The Coastal History Blog 48: The re-invention of the modern beach

My inter-library loan office is getting suspicious. I guess I should rephrase that; they got suspicious back in 2013, though they seem to have forgiven me since then. What set them off was my request for Patrik Alac’s The Bikini: A Cultural History. It was dutifully produced at the circulation desk, but I received an email warning me that ILL was for “research purposes only.” By now I have decades of experience with putting in requests to ILL offices, and this is the only time I ever set off anything resembling an alarm.

It’s intriguing. On my own campus, there’s someone who publishes peer-reviewed scholarship on Sex and the City and another colleague, in that same Department, edited a volume of critical essays on the graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns… but somehow I had stumbled upon the very last piece of subject matter that couldn’t possibly be a legitimate academic interest. I bring that up not to in any way disparage my fine colleagues who work on TV or comic books, but to raise the question: What is it about beaches, and the culture surrounding them, that is so hard to take seriously?

I discussed The Bikini: A Cultural History, among other books and articles, in the fifth Coastal History blog post (December 2013), What are beaches for? The book wasn’t that great, but unlike most treatments I’ve seen, Patrik Alac did pay attention to glossy pictorials of German beach resorts as they appeared in the magazines of Nazi period, and later in the GDR. It’s important to historicize the beach, and to so do without just a gesture toward “modernity,” but in particular ideological contexts: What was the Nazi beach, what was the Communist beach, and so on. Since publishing that blog post, I’ve also met scholars who are studying how the Franco dictatorship in Spain developed a cheery marketing campaign to rebrand the country and lure international tourists from the democracies to Spanish beaches. All of these examples are a particularly helpful way to break the bad habit of envisioning “the beach” or “the seashore” as a sort of dreamy, interchangeable, semi-abstract space.

I haven’t written about beaches myself since then, although Elsa Devienne did a guest post for me in 2016. I thought the publication of her monograph this year would be a good chance to return to some of these themes. (I should mention that you don’t need to completely rely on my summary of her work: You can access additional Devienne publications in English as well as in French here.)

Her book will appear next year in English, from Oxford University Press, as The Sand Rush. Here, I’ll be discussing the version that’s already available from the Sorbonne: La ruée vers le sable: Une histoire environnementale du littoral de Los Angeles au XXe siècle. In terms that will that will immediately strike a chord with long-time readers of this blog, or followers of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures website, Devienne sets herself the task of reinscribing the Los Angeles beach as urban space, methodically considering the interface between the two, finding the littoral within the urban and vice versa.[1] Whatever day tripping visitors may have thought, Santa Monica and Venice not were just swimming spots or entertainment areas, they were fully-fledged communities with their own vocal citizenry, their own varied constituencies, and all the usual contestations around land use and development.[2] The complex zone “between the asphalt and the sand” was an entre-deux in the sense that it was a space of duality but also a space of double standards, because while nominally open to all, access to the beach was riven with contradictions which would only intensify in the post-World War Two period.[3]

Devienne makes use of a variety of primary source material, ranging from oral histories (including some interviews that she conducted herself), newspaper accounts, tourist brochures and similar ephemera, and photo collections held by public libraries that capture unscripted moments and unstated norms of behavior. Above all, though, this book is grounded in the planning documents, trade publications, and other material generated by what she calls the “beach lobby” of boosters, engineers, and civil servants that flourished in the mid-twentieth century.

For purposes of clarity, I should indicate that my section headings, in bold, do not correspond to particular chapters of La ruée vers le sable; they are my own method of organizing my notes on the book. There are page references in the footnotes, so the quotations, paraphrases and (what I hope are) near-literal translations are always traceable back to Devienne’s work, even when I discuss it out of order.

