According to an article in the New York Times this weekend, residents of the upscale Hamptons in Long Island are facing an increasing “invasion” of drunken day-trippers pouring into the region from New York City and destroying the placid beauty with their kegs and their public urination:
…[S]ome residents are fearing that the shift in the societal order could be made worse this year by a new wave of partyers, some of them driven north by Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts at New Jersey’s rowdy beaches.They raise the question with only half-mock horror: Could Nicole Polizzi — a k a Snooki — be far behind, she who came to personify beach-side, drunken, disorderly conduct on MTV?The worry is less about the newcomers’ origins, they say, than about their tranquility-shattering behavior.“You don’t want to come across as snooty, but it’s about peace and quiet for all of us,” said Dayna Winter, 49, a registered dietitian and a year-round resident who watched with dismay last summer as some of the partyers tried to entice her 15-year-old niece to join them. (They failed.) “It’s not a party scene; it’s not what we want it to become.”“With the devastation of Sandy,” she added, “we’re all a little nervous.”
Although the concerned residents may hope to frame this as a perfectly reasonable worry about a changing culture in their neighborhoods, the underlying issue is class-based. The Hamptons and its beaches are home to some of the most expensive real estate in the whole country; most of the people who live there are accustomed to having some degree of control over who they spend time sharing space with -- even technically public space.
So even though they may not want to "come across as snooty," when locals bemoan the death of their “exclusivity,” the subtext is that they're really only interested in allowing people like them -- moneyed, privileged, "well behaved" by the standards they have set -- to spend time in their community. They've even suggested defenses up to and including the erection of a literal wall to keep the interlopers out.
If it wasn't obvious, I have little sympathy to spare. Sure, I understand being put out by noisy drunks partying in your formerly quiet sanctuary -- but that's part of sharing public space. I mean if you REALLY give a shit about who gets within a mile of your home, go take all that money and build a high-walled compound on top of a mountain or something; don't live on or near a public beach. Or maybe just sit back and think WOW I AM SO FORTUNATE THAT I AND SEVERAL GENERATIONS OF MY FAMILY GET TO LIVE IN A FANCY-ASS PLACE WITH A BEAUTIFUL BEACH.
And I’m allowed to be a hardass about this. Because I live on a public beach.
The story starts before that, though, back when I just lived NEAR a public beach. In 1999 I moved with my then-boyfriend to the picturesque seaside town of Revere, on Massachusetts’ North Shore.
Locals, stop laughing.
Revere actually isn’t all that picturesque; indeed, it has a bit of a reputation as a dirty, low-class, unpleasant place, pretty much all of it undeserved. At any rate, in 1999 it was near public transportation into Boston, which is just a few miles south, and -- more importantly -- it was affordable. So affordable, in fact, that we could manage to get a spacious two-bedroom apartment in a brand new building.
My first apartments in Boston were both in a building that was over a hundred years old, and with only minor renovations as they became absolutely necessary. My then-boyfriend had been living in what Boston real estate called a “one-bedroom split,” which basically signaled an apartment with two rooms with doors on them, in an old converted elementary school (which, I might add, was creepy as shit). One of these rooms could be a bedroom and the other a living room, but the price of rent in Boston made them popular shared apartments for roommates, with each roommate taking a room, common space be damned.
I lived in a small one-bedroom split with two other people for a year. It was slightly better than what I imagine hell to be like. Also there was the time the ancient doorknob in the bathroom door broke off and trapped one of my flatmates in the bathroom for a couple hours.
My point being, I really didn’t want to live in another old building. Especially considering I was renting and my ability to make improvements was limited. So off we went to Revere, and our new building just a few blocks from the beach.
We moved in on May 1, and almost as soon as we arrived, there was resentment. Our building was located in a small and quiet residential area on a small peninsula. Because the original developer had run into tax problems, it had actually stood half-built and unfinished for several years -- and most of the local homeowners had hoped, if not expected, it would eventually be knocked down. That is, until the new developer, the one we were renting from, swooped in and paid all the back taxes and got it ready to receive residents.
Most of the local homeowners were very unhappy that we were there. That said, they couldn’t stop us or cast us out, so they focused on the one place they did have some control: the private beach.
A series of neighborhood meetings were held in a small church on the peninsula. Curious to know more about the drama, I attended one. They spoke of “the renters” in our building as though we were untouchables -- given that I was in my early 20s, I was unaware of the apparent social gulf between homeowners and scummy, transient, destructive renters, and I was pretty shocked by it. The locals talked about the people in my building like they thought us little better than animals -- indeed, as though many of us weren’t present in the room listening. Their voices broke as they gave voice to their terrible fears that the renters would surely ruin everything about their quiet little sanctuary.
