Free the Beach
May 21, 2018
May 21, 2018
20 Min read time
American beaches used to be common property. Now access to many of them is controlled by wealthy whites.
Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline, © 2018 by Andrew W. Kahrl. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.
It was a hazy summer afternoon in the August of 1975. To a passing boater, the throng of bathers crowded onto the small wedge of sand would have made for a jarring sight. For miles on either side of Hammonasset State Park stood nearly empty town and private beaches offering postcard-worthy images of seaside Connecticut. Meanwhile hundreds of people waited for the chance to spend a day on an overcrowded stretch of gravely sand furnished with dilapidated changing rooms because, in a state of over 3 million people and 253 miles of coastline, it was one of the few beaches open to the general public.
Making matters worse that day was a visit from the state’s Democratic governor, Ella Grasso, who was shadowed by a pool of reporters and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. The governor wanted to speak with regular folks about an issue of great concern: the severe shortage of publicly accessible beach space in the state. To show she cared, the governor took off her canvas shoes, rolled up her slacks, and waded out into the water for a photo op with a gaggle of children. Speaking to reporters afterward, Grasso made it known that no matter how great the demand or how stark the disparities in access, “town beaches are the property of towns” and “private beaches are private property.” And in Connecticut, “private property is inviolate.”
All along the Northeast corridor, seaside towns enacted policies or stealthily adopted practices aimed at limiting the ability of ‘undesirables’ to access public beaches, segregating shorelines by class and race.
For the old-monied homeowners of the state’s Gold Coast, these were reassuring words in troubling times. They served as a direct rebuke of Edward T. “Ned” Coll, a white liberal activist from Hartford who had, for the past five seasons, turned their beaches into battlefields. Throughout the summer, Coll often came unannounced to the private and public-in-name-only beaches that dotted the state’s shoreline—and he did not come alone, arriving in rented school buses filled with children and mothers from Hartford’s poor black community. Other times Coll’s group arrived by water, in rowboats and inflatable rafts. Once they even came by air, hiring a parachutist to descend onto a private beach from a plane that carried a banner reading “Free America’s Beaches.”
Coll was far from the only white liberal of this era to see places of outdoor recreation as having the potential to break down racial divisions and foster a more inclusive society. For over a half century, New York City’s Fresh Air Fund had been calling on wealthy white families with homes in the suburbs and rural areas to provide a vacation from urban life to underprivileged children. Like the Fresh Air Fund, Coll assumed that fresh air and open spaces offered something that black and brown youth were sorely lacking and in desperate need of.
But unlike the Fresh Air Fund, Coll believed that white Americans had as much to gain from spending time in urban black neighborhoods and in black families’ homes, getting to know fellow parents, bearing witness to their struggles and strivings, finding common humanity. And, in contrast to other organizations dedicated to facilitating interracial contact and exposure, he was not content to wait for well-meaning white families to volunteer their time. Instead, Coll decided to confront privileged white America directly and without warning. For that, Coll and his busloads of children were greeted with closed gates, slammed doors, and threats of arrest.
For the black and Puerto Rican mothers and children who accompanied Coll on these trips, it was an experience that remains etched in their memory. Four decades later, Earlie Powell still laughs when she thinks of the looks on white folks’ faces when she and dozens of children came ashore. She proudly recalls saying in response to their protests that the beach was private, “You don’t own this ocean! The ocean belongs to all of us.”
While this cri de coeur makes intuitive sense, connecting with a deeply American sensibility that the natural landscape is a public good, the legal question of who owns the beach is more complicated, the answer entwined with the long history of privileged white Americans finding ways to stay ahead of legal changes meant to desegregate and democratize public spaces.
• • •
For millennia, beaches have been considered public property. The legal principle of the public trust doctrine, which dates to the ancient Mediterranean world, has long held the seashore as public land. In 1892 the U.S. Supreme Court validated the public trust doctrine with its decision in Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, which ruled that land covered by tidal water belonged to the public, with the state acting as a trustee. States were obligated to maintain that trust and protect the public’s right to access the shore in perpetuity.
