When a Beach is More Than Just a Beach
ometimes a beach is just a beach, a place for people to visit in the summer months to relax, cool off, and have fun with other folks, some of whom go on to become lifelong friends.
But to some people, beaches represent something very different, land from the high tide line to the water that technically belongs to the public, but that is in practice exclusive and inaccessible to most people, particularly people who are seen as different from the people who live near the beach. Countering this exclusion can raise tensions, can lead to difficult discussions and violent encounters, and can point out contradictions between a particular community’s professed values and how things really work at the beach at the end of their street.
Both points of view are represented by authors coming soon to talk about their books at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road in Madison.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 1, Brian Noe and Shelby Docker will talk about their book, Hammonasset Beach State Park, which celebrates the history of the public park, from the melting of the Wisconsinan glacier about 21,000 years ago up to the 1940s. The Native Americans who originally inhabited the park, the men on the State Park Commission who helped found the park, the lifeguards who helped keep the beaches safe, the park employees, the working class immigrants seeking escape from crowded cities, the fancy folks who wore their Sunday best while strolling down the boardwalk, all make an appearance in this picture-packed volume.
At 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 13, author Andrew Kahrl will come to talk about his recently published Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline, which focuses on anti-poverty activist Ned Coll’s controversial campaign to open up the rest of the Connecticut’s coast—mostly owned by white, relatively wealthy residents—to minorities and the urban poor. At the time of his campaign in the late 1960s and 1970s, only seven miles of the state’s 253-mile shoreline was open to and easily accessible to the public.
Coll and his fellow activists, many of them mothers of the children who were bused to the beaches during the campaign, visited communities including Old Saybrook, Clinton, Madison, and Old Lyme. Sometimes people were friendly. Sometimes the parents would gather up their children and sand buckets, and flee. Others times people with angry faces and bitter words would stand their ground, call the police, and refuse Coll and the children access not only to the opportunity to cool off on a summer day, but also to meet people and make friends, which Coll believed would allow everyone involved to get over their fear of someone who looks different.
The books are very different, but the authors agree on one thing: When people do finally get to the beach, and relax, and talk with each other, they not only might become lifelong friends, they build social capital that can bring lifelong benefits. Just like on the golf course, at the tennis club,or alongside the swimming pool, socializing and playing together on a beach can create bonds that benefit everyone.
Starting with a Love Story
If you ask Brian Noe about the benefits of spending summer at the beach, he might start with a love story.
He and Shelby Docker both spent their summers at Hammonasset Beach State Park. Docker’s family had been going there since the 1930s, and Noe’s family since the 1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s, both families camped at Hammonasset. They had a huge group of friends who did the same. Noe admits to being interested in Docker and says they “came close to dating,” but, he says, “there was 5 ½ years difference between us. It was not the right thing to do.”
He went off to school in California. She went off to school in Florida. They married other people. They had families. They both kept in touch with their group of Hammonasset friends.
“Even today, if someone from that group calls, we drop everything to hang out with them,” Noe says. “It was just a great, great experience growing up down there.”
Eventually Noe got divorced. Docker got divorced. And, with the help of their Hammonasset friends, they reconnected.
“We began texting. We began talking. Then we were dating long distance,” Noe says.
Five years ago they got married.
They both loved Hammonasset so much that they looked for a book about it. They found nothing.
“So Shelby comes home one day and says, ‘We should write a book about Hammonasset,’” Noe says.
After some discussion, they settled upon a book with lots of pictures as the best way to tell the story. Their focus is on the “unknown and extraordinary people” who had the “vision and determination” to create the flagship of Connecticut’s state park system, one that, with the state’s decision this year to let in for free anyone with a state license plate, is now truly open to any state resident.
Hammonasset Beach State Park, the book, highlights summer romances, children crabbing and fishing off of a bridge over Tom’s Creek, adventuresome youngsters jumping off rope swings, and people dressed in “crazy attire” for holiday parades, Mr. Kitchen Gadget and Balloon Woman among them.
The book covers the history of the beach in troubled times as well. The historic flood of 1936 did a bit of damage. The Long Island Express hurricane in September 1938 decimated buildings, boardwalks, and dunes. During World War II, the park was occupied by the U.S. Army Air Force, temporarily closed to visitors, then reopened, but with camping remaining banned.