The beach before “the beach”

Some of the most fresh and entertaining passages in La ruée vers le sable concern the early time period when Los Angeles residents did not appear to know what, if anything, to do with their beaches. In fact, as the twentieth century began, large stretches of what would eventually rank among the most famous beaches in the world stood undeveloped, offering a convenient spot (especially in the winter) for the earliest Hollywood studios to film heroic marches across fictional deserts. Circus performers used the wide-open spaces to practice; odd fly-by-night attractions sprang up featuring fairground rides, vaudeville acts, carnival sideshows, and even a novelty golf course which apparently was one big sand trap.[4]

There is no English expression for “beaching” or of “learning how to beach” (and I don’t think there’s a French equivalent either), but as Devienne points out, the fact that Los Angeles newspapers published digests of the various beach rules shows that having a set of rules on the beach was something of a novelty, and people needed guidance on what to expect.[5] An amusing regulation from 1926 prohibited wholly enclosed tents on the beach (one flap must be open at all times), in the hopes of discouraging bad behavior.[6] As late as 1929, it was still culturally feasible to attempt to punish male swimmers for exposing their torso, although actually seeking to enforce rules about swimwear resulted in comical cat and mouse games, as beachgoers on the lam sank into the relative privacy of deeper water, or simply threw on an extra article of clothing and denied any wrongdoing.[7]

The development of sanitation plans for beach and swimming areas offers another example of the gradual, uneven process of Californians learning what beaches might be for. It was not unusual to come across oil slicks, fruit peels, toilet paper, and used condoms on the shore.[8] Bruce’s Beach, popular with African-Americans, was getting deposits of grease and human excrement.[9] Considering that much of this was borne on the waves, it is not surprising that the swimming areas were no cleaner than the shore. In at least one case, a swimmer came down with a serious from of dysentery.[10] Despite a surge of popularity (Life magazine ran a story in 1937 entitled “Bathing is Big Business”), early engineering efforts concerned themselves only with effluent sources that might spoil water destined for human consumption (drinking water), while the water that swimmers would encounter did not attract the attention of experts.[11] It is as if the Los Angeles officials themselves were not acquainted with anyone who would use the water in that way.

Some of the decaying, older seaside attractions survived into the mid-twentieth century, when the seedy ambiance (fast-talking grifters; fortune-tellers in turbans) would inspire several film noir directors.[12] One film that Devienne singles out, Quicksand (1950), happens to be available to watch in its entirety for free online here. It was filmed at least in part on location in Santa Monica. Nick, played by Peter Lorre, runs a penny arcade near the pier and is also a small-time loan shark. For the dilapidated penny arcade and its world-weary proprietor, you can skip to 11:55-15:04; for a view of the street, jump to 25:30-29:45.

In many locations, then, beachfront property was anything but glamorous. If the Los Angeles beaches were going to shed their image as a low-rent area, it would take some big changes.

Beyond “sky, sea, and sand”

Devienne offers the tantalizing remark that if Alain Corbin, in his famous book, argued for “the invention of the beach” in Europe in the nineteenth century, there is still a need to come to grips with the re-invention of the beach, which she sees as a process that began in the Los Angeles of the 1940s.[13]

If this is true, it must mean that Los Angeles fused together elements from elsewhere in a novel way, since Devienne herself acknowledges the profound impact of Robert Moses’ Jones Beach on the California planners.[14] The legendary New York City magnate of public works projects chose this the Long Island location as the place where he would decree a new beach experience organized around tight policing, ample parking spaces, and thoroughgoing cleanliness. The notion of measuring the quality of beach experience by a metric such as the number of parking spaces was representative of a growing interest in quantification in this period; it was no longer sufficient to characterize a beach as crowded, planners now entered into invidious comparisons with rival beaches that would hinge on the calculation of the square feet available per visitor.[15]

Years ago, I did a post here on The Political Economy of Sand, and La ruée vers le sable offers some wonderful examples in that area. One of the things Devienne does particularly well as an environmental historian is to show the relationships between science and property values, lawsuits and laboratory research. It’s no accident that the concept of a beach as a “river of sand” gained currency at the same time as the institutional birth of entities such as the Beach Erosion Board.[16] Santa Monica, whose beaches had attracted little interest early in the century, now had to contend with accusations that it had “stolen” the sand from its neighbor, and the patterns of sand migration were studied using aerial photographs.[17] As Devienne remarks, if this new “beach lobby” of experts, boosters, and planners announced their intention of “protecting” California’s beaches, that wasn’t necessarily in the sense that we’d use the term today![18] Robert Moses had deployed newfangled hydraulic methods to fill out Jones Beach, and it was not long before Californian planners sought to emulate this too; some proposals envisioned it on an even grander scale.[19]

