Class War On the Beach

California is famous the world over for its beaches; it seems like showing a bunch of people jumping around on a beach with some palm trees is the quintessential expression of ‘California,’ despite the fact that palm trees actually aren’t widespread throughout the state and our beaches are quite diverse. Sure, some of them have white sand and flawless waves, but others have stone or black sand, rocky outcroppings, blowholes, isolated coves. We take our beaches pretty seriously here in California, not just because they’re fun to hang out on but because you can also collect things to eat there, and they’ve acquired a key symbolic status in the state.

Consequently, beach protection is a priority in many communities that want to preserve their beaches to make sure they remain safe and healthy. More than that, though, communities are also focused on protecting access, treating beaches as a public resource rather than private property, and this is actually quite distinctive in a state where many people are very fond of isolating themselves in enclaves that do not admit outsiders. For us, access to beaches is considered a public right, not something that can or should be taken away.

The beach has become the new town green; it is a place where all are welcome and where access rights are taken seriously. This is in large part due to the Coastal Commission, which can sometimes be a bear to work with, but plays a critical role in protecting beach access. While there are some private beaches in the state, they are few and far between when compared to the huge stretch of the state’s coastline that is wide open, and the Coastal Commission will take aggressive action to defend beaches if people attempt to annex them.

Which they do. Because rich people like to buy houses right on the beach and then act like they bought the beach with the house and have a right to control access to it, something people do not take kindly to, as a general rule. In numerous California communities, residents have organised to protect their beaches, demanding public access and vigorously enforcing it, and the Coastal Commission backs them up, much to the frustration of rich people who thought they could scam a free private beach out of the deal when they bought homes.

It’s not uncommon to see people attempting to fence access trails or create other obstacles to make it hard to get to the beach. They like to claim that they’re just defending their property, but it has a lot more to do with the fact that they don’t want to look at dirty members of the proletariat as they wander by on their way to the beach. Many wealthy homeowners in California do not seem to understand how easements work, and do not comprehend the fact that a deeded Coastal Access trail is exactly what it sounds like: A non-negotiable permanent pathway to access the beach which anyone can use.

Yes, anyone. And those people can walk right past your big fancy house and your expensive water-wasting garden to reach the public beach, and you are just going to have to deal with it. Feel free to put up a privacy screen or relocate your taps so people don’t use them to wash their feet or whatever, but don’t you dare attempt to block the trail which people fought hard to get and protect just because you don’t want your view obscured by the existence of people, particularly low-income people who may not be able to access other forms of recreation but can go to the beach, because it’s free.

The California beach looks so idyllic in pop culture, but it’s a hard-fought ideal. The early commitment to public beaches and the protection of public space made a huge difference in the development of California’s coastline, and in how people used natural resources along California’s beaches. It’s troubling to see that being undermined in some communities by wealthy people banding together in an attempt to freeze out their public access trails, forcing people to jump through hoops to get to the beach. It’s yet another reminder that people think enough money and power can buy anything, even something they don’t have a right to control.

Wealthy people are just as welcome to use beaches as everyone else. They can hold cookouts and go swimming and lie on the beach on a towel, and no one is stopping them from doing that, because the beach is a public place where anyone can be. This, however, doesn’t seem to be enough for them; they want a private beach, yet another place to call their own and use to exclude people. Curiously, many people seem to buy homes near the beach with the understanding that a Coastal Access trail exists, and a plan to block that trail off to make it impossible for people to get to the beach.

All those California beach scenes have an underlying tone of class war, for me, because I remember how hard people fought to protect public access to our beaches, rather than allowing them to be sold off piecemeal to people who could block them off and control them. And I remember how that fight never seems to end, because people seize any opportunity to claim territory that isn’t theirs to claim; right down to using sand from public beaches to fill out and protect private beaches to make sure they’re sufficiently beachy to satisfy their owners.