Noe says many of the pictures come from the files of the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP).
“They had the foresight to not only take pictures, but also to save them,” he says.
There are family pictures in there as well, from Docker’s family, and other families. Many come from Bill Miller, a lifelong Hammonasset employee, who retired as director of the State Park Commission.
‘Indicative of Society at Large’
Noe says their work on the book confirmed their lived experience of the park.
“Hammonasset is kind of indicative of society at large in Connecticut,” he says. “Hammonasset was used by a lot of immigrants. Connecticut, at the turn of the century, had the highest number of immigrants per capita in the country. And, in World War II, Connecticut had the highest production per capita of any state in the country. Immigrant workers worked hard and wanted a place to go to on their day off, to the beach. And Hammonasset was one of the few places the public could go.
“On the flip side, Hammonasset also was a place where established families and wealthy families could go, decked out to the nines. We’re talking fur coats, dresses, silk hose, dropping by the clam shed to get clam chowder,” he says. “You would bring your date in your car down to Hammonasset and treat your date to some clam chowder.”
He says his experience is that the same is true today.
“Shelby and I still camp there down in the summer. You might hear different languages. You’ll smell different kinds of foods. There might be a $400,000 Class A RV on one campsite, right next to a campsite that has a college kid in a tent, which is what I used to do,” he says. “We all get along. Everything is good. Right?”
Working on the book often felt like putting together a big family photo album, Noe says. And the enthusiastic reaction to the book, along with the fact that proceeds from the book’s sales help the Friends of Hammonasset organization, has been rewarding as well, he says.
He adds that the park was not born overnight, and that acquisition of the parcels that made up the park took more than 25 years and almost did not happen.
“There was the very real threat of beach privatization in Connecticut,” he says. “Connecticut’s beaches underwent one of the fastest processes of privatization of beaches of any state. Privatization of beaches in Connecticut was rampant.”
Noe says he remembers Ned Coll and his campaign. Once, as part of his school work, Noe did a paper on Coll. He says for their next book, the history of Hammonasset after World War II to the present, he hopes to contact Coll and find out more about issues relating to beach privatization, to help put those issues into context with the rest of the park’s history.
While that second book is underway, he and Docker are camping at Hammonasset, they are looking forward to the book talk at R.J. Julia, and they are also looking forward to selling more books to help Friends of Hammonasset.
“The thrill of being able to help the park just makes our day,” he says.
How do you Startle Someone in Connecticut?
Coll grew up in an Irish neighborhood in the South End of Hartford in the post-war era, at the time when the state was rapidly segregating itself.
“He saw the suburbs all white and growing rapidly and prospering, while the cities experienced rapid decline. In particular, the African American community was suffering from housing discrimination and workplace discrimination and ghettoization,” Kahrl says. “And Ned is seeing all of this firsthand.”
In addition to being concerned about this, Coll was troubled by what he saw as emotional detachment among many middle class white families in the suburbs.
“He oftentimes liked to say that way to startle someone in Connecticut was to walk up to them and say ‘Hello.’ He saw a coldness in Connecticut.”
Coll watched as the Irish in the South End fled the city.
“They fled to the suburbs and didn’t look back and didn’t care about the black families stuck in the city who couldn’t move to the suburbs because of redlining practices,” Kahrl says. “He was troubled about that at a young age.”
And then he want off to college at Fairfield University and was lucky enough to have as a professor Walter Petry, who was related to the famous Old Saybrook Petrys. Petry took Coll and other students into Harlem, where they encountered African Americans and others who didn’t look like them.
“So Walter Petry was a light-skinned man of West Indian descent and he saw immersion into different environments as critical to the student’s educational experience,” Kahrl says. “He looked for the opportunity not only to teach about urban inequality and racism, but also for ways for students to experience the racial divide first hand.”
“They saw the day-to-day routines, the rhythms, the struggles, and Ned was really taken by that,” Kahrl says. “Ned never was interested in theorizing and ideology. He was really just interested in the human experience and directly interacting with others, and finding solutions to everyday problems.”
Coll was greeted with hostility at one point during his travels in Harlem. For him, it was an epiphany.