The earliest attempt to limit public access to the beach came in response to complaints about its use by the ‘colored help’ of white families on vacation.
Each state, however, marked the line separating public land from private property along the shore at a different spot—some drew the line at high tide, others at low tide, still others at the vegetation line—and devised different definitions of what constituted legitimate use of the public’s shore. Some states conceived of the public’s right to the shore in broad terms. Other states hewed closely to the public trust doctrine’s original intent. Massachusetts and Maine, for instance, held that the public’s right to the foreshore applied only to fishing and navigation; that private ownership extended down to the low-water line; and that the recreational use of private property was tantamount to an unconstitutional taking of private property. Connecticut drew the line between public and private property at the mean high-water mark, and its courts recognized swimming and recreation as legitimate uses of public trust lands.
While Connecticut’s supreme court upheld the public status of the foreshore, the actions of shoreline developers, backed by the state legislature, made it increasingly difficult for members of the public to enjoy their beach access rights. Beginning in the 1880s, wealthy families began building summer cottages along remote sections of shore in the state’s eastern half. In 1885 the state legislature granted a charter to a group of families who owned cottages in Old Saybrook. The charter gave the Fenwick Association the power to levy its own taxes and enact zoning restrictions. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other small groups of families successfully petitioned the state legislature for charters to form what came to be known as private beach associations. Many of these early beach associations formed as an expeditious way of meeting the basic needs of summer homeowners in remote, undeveloped areas lacking in basic infrastructure and services.
A developer named James Jay Smith saw that beach association charters could also serve as an instrument for manufacturing and preserving exclusivity. In 1909 Smith opened a real estate office in Old Saybrook and began buying up farmland and dense forested areas along the eastern half of the shore. With only a model for future development in hand, Smith petitioned the state legislature to grant special charters to imagined communities with evocative names such as Point O’ Woods, White Sand Beach, Cornfield Point, and Grove Beach.
With these charters, fortified by a host of deed and zoning restrictions and given concrete definition by a set of common, shared amenities and a form of private governance, Smith’s company marketed the ultimate luxury—a summer cottage by the sea—at a price affordable to many middle-class white families. Beach association charters contained strict regulations on housing construction and land use, prohibitions against commercial activities and a whole host of other “nuisances,” and exclusion of nonmembers from streets and land held in common by association members, including parks and, especially, the beach.
When African Americans did successfully challenge discriminatory beach access ordinances and practices, municipalities responded by privatizing public space.
Once chartered and populated, Smith’s beach associations had the power to perpetuate a certain identity and status. Like most homeowners’ associations formed in the first half of the twentieth century, deed restrictions explicitly forbade the sale of lots to blacks or Jews. Deeds in beach associations also contained provisions that owners of lots must be members of the affiliated beach club, with membership in the club determined by a board of governors. This provision helped to ensure that members could determine who could acquire property and become a part of a beach community and meant that most beach associations became closely associated with certain ethnic groups and religious denominations.
By 1930 privately held summer homes and lots accounted for over 60 percent of all recreation land in Connecticut, a total of 264,517 acres valued at over $130 million. A substantial portion of this acreage, and a majority of its total value, was concentrated along the western half of the Connecticut shoreline. Summer homes in Fairfield County alone accounted for over 50 percent of the total valuation of private recreational property in the state and a quarter of the total acreage. Fairfield County also accounted for nearly half of all yacht, boat, beach, and lake clubs in the state. Not coincidentally, Fairfield County also had, by a wide margin, the lowest percentage of total recreational land open to the public (6.1 percent) of any county in the state.
Here, along what came to be known as the Gold Coast, exclusion and exclusivity reigned over the land and shore, extending beyond private beach associations to include the public beaches of shoreline municipalities. By the mid-1920s, the portions of Fairfield County’s shoreline open to the public teemed with visitors during the summer months. Many were coming from the cities of Bridgeport and New Haven, where heavy industry hugged the shore, polluted the waters, and robbed the cities of any viable public beach space, or from Manhattan and the Bronx, also bereft of sandy shores and safe waters.