Thus, at the same time as parking spaces and the square footage available for beach blankets were subjected to minute scrutiny and quantification, so too were the beaches underfoot. Although “counting the grains of sand on the beach” is usually considered a fanciful or futile activity, in California it would become routine to construct laboratory mock-ups and study the flow of sand in miniature before giving the thumbs-up to new development projects.[20] Would-be sand misers weren’t just being paranoid here; even a single breakwater could shift the currents and result in a beach “downstream” changing shape. If the stakes were so high, of course, this invested the professionals with a certain power and prestige. Although “coastal engineering” as an expression wasn’t set down in writing until 1950, it received its lettres de noblesse (we might say in English, it achieved canonical status or institutional recognition) when the Beach Erosion Board was renamed, in 1963, as the Coastal Engineering Research Center.[21]

Devienne concludes: “Sky, sea, and sand no longer sufficed.”[22] The re-invented beach would be a calculated and measured space, regulated in favor of the car-owning middle classes, sanitary, litter-free, efficient, and populated with a particular type of approved body, which would be muscular, toned, and slender. These updates would occur with little or no tolerance for the time-worn remnants of older regimes of coastal leisure. Indeed, the discourse around dirty or poorly equipped beaches often willfully confused the issue, remarking on undesirable social elements as if blight and vice went hand in hand.[23]

Beach gentrification

Devienne shows in some detail how these new initiatives set up a collision with a variety of marginalized social groups—from middle-class African-Americans to gay and lesbian bodybuilders—who had found their niche on the beach earlier, capitalizing on weak invigilation and affordable real estate. Even the word “niche” falls short of what was at stake here; in a sense, they had made homes for themselves, and the special beaches often existed in a symbiotic relationship with other businesses catering to the same clientele (for example, near the gay beach there were bathhouses that benefited from a proximity to the same customer base).

Predictably, this community building went on against a backdrop of intermittent harassment. In the 1920s, there were several incidents of arson targeting restaurants or clubs servicing black beaches, with the KKK apparently behind one incident.[24] The “zoot suit” riots of the 1940s finally allowed Mexican-Americans to express their anger at being “pushed around,” although intriguingly, photographic evidence indicates that mixed-race bathing groups persisted in spite of all the efforts to enforce de facto segregation.[25]

Yet it was in the postwar period, once it became apparent that property values could go through the roof, that the low- (or lower-) rent users drew really intense scrutiny. It proved easy to enlist mayors and city councils to the cause of gentrifying projects that took on the tones of the “urban renewal” activity that was fashionable at the time. It was possible to portray even middle-class African-American beach clubs as an impediment to developing newer, more profitable, more socially privileged uses for beaches and beach-facing property.

Crystal Beach (which also went by less polite names, including “Queer Alley” and “Bitches Beach”) came in for a particularly swift and vindictive crackdown.[26] In 1955 alone, more than 200 people were arrested there for having made the mistake of propositioning an undercover officer from the vice squad.[27] The discourse of urban renewal was mixed in a toxic cocktail with the language of moral panic, expressed as a desire to protect of innocent children from sex crimes, and the need to drive away “undesirables” from their favored “hunting grounds.”[28]

When the lawman in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski retorts “Stay out of my beach community!”, it’s milked as a comedic moment, but as Devienne explains, eminent domain and selective law enforcement were used by local governments to impose a form of order on the beach in ways that addressed the fears, needs, and desires of affluent, white, heterosexual beachgoers.[29] Framing the account in this way does make it harder to keep track of the schisms within the white middle class; I’m reminded of a scene in John Milius’ surfing film Big Wednesday (1978) when the surfers are flummoxed, upon returning to a favorite waterfront diner, to find that it’s been taken over by hippies who look down on them for ordering a hamburger.