“Ned would refer back to this as a formative experience. He understood the source of the hostility. He understood that, at that moment, it was well-founded hostility and he was seen as part of the problem, that he had a responsibility to be part of the solution,” Kahrl says. “That is one of the many things that is remarkable about him. Sometimes white people have a bad racial experience and they retreat into a corner and grow resentful. Not Ned. In terms of his whiteness, he saw he had the responsibility of both owning it and then using it to the advantage of humanity as a whole, rather than just to himself as a white person.”
Kahrl says Coll also remembered the unhealthy apathy and detachment among white surburbanites.
“Eventually he sort of takes the rhetoric of ghettoization, and turns it on its head, and focuses on the ways white Americans self-segregate and suffer,” Kahrl says. “Even as a diverse community is good for racial minorities, it is just as good and even as critical for white Americans who believed cancerous myths about black Americans. When these people didn’t come into contact, their imaginations would run wild. They not only would begin to believe these myths, but would take actions that would create more barriers.”
‘She Thought I Was Crazy’
Coll, after graduating from college, opted for a corporate career in the public relations department of an insurance company, making him the pride and joy of his Irish American parents. Then President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Coll quit his job and started what he would call the Revitalization Corps, a “local-style, Peace Corps-type program...dedicated to JFK,” Kahrl says.
His Irish-American mother had a marked antipathy and prejudice toward anyone who was African American. When she heard his plans, she “almost dropped dead,” Coll is quoted in the book as saying. “She thought I was crazy.”
Not long thereafter, while Coll was visiting his parent’s home in the South End, his mother called the police, had him handcuffed, and then carted off to Norwich State Hospital’s psychiatric ward. She blamed Petry.
Petry recalls visiting Coll in the hospital.
“He was in perfectly good humor and laughing about his crazy mother,” Petry said.
A few weeks later, Coll got out of the hospital and went right back to work on the Revitalization Corps.
“It was remarkable how un-fazed he was by some of the most incredible situations,” Kahrl says. “He didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t even cut his ties to his family. He shrugged it off and accepted it for what it was.”
Coll focused on public access to private beaches at the same time children in Hartford were dying in the summer, after trying to swim in the Park River. The same thing happened in cities all over the country. The lack of recreational resources for young urban children led to them play in the streets and on dangerous waterways.
“In some respects, these tragedies and deaths crystallized the larger set of injustices and helped to galvanize a commitment to protest and press for change,” Kahrl says.
And so the bus trips to the beaches started.
“In Clinton, early on, Ned envisioned this not as some kind of protest, but a wholesome activity to help people from different backgrounds come together,” Kahrl says.
In many ways, early on, Coll just wanted people to have a chance to talk.
In the book, Kahrl recounts an encounter in Old Saybrook. It was an overcast day, few people were at the beach, and those who were there seemed curious, but otherwise unbothered by the visitors.
‘Don’t Just Stand There, Lorraine...’
“Still, the children felt awkward, unsure of what to make of the white faces staring at them,” Kahrl writes.
One girl remembered it as sort of a crazy bad dream. Then, “...Ned Coll said to me, ‘Don’t just stand there, Lorraine, go up and talk with someone.’ And I did and most of the people were real nice and after a while I began to think it was a good idea after all.”
While some of the visits to Clinton went well, with one mother of a white child in grateful tears as she watched her child play with the children from Hartford, other visits to Clinton drew the ire of residents and threats to local officials that they would be removed from office if they allowed this.
The same hostility was true, for the most part, in Madison.
“While some people were openly welcoming, other people were so angry that it led to a local political campaign of protective localism, of not allowing outsiders to invade the community,” Kahrl says.
As Coll encountered more and more local opposition to his visits with the children, he began to steer away from the choreographed encounters and toward surprise visits to private beaches.
“He wanted to catch people off guard, and not give them the opportunity to pass the buck,” Kahrl says. “He wanted situations where he forced people to come into contact with each other, and learn how to get along. He pivoted away from scripted encounters to less scripted ones.”
Take, for example, Old Lyme.
