[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]
On three stages in the history of an exemplary American beach.
On July 12th, 1896, Revere Beach greeted nearly 50,000 visitors on its opening day as America’s first public beach. The site and occasion represented the confluence of multiple turn of the century trends: the completion of an urban railroad line that allowed those numerous visitors to reach the beach; the City Beautiful movement that heavily influenced landscape architect Charles Eliot, who designed Revere Beach; the increased possibility of free time for leisure and entertainment (thanks in large part to the successes of the labor movement), which led to the popularity of sites like Coney Island and Revere Beach; and the recent waves of immigration, since many of those public visitors to Revere Beach were immigrant families. For all those reasons and more, Revere Beach was more than just the nation’s first public beach—it was a hugely iconic symbol of turn of the 20th century American society.
By the second half of the century, however, Revere Beach had become a very different and far more contested kind of symbol. A number of 1960s and 70s factors and narratives contributed to increasingly negative images of the beach and, ultimately, its near-abandonment: demographic shifts that brought more African American visitors to the beach, during the same era as the Boston busing riots which demonstrated just how contentious race remained in the region (particularly between African Americans and working class white ethnics, the two communities who came to comprise Revere Beach’s principal clienteles); deterioration of the beach’s surrounding neighborhoods, leading to a substantial increase in crime within a short period of time (there were 500 arrests near the beach in 1969 and 2700 in 1974); and the historic Blizzard of 1978, which destroyed or drove out most of the amusements, businesses, and landmarks that had not already succumbed. Whether fairly or unfairly, by the early 1980s Revere Beach was best known for the image of hypodermic needles littering the sand.
As the recent article at that last link illustrates, many of those negative images remain in the Bostonian consciousness into the early 21st century. But there’s no question that Revere Beach has also entered a new stage, one marked by the debates over development and gentrification on the one hand and tradition and preservation on the other that have informed so much of America’s urban landscape over the last few decades. As always, it’s not necessarily either-or—Revere’s waterfront can be developed (and to a degree must be if it is to survive) without the history being lost, and the history can be preserved (and to my mind must be if we are to remember our past) without sacrificing future growth. And as always, what’s most needed is an awareness of the past that does not elide the darkest times but preserves the ideals; so that whatever Revere Beach becomes in the future, the site can remain emblematic of its status as America’s first public beach.
Next BeachStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other beach histories or stories you’d highlight?