And perhaps most importantly, they didn’t want us on their fucking beach. The neighborhood homeowners had exclusive access to a section of shoreline that was adjacent to the sprawling expanse of the public Revere Beach. Indeed, the difference between walking to the private beach and the public was about a block. But those homeowners were gonna stick it to us by not letting us on their beach. Where we might scum it up with our renteryness.
The irony of this is profound, but to explain why, I’m going to need to give you a small history lesson.
1895! The Massachusetts state legislature grabs three miles of seacoast in Revere. Boston landscape architect Charles Eliot is charged with designing the Revere Beach Reservation. The new beach officially opens on July 12, 1896, as “the first to be set aside and governed by a public body for the enjoyment of the common people.”
The first? Like for real? Yes. Revere Beach was in fact the first public beach in the United States. It’s even a registered landmark. Known from the start as “the people’s beach,” it was primarily used by the working class and immigrant populations in the area, although as its popularity grew, it began to draw a diverse variety of visitors from all walks of life -- all of whom, notably, got along together.
Within 15 years Revere Beach was a booming resort town, with tourists and day trippers coming in on the Narrow Gauge railroad (today occupied by the MBTA’s Blue Line) to enjoy the shore and its many amusements, which included roller coasters and other thrill rides, carousels, a Ferris wheel, and funhouses and dance halls and theaters. (It sounds like it was a pretty awesome time.)
In 1906, the Wonderland amusement park opened, and then quickly went bankrupt when its owners became obsessed with creating the most dramatic and astonishing attractions ever devised (among them? a set piece in which an urban environment was literally BURNED TO THE GROUND in a “Conflagration” reenacted day after day). Wonderland subsequently closed in 1911, although its name continues to persist in the T station and several local businesses.
For decades Revere Beach drew crowds, but in the 1960s its fortunes began to reverse, and by the 70s it was mostly known as a shithole where people got mugged. When the infamous Blizzard of ‘78 came through, it laid waste to the remaining amusements and most of the local businesses, and Revere Beach’s golden era was definitively closed.
For most of the 80s and 90s, Revere Beach earned its reputation as a violent crime-riddled hellhole -- a reputation it has yet to fully shed, in spite of having experienced loads of improvements and renovations in the past fifteen or so years since. Like even today when I mention Revere Beach to people from Boston, it’s a 50/50 chance they will make a “joke” about not stepping on any syringes. Which makes me really angry. (Because, uh, I LIVE HERE, you asshole?) But I digress.
I love Revere Beach. I love it because of the aforementioned diversity -- because it is one of very few places in the Boston metropolitan area where you can see a stunning variety of types of people all spending time in the same place together.
I love it so much that, in 2006, my husband and I bought a condo here. And I became one of those homeowners. The experience has been instructive.
With beachside homeownership came insight into my neighbors’ opinions about that diversity. I have overheard my fellow residents -- a good number of whom bought their units based on the idea that Revere Beach was a burgeoning "transitional" area, or in other words, that it was starting to gentrify -- refer to the black and Latino kids on the beach as “riff raff,” “hoodlums,” or even “gangsters.” Any early spring gathering of excited high school kids is deemed a “riot.” Low-income people who come up from Boston via the T are looked down on, for cluttering up the most T-adjacent stretch with their icky poor bodies. The many Muslim women in hijab who take walks (always in groups) with their kids on the sidewalk bordering the sea wall are privately (or, I'm sure, publicly) mocked for their choice of dress. People complain that the Latino nightclub on the beach is drawing the “wrong element” and also express annoyance at hearing Spanish spoken, like, at all.
And then this weekend, while I was working in my garden on my balcony, a woman in a passing car felt the need to yell “FUCKING IMMIGRANTS” at a brown-skinned family sitting on the sea wall. The volume and intensity of her shout was astonishing; even for me, it felt like getting punched in the throat. I can’t imagine how it felt to be the family to whom it was directed.
When this stuff happens, it makes me want to shake people and scream at them. Because in the case of Revere Beach, the working class and the immigrant populations were literally here first -- this was earmarked for the use of those who could not secure or otherwise afford access to private beaches. It was founded on the principle of inclusivity and access. “The people’s beach,” indeed.
The Hamptons residents probably have no such history. Indeed, odds are good that most of the complaining families have lived in the area for literal generations. And I'm sure the very idea of yelling "FUCKING IMMIGRANTS" from a moving car would inspire some serious pearl-clutching among them. But I don’t think our situations are that different at their core. If you fear the class markers of a Snooki invasion, I don’t think it’s the Snookis of the world that have the problem here -- it’s you. The world most of us live in is filled with people who aren’t exactly like us, and we like it that way.
And really, I know what it’s like to live in a place with tourist appeal during the summer -- I know it can also be challenging to share your home space with so-called “outsiders” who are only there for a visit. I know the additional traffic ALONE is a huge annoyance. I get it.
And yet, the only people I want off my particular beach are the people who would rather it be an exclusive space. I'm happy I get to live here. It seems wrong, to be so unwilling to share.