Letchworth Village was built specifically for "the segregation of the feeble-minded" over a century ago. It currently rots on roughly 2,000 sylvan acres in Rockland County, New York, about an hour's drive north of Manhattan. Shuttered in 1996, the mammoth decay of the former custodial asylum makes it seem like it's been closed two or three times as long. Vines and branches choke the many battered neoclassical buildings, nearly obscuring some from view. Inside, sickly colors of lead paint slough off walls redecorated with graffiti, while the tile floors are covered in broken glass, rubble from collapsing ceilings, and a host of detritus left behind by former residents and staff or subsequent interlopers. In its brokenness, Letchworth aptly reflects the horror show it became—the rampant neglect and mistreatment of the intellectually and developmentally disabled and the mentally ill.
It was Geraldo Rivera who took millions of TV viewers inside Letchworth as part of his unflinching, award-winning 1972 expose "Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace," which is as disturbing a watch now as it was 45 years ago. In it, children lie naked on the floor in their own feces and moaning. Adults wedge together in rooms with no one to care for them. There's a pained incredulity in the voice and face of late Bronx congressman Mario Biaggi as he tells Geraldo during a tour of the facility, "Inside we have housed the children of many of our citizens who are subjected to what appears to be the worst possible conditions I've ever seen in my life. I've visited penal institutions all over the country, I've visited hospitals all over the country, I've visited the worst brigs in the military… I've never seen anything like (this)."
As such, "Willowbrook" nudged public sentiment even further toward "deinstitutionalization" of the disabled and mentally ill back to their families or to smaller, community-based facilities—a process that began in the 1950s with the advent of new medications and approaches to treatment and was fervently championed by President John F. Kennedy before coming to full fruition in the 80s and 90s.
As far as abandoned asylums go, Letchworth is fairly unique. Many other similar facilities are fenced in and heavily patrolled by security to keep out squatters, vandals, and curious urban explorers. Others have been demolished or have been repurposed—including the bullshit "Pennhurst Asylum" haunted house attraction at the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital in southeastern Pennsylvania, which baldly exploits its harrowing history of abuse for Halloween thrills and paints former residents as monsters to be feared. Letchworth Village, however, is essentially a park where you can freely stroll the grounds (it's very popular with dog walkers), and while you're not really supposed to go inside the structurally unsound buildings, there's no one on the premises to insure you don't. Owned by the town of Haverstraw, a few Letchworth structures were turned into a school some years back, but most are too far gone to rehab and too expensive to demolish. So it rots in full view of anyone who cares to go and see.
Follow Michael Goldberg on Twitter.