As private beach associations proliferated and the Northeast’s overall population swelled, less well-heeled shoreline residents worried that they would soon lose all access to the shoreline. “Unless something is done in the near future,” a resident of Madison fumed, “every foot of shore-front property will be gobbled up and there will be no more chance for the residents of a Shore Line town to go bathing than there is for those who dwell in inland communities—and that will be an outrage.” To protect what they had, shoreline residents worked to severely limit the accessibility of public beaches to the general public. In 1930 Westport passed an ordinance that restricted parking privileges along the beach to residents only. The following year, it enacted an outright ban on nonresident use of town beaches on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Three years later, Darien adopted an ordinance limiting parking privileges at the town’s beach to residents only. The ordinance, as its author explained, aimed to “effectively keep out all but residents and taxpayers of the town.”
By 1970 over 95 percent of the nation’s coastlines suitable for recreation were closed to the general public.
It was not only the number of visitors that residents of shoreline towns wanted to limit, but also the type. The earliest attempt by the residents of Madison to limit public access to the town’s beach, for instance, came in response to complaints about its use by the summer vacationing families’ “colored help,” who, local white residents charged, “congregate in large numbers, at times becoming boisterous to the annoyance of nearby cottage residents.”
All along the Northeast corridor, seaside towns enacted policies or stealthily adopted practices aimed at limiting the ability of “undesirables” to access public beaches, segregating shorelines by class and race. In the town of Long Branch, New Jersey, officials instituted a policy requiring beachgoers to first purchase a ticket that allowed them to access one of the town’s four beaches. Which beach they could enjoy was at the seller’s discretion. Without exception, African Americans received tickets for Beach 3 only. In Asbury Park, New Jersey, beach attendants permitted blacks to use only one heavily polluted section of the beach, where, one writer complained, they were “herded together like cattle” and forced to bathe “where the sewer is dumped into the ocean.” In most cases, segregation was enforced informally, through hostile treatment and black beachgoers’ desire to avoid an unpleasant experience. In Branford, Connecticut, the town’s small black population learned by word of mouth to avoid the public beach. As one black resident explained, “I heard they did everything possible to discourage Negroes from using it, and I see no sense in looking for trouble.”
When African Americans did successfully challenge discriminatory beach access ordinances and practices, municipalities responded by privatizing public space. In the late 1930s, NAACP attorneys Randal Tolliver and Leon Scott successfully sued Westchester County, New York, over its Jim Crow public beach policies. In the years that followed, the county steadily divested itself of places of public recreation. By 1960 six formerly public beaches had been turned into private clubs with restrictive access policies. Along the city of New Rochelle’s nine miles of waterfront, there were only two public beaches. City officials worked to keep it that way, actively thwarting efforts to convert undeveloped waterfront property into public beach space and instead rezoning it for private development.
By 1938 over 82 percent of all recreational land in the central and southwestern portions of Connecticut was privately owned. These developments in Connecticut reflected national trends. By 1967 the public could claim ownership of only 2 percent of the 59,157 miles of shoreline in the continental United States, over half of which was under military control and thus restricted. Of the 21,724 miles of U.S. shoreline that the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation classified as suitable for recreation, approximately 86 percent was under private control. By 1970 over 95 percent of the nation’s coastlines suitable for recreation were closed to the general public. “We are becoming a landlocked people,” Texas senator Ralph Yarborough warned in 1969, “fenced away from our own beautiful shores, unable to exercise the ancient right to enjoy our precious beaches.” The problem was most acute in the Northeast, where, the Department of Interior estimated, 97 percent of the region’s 5,912 miles of recreational shoreline was “inaccessible to the general public.”
Throughout the 1960s, scores of city beaches closed due to underfunding and pollution. Nationwide, cities emptied of white and wealthy residents struggled to maintain, much less expand, public recreation programs and facilities. Excluded by ordinance, distance, and absence of public transportation from suburban shores and lacking public places of their own, residents of underserved, low-income urban neighborhoods sought relief from the summer heat by surreptitiously turning on fire hydrants—which became a flashpoint of conflict with police—or by playing along the banks of dangerous, often polluted urban waterfronts, which resulted in a shocking number of drownings, most of them children. When the Kerner Commission released its report on urban violence in 1968, it listed the absence of safe, healthy, and attractive places of play high among the grievances of residents of neighborhoods that experienced civil unrest.
