It is somewhat ironic that I plan to spend this summer holed up in my cramped home office writing about, well, summer. Rather than making plans to go to the beach, my plan is to write a book about a beach. Perhaps fittingly, though, it is a beach that I would have had a hard time gaining access to, anyway. I am referring to the sandy shores of Connecticut’s Gold Coast, home to some of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S., and, not coincidentally, some of the most exclusive—and exclusionary—beaches in America.
Writing about summer life at the town beaches and private clubs along this suburban shoreline in the 1960s and 1970s might, at first glance, seem to mark a departure from my primary research interests: urban black America, race and real estate, and environmental injustice. Indeed, the vast majority of the people who lived and spent their summers along this shoreline at the time would have agreed, and, moreover, denied that the privileges they enjoyed (and jealously guarded) were in any way linked to the “long, hot summers” of discontent that annually gripped urban black America. And yet, as I soon found after I began to explore this subject several summers ago, the privatization of public space along this and other suburban shorelines in post-World War II America was inextricably tied to the deterioration of urban environments during those same decades.
More than a few at the time said as much. Edward T. “Ned” Coll, a tireless, bombastic activist and founder of the Hartford-based social welfare agency Revitalization Corps, spent over a decade protesting against local ordinances and private practices that had rendered the state’s coastline (despite being public land) effectively off-limits to the poor. For Coll, the private and resident-only beaches that lined the state’s coast, when contrasted with the dilapidated parks and dangerous, polluted waterways that snaked through the impoverished neighborhoods of Hartford’s North End, exemplified the ways in which, in the words of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, “white society [was] deeply implicated in the ghetto.” Taking to heart the Report’s dire warning that, without immediate action, America was in danger of becoming “two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal,” Coll fought tirelessly to open these beaches to the underprivileged children from Harlem, Hartford, and New Haven, and facilitate positive interracial contact in places of leisure.
My goal for this summer is to write a book about America’s “long, hot summer,” one which considers the uniquely seasonal dimensions of race and inequality in the post-World War II metropolis, incorporates the struggle for access to places of public recreation into the histories of the civil rights and environmental justice movements of the time, and examines the damage social segregation and class exclusion (or, what I describe as “the gating of America”) inflicted on human society and the natural environment. (On this last point, see an op-ed I wrote for the New York Times in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.) It’s also the story of Ned Coll, a person whose eventful and highly controversial career as an activist and unapologetic practitioner of “class warfare” offers us a new lens to explore this pivotal period in American history, and whose unconventional tactics for combatting racial inequality (and the responses it elicited) bring to light a host of under-explored dimensions of power and privilege in American life—both then and now.
You can read a short piece I wrote two summers ago about one of Coll’s more outlandish protests, an amphibious landing on the shores of the Madison Beach Club on the 1974 Fourth of July weekend, here. I also included below a clip from Michael Moore’s 1990s television program, TV Nation, where comedian Janeane Garofalo re-enacts (without attribution, I should add) the very same protests Coll and groups of mothers and children from inner-city Hartford staged each summer all along the Connecticut shore throughout the 1970s.
This book, of which much work remains, has been many years in the making, with several detours along the way, including the launch of another, completely unrelated project that I will get into on this blog some other time, and the birth of our twin daughters, who, I am sure, would much prefer that we spend the summer building sand castles on the beach rather than having their daddy write about wealthy suburban whites hanging sand curtains as others fought—in the courts and on the beach—to tear them down. If they have their way, I will be penning drafts of chapters on the beach.
Andrew W. Kahrl is assistant professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South.