“The coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for communities to act on their most exclusionary impulses,” writes Andrew W. Kahrl in an essay titled “Who Will Get to Swim This Summer?” in the New York Times. Kahrl, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, describes how wealthy, white areas are reopening beaches and parks but adding security measures and restricting access to residents only.
“Invariably, these measures are justified in the name of public health,” he writes. “This has happened before. Throughout American history, in times of heightened racial tension and rising inequality, the socially advantaged tend to retreat into private spaces, withdraw taxpayer support for public recreation, and work to restrict access to public space within their communities, often using concerns about public health and safety as justification.”
When the Wellfleet Select Board voted recently to restrict Lecount Hollow Beach to residents and property owners, the members had a hard time arguing that public health or safety was the reason.
Selectman Michael DeVasto, who first proposed the idea, cited the “stress that local residents and taxpayers are under” because of the pandemic, but he did not explain how those groups’ stress was any different from that of vacationers or visitors. When challenged by a Wellfleet motel owner on the safety argument, Beach Director Suzanne Grout Thomas admitted that local residents would simply “prefer their own beach without competing with people who are visiting here for a parking space.”
The competition for parking spaces at Wellfleet’s ocean beaches has grown considerably in recent years, as hundreds of spaces have been lost to erosion. A plan to alleviate the shortage by enlarging the lot at White Crest Beach two years ago was derailed by an online campaign by a group of Ocean View Drive property owners who were willing to underwrite a costly lawsuit against the town to stop the expansion.
Professor Kahrl argues that these exclusionary efforts in places like Westport, Conn., were generally aimed at keeping away the “unwashed masses” from the city — blacks, Jews, and Italians — and that they gained momentum in the 1960s as racial strife engulfed American cities. But historian Richard Rothstein, who summers in Wellfleet, doesn’t think the Lecount Hollow residents-only rule is motivated by racial animus.
“There’s an elitism there that goes beyond race,” says Rothstein, author of The Color of Law. “There’s so few African Americans that get to Wellfleet that I can’t imagine this is motivated by race. They just want to keep out the hoi-polloi.”
Whatever the motive, the impulse was ugly and an embarrassment to a town that once was the proud home of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. The decision should be reversed.