This was how Jim Crow worked in the Northeast, through ostensibly color-blind and race-neutral land-use regulations and the privatization of public space.
Beneficiaries of unprecedented levels of federal and state funding for outdoor recreation over the previous decades, the predominantly white suburbs of the Northeast responded to the mounting unrest of urban black populations by further tightening restrictions on access to public spaces in the suburbs, especially public beaches. In the suburbs of Long Island and Connecticut’s Gold Coast, restrictive beach ordinances proliferated in the 1960s. “It has become virtually impossible for a city-dweller to venture into the suburbs and find an inexpensive, pleasant place to swim, sun, or relax within a single day’s drive,” the New York Times reported in 1972. “For hundreds of thousands of sweltering New Yorkers . . . the experience is a little like being trapped in a desert in the middle of an oasis.” Exclusionary ordinances ranged from the blatant (outright denial of access to nonresidents) to the thinly veiled (exorbitant beach access fees for nonresidents) to the subtle (limited parking or bans on street parking and bans on the wearing of swimwear on town streets or eating on the beach).
It was no secret whom these towns were seeking to keep out, but the ordinances and laws were carefully written to avoid mention of race. This was how Jim Crow had long worked in the Northeast, through ostensibly color-blind and race-neutral land-use regulations and the privatization (in fact if not in name) of public space, all of it cloaked in the region’s “tradition” of privileging private property rights, local autonomy, and “home rule.” It proved to be a sturdy foundation. As the civil rights movement fought to dismantle apartheid in America, these forms of segregation proved hard to undo.
• • •
In the end, Coll’s attempts to democratize Connecticut’s beaches—though they grabbed the nation’s attention and righteously afflicted wealthy homeowners—met with little success. As it became clear that Connecticut lacked the political will to better serve its underprivileged citizens, Coll, always a wild card, became increasingly unpredictable, his childhood epilepsy worsening to the point of impacting his mental health. In an attempt to combat Hartford’s drug epidemic, Coll began rushing into buildings to insert himself belligerently into the middle of drug deals. During a particularly heated community meeting, Coll threw punches as other community organizers. By the early nineties, Coll’s political capital and community goodwill were gone.
‘We are becoming a landlocked people, fenced away from our own beautiful shores, unable to exercise the ancient right to enjoy our precious beaches.’
It would take the efforts of a Stamford resident and Rutgers law student named Brenden Leydon to achieve what Coll could not. In the winter of 1994, Leydon and a friend had begun running a route through Stamford and onto Greenwich’s Tod’s Point and back. But the first time the pair went on a jog during the beach season, a seasonal guard stopped the two nonresidents, interrogated them, and ordered them to leave. Leydon ended up suing the town of Greenwich. Leydon’s case, in which an erratic Coll would testify, eventually went to Connecticut’s supreme court. To the surprise of all, in 2001 the court ruled that municipal parks are held in trust “for the general public and not solely for use by the residents of the municipality” and as such, Greenwich was “required to allow state residents the same access to its public beaches and public parks as it offers to its residents.” It was, on its surface, a mighty blow to municipalities’ restrictive beach access policies.
However, in practical terms little has changed in the years since the ruling. The beaches in the state’s wealthiest communities remain as inaccessible as ever, as municipalities have deployed a host of subtle instruments of exclusion. In Greenwich, residents can purchase season beach passes and process numerous other transactions online. Nonresidents, however, must still purchase single-entry passes in person at one of two locations in town, both located far from the beach, neither of which is open on weekends. Madison still sells season passes only to residents and taxpayers, while charging nonresidents twenty-five dollars to park on Mondays through Thursdays and forty dollars on Fridays through Sundays and holidays. In Westport, it costs nonresidents thirty dollars to park at Compo Beach on weekdays and fifty dollars on weekends and holidays. Out-of-towners seeking to use the beach find themselves forced to fork over outrageous parking fees because towns have removed or severely limited the availability of street parking near the beach. At Groton’s Eastern Point Beach, the closest public parking space is a quarter mile from the beach, with a one-hour time limit.