“Old Lyme was filled with these private beach associations, aligned with various ethnic groups. There was the Italian beach community. The lace curtain Irish beach association. They were very insular. They were communities not used to having outsiders on their shores at all and middle class families very protective of their beaches’ private status,” Kahrl says. “The hostility that Ned encountered there really awoke him to the depth of the problem.”
In the early 1970s, the racism Coll and the children encountered in Old Lyme and other towns turned the bus visits from a summer activity aimed at getting the children out into some fresh air into a more overt protest movement and a push for open beaches, Kahrl says.
Coll rented out a summer cabin in Old Lyme and turned it into a summer camp, a headquarters for the Revitalization Corps. He invited public officials to a cook out. Only one showed up. He invited clergy. Not one showed up.
“The hostility was so palpable. It was shocking to him and entirely disconcerting to the mothers,” Kahrl says.
Coll’s critics then accused him of abandoning children on the beaches and roadways. Kahrl says his book is by no means an uncritical story about Coll, and he does write about what he sees as some of Coll’s missteps, but he is clear that there is nothing in the record to support the harshest criticisms of Coll, that he and the mothers abandoned children in the quest to open beaches; he says the criticism became a way of deflecting the charges of racism and de-legitimizing Coll’s work.
After Old Lyme, Madison became the center of some of the most heated protests and some of the most controversial actions of the Revitalization Corps. With the help of a local hotel and one local resident, Dr. H. Birnbaum—who felt he too was the victim of discrimination on the part of town officials, in this case because of his religion—Coll and his troop of mothers and children stormed private beaches, including the one at the exclusive Madison Beach Club.
“He had this fleet of boats or, should I say, a boat and a rubber raft, and the children came ashore and enjoyed an afternoon playing on the sands of Madison Beach Club while most of the members scurried to the club house. The police just had to watch it unfold, as it was their legal right,” Kahrl says.
A Spirit of Activism
Those who opposed Coll said it had nothing to do with racism, but rather it was an issue of private property rights.
“They were adamant in their refusal to recognize race was an issue,” Kahrl says. “But Ned recognized that these were profoundly segregated areas, and he argued that this bred fear. It helped allow for those stereotypes to take hold and he wanted to find a way to bring people together for constructive interaction. He thought these children could be a catalyst for social change.”
Coll also recognized summer vacation was not part of the experience of most African-American families, and that their exclusion from a variety of areas where white Americans played meant that they could not trade on that social capital, the kinds of ties that can create trusting relationships that help get a summer job for a teenager, or a real job for an adult.
“These informal social spaces are where power operates,” Kahrl says.
As for whether Coll’s work led to real change, Kahrl admits it’s a great question.
“For many this issue was completely off the radar, and he helped put it on the radar,” he says.
And, when Brenden P. Leydon later sued the town of Greenwich to gain access to its beach, Coll was called to testify.
“[Coll] was the best witness you could find,” Kahrl says. “He saw firsthand what was behind many of these beach policies.”
The Leydon v. Greenwich decision in 2001 found that Greenwich Point Park was a public forum, a decision that affirmed the right of non-residents, due in part to their First Amendment rights, to use town parks and beaches all over the state (Read more at www.jud.ct.gov/external/supapp/Cases/AROcr/257cr116.pdf).
Even today, many Connecticut shoreline town and private beaches remain full of white people, a reflection of the ethnic and racial makeup of the towns themselves, and effectively off limits to outsiders due to limited parking, the cost of admission, and the difficulty of obtaining passes. The owners of those beaches, the people who control the access, correctly cite private property rights, say that local taxes or private money goes towards paying the cost of maintaining the parking lots and property, and note the fact that the beaches’ wet sand area is technically open to anyone.
Of course, as Coll and his fellow activists pointed out long ago, the problem of segregation and what they call white liberal racism is more complicated than just a day at the beach.
Kahrl says there is a lesson to be learned from Coll’s work.
“We need to respect the depths of the problems we face,” he says. “We cannot look at racism and racial inequality narrowly. We need to understand it more broadly and how it affects all aspects of American’s lives for the worse. The problems are not limited to people who are consciously racist.”
He also says the books describes a spirit of activism that manifests itself in every aspect of someone’s life.
“Given the challenges we face right now, we need a lot more of that,” Kahrl says. “He refused to throw up his hands and give up on America.”