Equality

America’s Disappearing Public Beaches

How classism and racism are pushing beach access out of reach for many.

Sean Kernan
5 min readNov 27, 2023

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Baby standing with mother holding his hands.
Me learning to walk, with a cameo by my mother’s legs. Circa 1983.

My earliest steps were practiced on the sands of Cocoa Beach, Florida. At every turn of my childhood, there remains a beach-infused moment that is enshrouded in nostalgia. I graduated high school in Virginia Beach, and spent my 20s in Coronado, California, only a block away from the cold Pacific Ocean. I am a child of the water.

Which is why it brings me great sadness seeing the mass privatization of so many beaches. I know the feeling of sand beneath your feet, and the seaside wind on your face, and playing in the water with friends, will become a luxury, rather than a right. The exclusion isn’t happening in one sweeping ban. It is a product of incrementalism and classism at its finest. The sad truth is that there could well come a day when you are “too poor” to go to the beach.

I was recently walking along the street in downtown Clearwater, which is only 30 minutes from my home in Tampa. The city and its beaches were mostly public, but are now being slowly over-run by the Church of Scientology (it’s headquartered there) buying up huge swathes of coveted real estate. This is compounded by the commercialization of the city and mansions springing up along its waterfronts. As I walked through Clearwater that day, I came upon two parents and their two children, both under the age of 10, standing in front of a private property sign, blocking access to an obvious sand trail to the beach. Disappointment was written all over their faces as they turned around with their beach gear and cooler in hand, continuing their quest for a beach day.

A dystopian vision swept over me and I saw people buying access to beaches through vending machines, and getting arrested for touching sand without a permit. It doesn’t feel far from a potential reality.

Per the Public Trust Doctrine, some portion of every beach in each state is open to the public. “Some” becomes the operative word, and is subject to endless complications. Lido Beach, in New York, is ground zero for these complications. Technically, it is open to the public — to its high tide line. But getting access to many parts of it is near impossible without trespassing…

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Sean Kernan

Writer and writing instructor. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.