Historian calls Westport beach policies discriminatory
WESTPORT — A University of Virginia historian called out Westport’s beach policies as racially and economically exclusionary in a New York Times op-ed.
In the 1930s, at the same time communities in the South designated “whites only” spaces, the North imposed racial segregation by restricting public spaces to local residents in towns such as those along Connecticut’s Gold Coast, where housing policies effectively excluded blacks from taking up residence, Andrew W. Kahrl wrote in the May piece titled “The North’s Jim Crow.”
“While nearby urban black populations swelled and the demand for access to public places of recreation spiked, towns like Greenwich, Westport and Fairfield restricted their beaches to residents. It was obvious whom these were meant to exclude,” Kahrl said.
Although Gold Coast beaches are no longer restricted only to residents, Kahrl said de-facto segregation lives on through exclusionary beach prices for nonresidents, such as those at Westport’s Compo Beach.
In response to Westport residents’ concerns about overcrowding, cleanliness and public behavior at Compo Beach, the town’s Board of Selectmen voted to raise the price of Compo parking passes for nonresidents from $490 in 2017 to $750 this year, while raising the seasonal parking pass price for residents from $40 to $60.
The board, upon recommendation from the Park and Recreation Commission, also voted to decrease the number of seasonal parking passes that can be sold to nonresidents from 600 last year to 350 this summer.
“This whole tactic of making it more expensive for nonresidents is very much about economic exclusion and making it hard for a certain kind of person to get onto the beach,” Kahrl said of Westport’s beach policies. “Given the long history of segregation along the state shoreline and the history of racial exclusion, I think that to pretend a decision like this is only motivated by concerns about overcrowding is disingenuous at best and flies in the face of a long history of these same practices keeping poor minorities off their beaches.”
Westport resident Geralyn Breig and two of her neighbors — Leslie Gallant and Nick Sadler — this fall started the advocacy group Friends of Compo Beach, to push for policies to limit overcrowding at the beach. In 2017, several beaches in New York state closed due to environmental reasons and the 200-acre Sherwood Island State Park in Westport banned liquor, causing an influx of people at the 29-acre Compo Beach, Breig said, denying the claim her group’s policies were motivated by a desire to discriminate minorities from the beach.
“Plenty of people like the professor in the New York Times op-ed want to make this about race, but you can’t fit a crowd meant for 200 acres on a 29-acre park,” Breig said, noting anyone can walk on Compo without paying and the fees are only for beach parking.
“This is simply a crowd safety and environmental issue,” Sadler said of the group’s concerns.
No matter the concern for overcrowding, Kahrl said for Westport to impose the high price hikes for nonresidents is fundamentally discriminatory.
“You can’t have it both ways, and that’s what some of these liberal communities like Westport want. They want to have the liberal ideology and values associated with liberalism, but they also want to be exclusive and exclusionary and are very anti-liberal in that sense,” Kahrl said.
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