Westport has made the New York Times again.
This time, it’s in an opinion column by Andrew W. Kahrl. He’s a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of “Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline.”
But his reference to our town is not from the 1960s and ’70s, when Greenwich and other suburban towns famously excluded non-residents from their shores.
Writing yesterday in a piece titled “Who Will Get to Swim This Summer?” — with the subhead “History is repeating itself as pools, beaches and clubs open — but mostly for the privileged few” — he says:
In the summer of 1929, residents of the town of Westport along Connecticut’s Gold Coast reported a “new menace” threatening the health and safety of their community: New Yorkers fleeing the squalid, scorching city and flocking to a new state beach located on neighboring Sherwood Island. Because it was state-owned land, all the residents could do, one reporter noted, was “to make access as difficult as possible.” Which they did.
Westport officials hired a contractor to dredge a creek and flood the road connecting the state beach to the mainland. The move, one state official said, “will effectively prevent visitors from reaching the state property.” Westport officials insisted that they were simply seeking to eliminate a mosquito breeding ground — but as another state official remarked, “the real object is to keep the people off state property.”
The people in question were the “unwashed masses” from neighboring cities: the blacks, Jews, Italians and others denied membership to country clubs, who had few options for summertime relief. As America slipped deeper into the Great Depression, the nation’s swelling homeless population was added to the list. A state park, one resident decried, “would be an invitation to the scum.” Sherwood Island, another bemoaned, “looks like a gypsy camp and new tents are being erected every day.”
While Westport’s residents privately fumed over the park’s impact on the area’s property values, in public hearings they claimed to be concerned solely about the park’s purportedly unsanitary conditions. It was no coincidence that during these same years, several towns along Connecticut’s Gold Coast first adopted ordinances restricting access to town beaches and other places of outdoor recreation to residents only.
Westport has followed the lead of many municipalities in the tri-state area in banning out-of-towners — wherever they live — from parking at local beaches.
Public health experts agree that so long as people take precautions, outdoor activities are not only safe but also necessary for coping with the stress of the pandemic. But the exclusionary tactics of privileged communities and cost-cutting measures of underresourced ones this summer will force many Americans to suffer inside or seek out unsupervised, potentially dangerous bodies of water to cool off. And it’s not hard to imagine that pools and beaches with restricted access could become flash points of conflict with law enforcement officials, endangering black and brown youth.
It’s simple, really. Our ability to find relief from the heat, and to enjoy time outdoors this summer, should not be determined by where we live and the social and economic advantages we enjoy.
(To read the full New York Times column, click here.)