On Memorial Day weekend, I stopped off in western Malibu at Broad Beach, my favorite L.A.-area beach, to see whether the summer security guards had been hired back. I was hoping that all the bad press and attendant outrage over Malibu's efforts to block public beach access might have persuaded the Broad Beach homeowners to reform their ways. But no such luck. A sizable guard on a big red all-terrain vehicle waited for me as I walked down the public easement you use to cross the beach to the wet sand. I stepped around him, and he informed me that I was disobeying a sign on the dry sand above us: "Do not trespass. Private property line begins 25 feet toward the ocean from this sign."
It's summer in L.A. County. School's almost out, and we're calling up friends, stocking up on sunscreen and heading to the beach. Which means that in Malibu, some people are cleaning off "private beach" signs, dispatching private patrols and calling up lawyers to sue the state over public-access laws.
The signs on Broad Beach, which purport to mark the "mean high tide line," are of notoriously questionable accuracy. California guarantees everyone the constitutional right to walk below this line on any beach — which generally means you can walk where the sand is damp. But to obey these signs, you'd often be in water over your head. Most "private" signs on the beach require state permits, which the Broad Beachers don't have. The boundaries the signs identify are meaningless in any case, since only the State Lands Commission can calculate where the exact line is. And this beach's well-kept secret is that a great deal of it is perfectly legal to walk on above the high-tide line, since, in exchange for permits to build, more than one-third of these property owners have agreed to open their dry sand for public use. This cop-for-hire on the red ATV, in other words, actually doesn't have the first clue as to where the public legally can and cannot walk on this lovely, narrow beach.
But never mind all that, because the main point here is that to take a walk on a public beach in Malibu, you shouldn't have to come armed with the state Constitution, a copy of the state Coastal Act of 1976, property maps and a tape measure. You should not encounter private guards who park on public land to tell you where public land is not — any more than you should on Venice, Santa Monica, Redondo, Hermosa or Manhattan beaches, where private homeowners also live. You shouldn't have to feel like a trespasser. Malibu residents complain that people are cheering on the battles for beach access here because it's such sporting fun to annoy the rich and famous — and the media certainly have been making legitimate fun of film industry mogul David Geffen. But the real reason the Malibu beach wars have attracted such undue attention is that efforts to block access to these beaches count as one of the most egregious examples of the failures of public life and public space in Los Angeles.
L.A. historically has suffered notoriously from both sorts of failures — and critics have often linked the deficit of public life to deficits of public space. L.A. has set aside less public park space per capita than any other major American city. It has privileged private property over public space in case after case, but the failures of public space go deeper than meager acreage. Spaces that do exist can be difficult to gain access to and even to find. And wealthier Angelenos have often been allowed to treat public spaces as private.
Witness downtown L.A., an oft-cited example. The historic and business center of L.A. doesn't boast a single large public park; the few public spaces within corporate plazas and buildings tend to look private and can be hard to figure out how to enter. Consider, too, the L.A. River: It is arguably the most logical site for public green space in the L.A. basin, but the concrete channel has maximized private development along the river's banks, and the county has (until recently) made public access mostly illegal. Who can even find the river?
Violations of public space pop up regularly in the newspaper — a private golf range, The Times reports, is under construction at Los Angeles City College — and in one's neighborhood. Think film shoots. Mourn for all the public parking that disappears when valet hour arrives. Near my own Venice street, the producers of the Independent Spirit Awards — the nationally televised film-awards gala — didn't think twice as they posted "private property" signs around a rented municipal Santa Monica parking lot. In this town, traditionally, public space just can't get no respect.
Except at the beach. In L.A.'s unseemly history of public space, the beach has so often shone as the Great Exception. When asked today where L.A.'s truly successful public places are, Angelenos tend to point to Griffith Park and the beach — but especially the beach. Used widely and jointly by all economic, racial and ethnic groups from across the county, the beaches constitute rare shared ground. They're a good place (one of the only places) to go in L.A. to see what great public spaces do.
Public spaces come in all shapes and sizes, but public beaches, like all great outdoor parks, offer all kinds of individual and social benefits. They offer urbanites places to walk, run, sit, eat, play and enjoy the natural world, whether alone or with other people. They fulfill a democratic commitment to greater social equality, since they allow everyone to enjoy such spaces on an absolutely equal footing.
Outdoor public spaces nourish public identity and a sense of collective interest. When you're in them, it is hard to forget that you share your city with many others; a big public park is a good place to remember that no matter where you live in this megalopolis, you depend absolutely on a great host of public services, on the citywide labor force, and on all the far-flung places where you work, eat, shop, have fun and make your living (or fortune). You may not ponder any of this overtly. But you can feel it, and it's satisfying. The space could be a downtown park or a mountain trail: This is a place, it feels like, that is and should be for all of us.
California has long recognized the importance of the beach as an essential public space. By law, private development in most cases cannot interfere with public use. The Coastal Act, following the state Constitution, requires all beachfront communities to maximize public access.
So when Malibu homeowners post "private beach" signs along 20 miles of the coast — fully a quarter of the beachfront in L.A. County — it strikes a nerve. When they refuse to provide access ways, and hire guards to enforce questionable signs, and use boulders to block public parking, and sue right and left to gut the state access laws — which the state is now enforcing with more success and commitment — and, in some cases, build out over the high tide line, the resulting flood of objections does not signal latent aggression toward rich people.
Most people live next to public spaces, which we call streets and sidewalks. A lot of Angelenos live next to the beaches. It's admittedly not always easy. I live steps from the beach in Venice, and my neighbors and I are not entirely thrilled when Memorial Day heralds larger crowds. But we're not entirely un-thrilled. We may like having the beach to ourselves in winter. But many of us also delight in the civic satisfactions that public spaces have to offer. I don't necessarily blame the folks in Malibu who have bought and built homes on these beaches — under the assumption that beachfront residents could continue to call the beaches their own — for being upset. But I do fault beachfront residents and the city of Malibu when they force the state to use our taxes to battle so fiercely for our established right to use the beaches.
If you want to insulate yourself at home from public lands and enjoy the wealth to do so, or if your celebrity requires the understandable need for a perimeter, then right next to the beach — the most popular, most fundamental public space in L.A., where your backyard will belong to all of us — just is not the most appropriate place to put your house. Signs, guards, boulders and lawsuits have kept people off these beaches. But even in Malibu, they cannot, in the long run, make a great public space anything other than public.
Jennifer Price is a freelance writer and historian. Her written work has been published in the New York Times, North America Review and American Scholar. About her recent book, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, the Los Angeles Times said, “'Flight Maps' will provoke and excite you. … Humor, self-scrutiny and a passion for ideas light up [its] pages.”