Making the California coast public for all

Invisible barriers have kept people of color at bay.

 

On a warm April morning, Matthew Hernández, wearing a wetsuit, strode across a wide beach near the Santa Monica pier, heading toward the Pacific Ocean. It was only the sixth time 18-year-old Hernández had ever set foot on the sand, despite living less than an hour away, in North Hollywood, California. “No one that I live with really wants to go to the beach,” he said. Until recently, he’d spent most weekends playing videogames.

Hernández and a half dozen other young men had come to the beach for a two-hour lesson with The Surf Bus Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks to get low-income kids to the beach, into the waves, and perhaps into a lifelong relationship with the ocean. 

Matthew Hernández practices pushing up into a surf stance during a lesson with The Surf Bus Foundation. Although he lives an hour away, this was only his sixth time setting foot on the beach.
Jill Replogle

All of the students were African-American or Latino, while most of the Surf Bus volunteer instructors — nearly all members of nearby high school surf teams — were white. The contrast reflects the long history of racial and income disparities that have made the California coast — an 840-mile-long stretch of public open space — a poor reflection of the state’s demographics. 

Minority residents now comprise 62 percent of California’s population, outnumbering the state’s white, non-Hispanic population in a trend that’s expected to continue. According to a University of California, Los Angeles study released earlier this year, however, they still face persistent barriers to enjoying what is arguably their state’s most valuable public asset.  

Still, an overwhelming number of Californians of all races and income levels see the coast as important, according to a Field Poll that accompanied the UCLA study. In an increasingly crowded state, California’s beaches are at once parks, playgrounds, gathering and meditation spaces. And so a new crop of community and legislative leaders is pressuring the state to focus on increasing access to the coast. In some cases, that means tackling barriers that go well beyond fences and gates, to discrimination, poverty and neglect.

Several legislators of color, including Lorena González and Autumn Burke, along with minority-led environmental nonprofits like the Oakland-based group Azul, are claiming a stake in debates over coastal conservation and access — pushing legislative and policy changes that reflect the needs of the state’s diverse communities. Their efforts range from encouraging inexpensive and culturally sensitive coastal lodging, to forcing the state to consider the impacts of coastal development on poorer, often minority residents.  

“We have seen a resurgence in environmental justice as an issue being taken more seriously,” said Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, who founded Azul. This is partly thanks to the rising power of Latinos in the state Legislature. “The power-dynamic shift in Sacramento (the state capital) has a lot to do with it,” she said.

At the same time, community groups are working to get more people of color invested in coastal access, some of them through sports like surfing. At the beach in Santa Monica, Hernández broke away from the group after just a few waves and trudged back onto shore. “I can’t swim,” he said matter-of-factly. Not knowing how to swim, it turns out, was among the top reasons cited in the UCLA study as a deterrent to visiting the coast, especially by African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Just a few blocks north of where Hernández stood, a plaque reminds visitors of what UCLA environmental historian and study author Jon Christensen calls “a legacy of historical discrimination around swimming pools and the beach.” From the 1920s through the 1950s, the beach here was known as “the Inkwell” — the only stretch of sand where African-Americans could enjoy the beach free from discrimination. It is here where Nick Rolando Gabaldón, the first known LA-area surfer of African-American and Mexican descent, taught himself to surf in the 1940s.

These days, surfing is still largely a white man’s sport. But that’s something The Surf Bus and organizations like the Black Surfers Collective and Brown Girl Surf seek to change. “Every picture of surf culture and beach culture is very different from the way we look,” said Mira Manickam, who founded San Francisco-based Brown Girl Surf in 2011. “If you picture a surfer, it’s a white dude with beach-blond hair. ... If you picture a surfer girl, it’s a blond girl in a bikini, hyper-sexualized. It’s a very pervasive image.” 

Bella Maroon rests on her surfboard during a youth program with Brown Girl Surf at Muir Beach. She has since taken on a leadership role in the program as a junior surf instructor.
James Morel/Brown Girl Surf

Maximizing public access isn’t just in the interest of communities of color: It is a goal enshrined in California’s 1976 Coastal Act, a far-reaching piece of legislation passed by voters at a time of rapid-paced coastal development and growing environmental awareness. The Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy — the state’s two public agencies charged with carrying out the act — struggle mightily to reach that goal in the face of relentless development pressure on some of the country’s most valuable real estate.

For the state and for mainstream environmental groups, the struggle for coastal access has largely focused on physical barriers like private gates and seawalls. “There has been a lot of attention to very high-profile cases of billionaires blocking access to the last 100 feet or 100 yards of getting to beaches,” Christensen said, “but not a lot of information on other barriers that might exist.”  

Christensen’s UCLA study confirmed what many in the coastal environmental justice movement already knew: that daunting invisible barriers exist well before one even reaches the physical ones.

The high cost is a major deterrent. San Francisco State University economist Philip King found that a slight increase in travel costs, including parking, can easily lead a family to stay home. “We’re right on the cusp of where it’s getting too expensive to go to the beach,” he said. Parking at many state beaches in Southern California costs $15 a day. Three out of four people surveyed for the study also noted the lack of affordable accommodations along the coast.

Assemblywoman Lorena González Fletcher, who represents a Latino-dominant district in southern San Diego County, is currently pushing a bill aimed at preserving and increasing low-cost coastal lodging. The bill, which is awaiting a final Senate vote later this summer, would allow the state Coastal Conservancy to build cabins on public land and purchase existing lodgings to be managed by public agencies or nonprofits at low rates. Dubbed the “cabin bill,” it has wide support from community and environmental justice advocates.

Limited public transportation is also a problem, though Los Angeles recently expanded metro service to within a few blocks of the popular Santa Monica shoreline. This summer, Hernández and hundreds of others will be able to catch weekly rides to the beach with Surf Bus.

After gaining confidence on the boogie board, Hernández was ready for a surfboard. After a few tries on his stomach, he soon was up on one knee, and by the end of the lesson, he was getting to his feet. Marion Clark, president of Surf Bus, hooted wildly from the shore. 

“Going deeper in the water and actually feeling the water all over your face, through your hair and all that,” said Hernández at the end of the lesson, “you can’t beat it.”

Jill Replogle is a California-based reporter with a passion for stories about changing demographics and environmental policy. She has reported extensively from the West and from Mexico and Central America on a wide range of issues. Her day job is covering Orange County for L.A.-based KPCC public radio.