Milius himself is a strange and complex figure. A surfer, gun enthusiast, and friend to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, he’s the screenwriter who is responsible for the bizarre yet classic surfing scene in Apocalypse Now. After a brief period of influence in Hollywood (the early Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Conan the Barbarian is a great window into Milius’ worldview), he found that Californian culture was increasingly moving away from his vaguely right wing, anarchist-libertarian sensibility.

The white surfers of Milius’ circle saw themselves as noble rebels, pursuing their private quests, who disdained to wear shoes or bow to the demands of lifeguards. There’s a memorable scene in Big Wednesday, an exuberant film shot almost entirely outdoors and which lingers on the play of light on wave and water, in which all the main characters sit in the confined quarters of someone’s living room at night and stare at a black-and-white TV screen, which is showing them the Watts Riots as they unfold just a few miles (and a whole universe) away. (The appearance of the Watts Riots as a current event dates this scene of the film to the year 1965.) The whole group watches the TV in complete, unbroken silence. This, too, is rebellion, but not in a register which is intelligible to them.

How California was different and why it mattered

California didn’t invent the beach, except that it did.

To be sure, whatever happened on the Californian beaches was going to be amplified by a convenient proximity to Hollywood. However, Devienne develops a number of more subtle points about what made the Los Angeles beach experience special. While there was a national trend toward more public ownership of beaches after WWII, California far outpaced states such as Massachusetts, Maine, and New York in this area. By 1961, private ownership no longer accounted for the majority of beaches in LA.[30] The Los Angeles beaches added up to four times the surface area of New York City’s Central Park, amounting to what may have been the biggest public urban park in the United States.[31]

This massive buy-up of private beaches altered the beach experience in complex ways. A patchwork of private clubs tended to chop up the beach with retaining walls and built-up overlooks, not to mention intimidating placards warning off trespassers. Although no one owned the shore as such, clubs could fall back on the legal casuistry that they did own the “dry” portion of land giving access to the swimmable area.[32] A vast public beach was also a different experience from the Coney Island model of leisure for the masses, in which an admission fee was collected at the gate. In Santa Monica, even if your pockets were empty, you could still go to the beach and spend the day there.[33]

Of course, one stubborn line of interpretation has always insisted that the modern beach was free in another sense, forming a space of exception and liberation where new possibilities presented themselves. Devienne is appropriately skeptical of any suggestion that entrenched socioeconomic and racial structures crumbled at the touch of a sea breeze.[34] She goes further, however, and explores the ways that the leisure culture of the beach was itself a refined form of social control. In a line that will be quoted by every reviewer, Devienne insists that Los Angeles was far from being a space of l’horizonalité insouciante.[35] I struggle to translate this term into English, partly because I associate some possible English equivalents (“laid back,” for instance) with aspects of Californian culture. Consider the character Zonker Harris in the long-running Doonesbury comic strip. In his devoted pursuit of tanning and his other classic activities, he came across as the embodiment of insouciant horizontality. Devienne argues, however, that in contrast to coastal settings which dedicated themselves in an unambiguous way to relaxation, in Los Angeles, hedonism and discipline came yoked together.[36] Body building, even as a hobby, was something you had to work at; even Zonker’s seemingly lethargic pursuit was the inspiration for a Doonesbury book title, Stalking the Perfect Tan, that evoked not a summer slumber but the uncertain challenges of the hunt. In this sense of industrious self-fashioning and obligatory leisure, then, the LA beaches were—if not quite a factory—then still a space for the production of modern bodies (un lieu de production du corps moderne).[37]

In one of several sharp contrasts that she develops, late in the book, with the beach culture of Florida, Devienne explains that the Southern state primarily attracted retirees. It was not (emblematically) associated with teenagers or college kids on Spring Break.[38] Poor Florida was stuck with the nickname of “God’s waiting room.” Meanwhile, in the imagination of older, landlocked Americans, the LA beach scene appeared unsettling and exciting enough that it is even possible to argue that the whole genre of relatively anodyne “beach party” films arose partly a desire to tame (apprivoiser) the young and lay to rest cultural anxieties of the period around juvenile delinquents.[39] Youth culture could be repackaged and marketed as youthfulness itself, in which case Los Angeles fashion held out at least a teasing promise of rejuvenation.

