Beach Access Back In The News

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.”

Shewood Island State Park: 232 acres of prime real estate, right here in Westport.

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.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Kahrl concludes:

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.)

20 responses to “Beach Access Back In The News

  1. Westport does not ban out of towners..Anybody can walk, bicycle, jog, swim, boat, taxi, uber or parachute into the beach(s)..They do however charge to park a vehicle. It’s been that way as far back as I can remember.

    • You’re right, Dave, of course. I should have written “banned from parking.” I’ll change the story now, to reflect that. Thank you!

  2. I agree with Dave. And, Sherwood Island has its own exit off I-95. In state residents park for free. Out of state pays per car. So what is the point??

  3. Ciara Webster

    Dan,
    Andrew does not know what he is talking about, this town welcomes out of towners, they simply have to pay a fee.
    I see nothing wrong with this. Residents taxes go toward beach upkeep. Non residents need to share in those costs.
    Also this year with Covid-19 and the social distancing restrictions, there is not room on the local beaches even just for the locals.
    While I’m not being exclusionary, as a tax payer, I do feel that Unquestionably residents have a right to access the very beaches our taxes pay to maintain.
    I’m quite sure that Andrew does not care about this fact as he is using his story to his own points advantage !
    Look if we were talking about beach access being restricted by race or color we would all be up in arms.
    But we are not ! Out of towners either pay a fee or go elsewhere.. absolutely and utterly fair imho

  4. Joyce Barnhart

    There is a beach in Ft. Myers, Florida called Bunche Beach, open to all and a favorite spot for birdwatchers. I thought it was special that the beach was named after Ralph Bunche, that prominent black man who, among many other accomplishments, won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. (An aside for New Yorkers – He lived in Kew Gardens for the last years of his life.) With my northern sensibilities, I was a little surprised to learn that Bunche Beach had been the “Negro” beach during segregation.

  5. I agree with all of the previous comments, but hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good story.

  6. Arline Gertzoff

    Nobody has to pay to use the beach .As others have said the charge is for parking.
    The current restrictions are in place for town residents as well.
    One even has to pay except for a very few minutes to visit someone at the hospital unless they have changed it again
    Sherwood Island parking fee is included in CT car registration .
    A very one sided article

  7. C. Cummiskey

    I think the rise in the daily fee to access Compo Beach is extremely unfortunate, separatist, and unkind. For years it was twenty or twenty five dollars for a car for the day. We are privileged to live in a beautiful area – Fairfield County- and should remember that we could so easily be living in less beautiful circumstances. Time to share. You will notice that we currently reside in Redding but we were many years residents of Weston who bought annual beach passes and paid our way. True – Sherwood Island Park is quite nearly and accessible, but it’s the feeling of division around Compo that bothers me.

  8. ANYONE can park at the commuter/train parking lot and take an UBER to the beach to get dropped off at the beach for no entrance fee, with no restrictions on crowd numbers. Apparently this idea has caught on for anyone to see who drives by these lots, especially on weekends, and sees them packed with cars with out of state license plates.

    • C. Cummiskey: Those “less beautiful circumstances” to which you refer, could easily be achieved right here in Fairfield County if all the beautiful, uncrowded spaces were, with no cost, available to all who would come. Let’s for Christ’s sake, not proselytize to turn our living space into the crowded,
      unsavory places from which most suburbanites come.

  9. Debbie O'Malley

    Echoing other comments, people can come to the beach, they just need to pay for parking if they come in a car. I pay a marginal fee each year for a pass to bring my car too, so I see nothing unfair there. And in this extraordinary year, where capacity is being limited, there is not even enough room for residents on popular days.
    We don’t live here and other people there through some sort of lottery… we chose to live here, and do pay taxes to maintain the nice facilities of the town. When I go to the city, do I wish I still had an apartment there to drop my bags/briefcase and rest, or crash after a night out instead of having to schlep on the train? Absolutely! But i chose to leave there and come here. I don’t begrudge the city residents the fact that they have those things and I don’t, because I live where I live and they live where they live.
    I am more than willing to share when there is a reasonable amount to go around… but for this author to try and create friction here when we are worried about both scarcity and beach restrictions due to health risks, seems they are just trying to stir the pot.