Hostility to the public remains a defining feature of private beach associations’ political culture. “You look at these people,” one longtime homeowner in the exclusive summer beach community of Groton Long Point commented, “and you know, they’re not Groton Long Point [members]. . . . [They]’re not the type who lives here. . . . I don’t want to sound discriminatory, but it’s just deeded and it’s private.”
Since 1977, no state has experienced a greater increase in income inequality than Connecticut. Today, those in the state’s top 1 percent earn 51 times more than those in its bottom 99 percent. Much of that wealth (as well as a significant portion of the poverty) is concentrated in southwestern Connecticut. Home to the Gold Coast as well as the deeply impoverished city of Bridgeport, this metro area has the widest income gap of any in the nation. If it were a country, it would be ranked the fourteenth most unequal spot on the planet, just behind Brazil. “To walk down Bridgeport’s deserted Main Street, with its boarded up stores and hard-luck hotels, and then stroll down Greenwich Avenue later that day,” reporter Michael Moran remarked, “is to experience different planets.” “I don’t think of it at all,” one Greenwich resident said of Bridgeport. “I don’t think I’ve ever even met someone from there.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting tribute to the tireless efforts of Gold Coast residents over the previous decades to seclude themselves from the poor, both in places of residence and places of public congregation.
The beach access battles that once consumed the town and, to its critics, exemplified Greenwich’s elitism barely register with a swelling class of super rich who, almost without exception, belong to private country clubs and send their children to private schools. Indeed, few of Greenwich’s new residents would ever be caught on one of the town’s public beaches. “The rich in Greenwich care little about the public goods that they rarely utilize,” the author of a study of the impact of the hedge fund economy on Greenwich’s social structure commented. They see “[t]he public facilities, services and even public places . . . [as] their charitable giving to the town in the form of local taxation.” As the elite segregate themselves from the merely well-to-do, the town’s middle- and upper-middle-class residents have become more class conscious and more determined to distance and differentiate themselves from the working poor.
Public spaces have, throughout U.S. history, rarely been truly public—thereby failing to live up to their democratic promise.
While the “whites only” signs that once littered the U.S. landscape are gone, the instruments of segregation used in mid- to late twentieth-century Connecticut and throughout the Northeast—and the culture of exclusion that inspired and sustained it—are still very much in operation today. Over the past several decades, as declining tax revenues forced cities to close public parks, playgrounds, beaches, and swimming pools that offered low-income families affordable places of recreation, exclusive municipalities introduced new residency requirements and privatized formerly public spaces. As they did, they followed Connecticut’s lead and emulated its model for racial and fiscal segregation. Nowhere is the state’s influence on today’s “separate and unequal” United States more evident than in the gated communities and private homeowners’ associations that have become a common feature of upper-class neighborhoods and vacation destinations across the nation. These places have rightfully come to symbolize economic stratification and class segregation in this, our Second Gilded Age.
These trends hold ominous implications for the future of U.S. democracy. Indeed, public space plays an essential role in a democratic society. Such spaces are, in theory, places where people of different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and income levels come into contact with each other in what legal scholar Gerald Frug calls “fortuitous association.” They counteract the tendencies toward balkanization and parochialism that private venues foster and stand as a check on the dominance of the wealthy over political discourse in the United States. In an age when personal wealth closely correlates with political influence, public spaces afford marginalized voices in society places where they can go and be heard, where dissident views can be aired and nonconformist lifestyles can be expressed freely, and where a diverse nation can engage in the hard work of becoming a diverse society. That public spaces have, throughout U.S. history, rarely been truly public and, as a result, have often failed to live up to their promise, should not render their steady disappearance any less alarming.
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May 21, 2018
20 Min read time