The process of what I’ve called “learning how to beach” was an uneven one, and some people never quite got there. Taking a page from the Presidential speechwriter and image consultant David Gergen, Devienne brings up the famous photo of JFK on the beach at Santa Monica in 1962, in which in the 45-year-old WWII veteran, even sopping wet, managed to radiate vitality and a sort of serene charm. In contrast, Richard Nixon’s clumsy attempt in 1971 to look relaxed on the beach at San Clemente, in Orange County, drew ridicule from the newspapers.[40] Nixon strolled and beamed, yet his strangely expressive dark suit stole the show, wrinkling and contorting as if the fabric itself were experiencing an allergic reaction to the setting.

I don’t think I’d seen either of these photos before, though the one with Kennedy looks sort of familiar. It’s fascinating to me that Nixon, whose unappealing TV persona in his 1960 debate with Kennedy is the stuff of legend, had still not grasped the basics of stage-managing his wardrobe and photo ops more than ten years later, or at least gotten around to hiring people who could do it for him. But Nixon’s intransigence on the matter of beach attire is also a reminder to people like me who write about culture for a living. As much as we might be tempted to generalize about “the modern beach,” “the Californian beach,” or the zeitgeist of entire decades, there will always be people who didn’t get the memo. Intuitively, and as a practical matter, we know this, but we also can’t be reminded often enough.


[1] Elsa Devienne, La ruée vers le sable: Une histoire environnementale du littoral de Los Angeles au XXe siècle (Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020), 58.

[2] Devienne, La ruée, 28.

[3] Devienne, La ruée, 55, 73.

[4] Devienne, La ruée, 42, 50, 51.

[5] Devienne, La ruée, 82; for the relative absence of rules and policing earlier, Devienne, La ruée, 64.

[6] Devienne, La ruée, 80.

[7] Devienne, La ruée, 65.

[8] Devienne, La ruée, 95.

[9] Devienne, La ruée, 96.

[10] Devienne, La ruée, 138.

[11] Devienne, La ruée, 87, 94.

[12] Devienne, La ruée, 154, 241.

[13] Devienne, La ruée, 115 (see also 86).

[14] Devienne, La ruée, 115-119.

[15] Devienne, La ruée, 97.

[16] Devienne, La ruée, 112.

[17] Devienne, La ruée, 91. The lawsuits about “stolen” sand were finally resolved with a court ruling that the State owned the sand, not the private owners: Devienne, La ruée, 114.

[18] Devienne, La ruée, 100.

[19] Devienne, La ruée, 116, 120.

[20] Devienne, La ruée, 115.

[21] Devienne, La ruée, 108, 150.

[22] Devienne, La ruée, 118.

[23] Devienne, La ruée, 157.

[24] Devienne, La ruée, 74-75.

[25] Devienne, La ruée, 78-79.

[26] Devienne, La ruée, 193.

[27] Devienne, La ruée, 195.

[28] Devienne, La ruée, 197.

[29] Devienne, La ruée, 14.

[30] Devienne, La ruée, 12, 144-145. For anyone curious about the legalities of beach access in the US today, or the ratio of private to public beaches state by state, Devienne mentions a helpful website.

[31] Devienne, La ruée, 11.

[32] Devienne, La ruée, 72.

[33] Devienne, La ruée, 44, 67, 68.

[34] Devienne, La ruée, 58.

[35] Devienne, La ruée, 175.

[36] Devienne, La ruée, 174.

[37] Devienne, La ruée, 175.

[38] Devienne, La ruée, 161.

[39] Devienne, La ruée, 167.

[40] Devienne, La ruée, 172. In what must be a textbook example of an “epic fail,” Nixon’s photo op was still drawing mockery almost 50 years later: David J. Morris, “Surfing in Nixonland,” New York Times, September 6, 2016.

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