we exit the back of the building. I can hear the sadness in his voice as my eyes come upon a mountain of gravel and a small red chair pushed up against the building. I stop and look back and forth between the two. “What are you thinking?” Carl asks.
Come here for a sec.
“Why?” he demands.
I walk over the red chair, grab it, and begin to climb the gravel hill.
“I asked you, ‘Why?’” Carl repeats.
I plop the chair on the top of the mound.
Because. I want a portrait of the King of Letchworth Village.
Carl stares at me for a moment before a small grin forms on his face. “The King of Letchworth Village,” he clucks. “I like the sound of that.” Without instruction or hesitation, Carl climbs the hill and sits down in the chair.
3, 2, 1, click.
I stare at the image. It’s cute, but I’m determined to get a better shot. I know sunset is at 4:33 PM, so I keep it in mind and show Carl his portrait. He seems pleased. “I look so regal,” he laughs. “The King of Letchworth Village.”
We proceed to our next destination, the cafeteria. “Hungry?” Carl chortles as we steer towards a loading dock. I notice a yellow plastic chair parked up against a wall and remind myself to come back here with Carl.
We duck under a dented door that has “HELL” spray-painted on it.
Once we’re inside, I immediately cover my nose: it smells like an elementary school mess hall, the scent of highly processed foods reheated in large batches by industrial-grade microwaves and slopped onto cheap trays down an assembly line of malnourishment. I spot an exit sign at the back of the joint, taking stock of the tacky pink and gray curtains that line several of the windows and shield the room from natural light. The irritating sound of forks grinding up against plastic fills my ears.
I want to get the hell out of here.
“We can go,” Carl bursts out laughing. “Just thought you might want a taste of life on the inside.” We exit through the front door and hop down a few steps to a walkway leading up to another dormitory. “That’s where I live,” Carl points as we climb, holding onto a long, metal handrail. We walk past old benches and a basketball court. I can hear balls being lazily dribbled by orderlies on their break.
We reach the dormitory and sneak in. Inside, I’m faced with a lengthy, makeshift hallway, created by using the backsides of cheap furniture that sits in each “room.” Every “room” is occupied by two patients, and nobody has any privacy. It’s just one giant open space.
“They like to keep a close watch on us while we sleep. Make sure nobody gets up to any funny business.” We tiptoe into Carl’s “room.” He has a Z100 sticker pasted on his blue closet door, which sends a shockwave through my fantasy because Z100 didn’t come on the airwaves (100.3 FM) until the early ’80s. Carl acknowledges my confusion. “You think you’re the only one who’s been here?” he questions, inferring that other time travelers have also passed through here before.
We leave his room behind and pass by a washing machine that’s been tipped over. “My old roommate Joel,” he whispers quietly. “He didn’t want to transfer to the Big House and put up a fight.”
The Big House?
I go to ask but realize I don’t need to. It seems like “The Big House” scares Carl. We poke our heads into a small kitchen. One wall is covered by lockers. I hear a faint siren in the distance as I look down and see Joel’s empty locker, his name tag still intact. I touch it and feel his heartbeat through the cool metal and paper adhesive. Pulse — pulse — pulse. Steady. Centered. I allow it to steady and center me too.
We meander deeper into the building and pass under a portico into a large white room right in the center of the dormitory. It’s a joint that connects all of the rooms in this stately place. Paint peels off the ceiling like the final days of a sunburn. I look up at a gorgeous, ornate octagonal skylight hovering over us. “This is my favorite place in the entire village,” Carl offers softly. “I always know that I can come here and get a little bit of light. A little bit of serenity.”
I know that feeling. That’s why I come to places like this. A little bit of light, a little bit of serenity.
We stand there and stare up at the dusty window panes. I hear a plane sputter, up above somewhere, deep in the corner of the sky. We depart the dormitory and continue through a field towards a unique stone building, some 200 paces away. On the way, we pass by a giant building in the distance, the biggest one I’ve seen yet. Four stories, foreboding. I feel anxiety mount up my spine, and my nervous system growls. “The Big House,” Carl nods. I say nothing.
We reach the unique stone building. It’s a synagogue. “I’m not religious,” Carl says as we hop through a broken window on the side of the building. “But I come here to meditate. It’s the only place you’re guaranteed quiet.” Once inside, I approach the lectern at the front of the tiny sanctuary. The Torah is nowhere to be found, but several pieces of paper from previous services are scattered on top of the lectern. I peer out into the empty room. The stained glass windows grant access to a small shimmer of light, and I realize it’s nearing sunset.
Come on. I grab Carl’s hand and pull him along. “What for?” We hurry across the campus, back to the yellow chair. I instruct him to sit. “Again?” he rebukes.
Just do it.
He does. The streamlines of jets flying overhead seem to shoot out of the setting sun. I take stock of my landscape and clock the word “SHELTER” painted on the side of the building with an arrow that seems to be pointing directly at Carl. Light bursts across a brilliant, dark periwinkle sky. I center Carl in the frame, sitting there, so full of life, so comfortable in his own skin. I admire him, his disposition.
3, 2, 1, click.
Carl vanishes. I look up.
I look around. All of the ghosts have disappeared, evaporated into thin air.
But — I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I stutter, holding back tears.
The silence of winter swirls around me. I hear a train in the distance. The sun continues to settle behind the horizon, so I set up my camera one last time, to fly, to try and see if I can find Carl, ascending the madness of my own personal mental health struggles. I offer gratitude that my war with mental health has never been compounded by cruel humor, the butt of jokes, a Cedar Springs punchline, an archaic, lifeless existence at Letchworth Village, forgotten and alone.
Just like you.
I smile. Carl’s voice echoes in my mind as I prepare to jump.
Just like you.
I feel seen, less isolated, less afraid. Carl, the King of Letchworth Village, showed me that today.
Just like you.