  10. Hope Hageman

    Andrew Kahrl’s op-ed piece in today’s NYT is indeed somewhat misleading in that he never mentions Compo Beach and the Town of Westport’s current j policies. He instead uses a shameful period in Westport’s history, the long and painful struggle of Sherwood Island to become a state park, to bolster contentions which no longer apply to Westport. How ironic it is that today’s Sherwood Island State Park welcomes diversity and has provided an outdoor haven for folks of all cultures and backgrounds, particularly throughout this pandemic. Too bad Prof. Kahrl didn’t point this out! At any rate, he did shed light on a sinister side of Sherwood Island’s and Westport’s shared history, the twenty-year battle on the part of Westport’s elite to keep state-purchased land from becoming a state park. Most Westporters probably aren’t aware of those egregious goings-on, but validation of the whole sad story can be found in Fairfield’s historical archives. When we moved to Westport 32 years ago and fell almost instantly in love with Sherwood Island, I was privy to a lot of biased talk about our state park even then. The establishment of the Friends of Sherwood Island has done much to promote local awareness of the wonders of Sherwood Island and one of the few silver linings of our current crisis has been that increasing numbers of people have experienced Westport’s “best-kept secret.” The 25th anniversary of the Friends of Sherwood Island will be celebrated this fall. Visit friendsofsherwoodisland.org to learn more!

  11. Don Willmott

    Back in 1994, filmmaker Michael Moore filmed a stunt for his TV show in which he tried to bring a busload of scruffy New Yorkers to Greenwich beach. When their access was unsurprisingly denied, they took to boats and attempted to invade from the sea, just like the Redcoats, with comedic results. Here’s the six-minute clip.

  12. Wait just a minute … we are being judged on reporting from 1929?!? And by the way, where is the accreditation for this information?

  13. Hope Hageman

    How ironic that Prof. Kahrl fails to note that today’s Sherwood Island State Park welcomes diversity and has kept its gates open to people of all cultures and backgrounds throughout this pandemic. He also never mentions Compo Beach or the Town of Westport’s current policies. He instead draws upon a shameful chapter in Westport‘s history to bolster his thesis. The 20-year battle waged by a segment of Westport’s elite to prevent state-owned property from becoming a state park is indeed something Westporters should be made aware of. (Details of the whole nasty story can be found in Fairfield’s historical archives.) Smatterings of bias remained when we moved to Westport in the 80’s, but the establishment of the Friends of Sherwood Island has done much to change attitudes and promote all the good things the park has to offer . So: while I’m somewhat grateful that this piece makes a point about Sherwood Island’s history that needed to be made and while I agree with the basic thrust of the piece as a whole, I find the way the facts are structured rather misleading.

  14. Bill Strittmatter

    Well, to be fair to the author, contrary to the assertions of many of the commenters above, Compo Beach parking is not open to non-beach sticker holders this year – at least at the moment. Perhaps you all missed the previous announcements from Westport town government. I seem to recall Dan mentioning those restrictions in previous posts as well.

    https://www.westportct.gov/government/departments-a-z/parks-and-recreation/beaches/compo-beach

    Let’s face it though, even when available, the cost of a day pass was relatively exclusionary due to price. Effectively serves the same purpose as restrictive zoning – keeps “those people” off the beaches (or out of the town and out of the schools) without having to actually say “those people”. So you have that fig leaf going for you.

    As for simply walking on the beach, I assume then that a shuttle bus service between Bridgeport and Compo would not only be accepted but welcomed? Someone fire up the GoFundMe page.

  15. Irene Mastriacovo

    Hmmm. And no mention of other “town” beaches with higher fees to enter then their neighboring “state” beaches like say, Lido Beach (next to Jones) or Oakland Beach in Rye (next to Playland Beach). Wonder why that is.

  16. Ron Decline

    A lot of commentators are saying that non-residents can park at Compo Beach, they “just have to pay a fee”. Well, that was true in the past, however Westport’s response to COVID-19 is to restrict parking at Compo to residents only. Non-residents cannot park at Compo this year.

  17. No one mentioned the cost of the daily beach parking pass once the suspension is lifted: it’s $45 weekdays; $70 weekends and holidays. I would go beyond Bill Strittmatter to say say that’s not just relatively exclusionary, it’s exclusionary period. Nor do I think the town needs the money. It’s simply to keep out the hoi polloi.

  18. By the way, this CT Mirror piece intimates that Mr. Coll was a nasty guy and just might have been exploiting those poor kids for his own personal self-aggrandizement.

    In the end, Coll achieved little, and poor city kids never got access to rich suburban beaches.

    The one change in law, allowing those without need for parking to enter any town beach was thanks to another guy: “…a sharp Rutgers law student named Brenden Leydon, who was stopped from jogging on the Greenwich town beach, sued in 1995, and won.”

    https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/remembering-ned-coll-and-connecticuts-shameful-segregation/