Dissertation: Bringing the Beach to Los Angeles: The Politics and Environment of the Southern California Coast, 1880-1970

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This dissertation examines the historical development of the beaches of the Santa Monica Bay from the 1880s through the twentieth century within the context of the growth of metropolitan Los Angeles. While many see beaches and their popularity as timeless, the coast underwent dramatic transformations over much of the twentieth century. Residents and pleasure seekers embraced the once-unfamiliar landscape and shed perceptions of it as distant and dangerous. The urban shores are in fact the result of widespread cultural change and extensive physical transformations. Building the beach proved tremendously profitable for the principal agents of change, including developers, politicians, planners, and corporations. Coastal promoters and capitalist enterprises not only built recreational attractions and residential developments, but also cultivated a year-round lifestyle of coastal leisure. Residents across California eventually voted to protect the beaches and this lifestyle with environmental regulations and 1972’s Coastal Zone Conservation Act, finally halting decades of rapid change.

Bridging urban, environmental, and cultural history, this study analyzes both the political economy of coastal development and changing ideas about leisure and recreation to explain the origins of this understudied landscape. This breadth required sources including government documents, corporate records, promotional literature and ephemera, oceanographic studies, and material culture. Beaches not only mirrored urban changes in Los Angeles, reflecting the rapidly growing metropolis’s desires, but also fabricated critical components of idealized regional identity. The popular vision of coastal idyll was rooted in a history of exclusions that championed the beachgoer as white and middle-class. The sands provided an important place in Southern California for public performances of identity, class, and race. Examining the growth of the beach reveals a largely unmapped feature in Los Angeles history and a pivotal force in the promotion of Southern California’s coastal lifestyle of leisure.