It was a sweltering Memorial Day in the New York area so I drove with my kids to Greenwich, Connecticut, which I was told had beautiful beaches. I was somewhat reluctant to go because I had read that Greenwich makes it difficult for outsiders to use their parks and beaches. But I had also read that the city was sued in the past over privatizing their beaches so I did not anticipate any problems.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro writes in his book The Power Broker that the reason the bridges on New York's parkways were built so low was to make it impossible for buses to bring low-income families, especially African-Americans, to the public parks and beaches in New York State. But all this was the past. We live in the America of 2011. Beaches are public and no one is kept out. Right?
That assumption was the beginning of a pretty miserable day.
We arrived at Greenwich Point Park, a jutting peninsula that looked pretty. They would not sell us a pass to get in. They told us we had to drive back into the city, go to some bureaucrat's office, and pay $20 for the car and $5 for each person to sit on a beach. We were happy to pay but couldn't we do it right there? No, the attendant explained to us that we had to follow this map back into the city and go to an office that hopefully was open on Memorial Day.
The children and I were deflated. We gave up on the park and proceeded to drive around Greenwich looking for a pretty place to stroll. We found a gorgeous coastal walk, parked the car, and climbed over a small stone fence onto a tiny and mostly unoccupied beach. Immediately a man in a suit and a tie alighted on us to tell us that the beach was private. He was the manager of a club that owned it. We had to leave immediately. We climbed back on to the sidewalk.
But the manager was not finished with us yet. We had to leave the street as well, he told us. Turns out we had driven into a private community and the very street and sidewalk were off limits. By now I was getting tired of this. I asked the manager how a street could be private. He explained that the residents paid a special tax. I responded that I had the misfortune of living in a city in New Jersey that had some of the highest taxes in the nation. Still, we didn't close our streets to visitors. He proceeded to call a patrol car that was driving by. Within minutes the police officer was telling me, right in front of my kids, that if I did not leave he would arrest me. 'But there was no sign saying any of this was private,' I objected. 'No one stopped to tell us we were in a private area. We just wanted to go to a beach. We drove up, parked, and started to walk. Is that a crime?' He told me I had received my first warning and this was my final chance. He reached for something in his pocket to begin the booking process. I thought to myself, 'if I'm arrested my children will be stranded in this private community, they won't have anyone to drive them off, and soon they'll be arrested as well. Then my wife would come to find us and she too would be arrested. The whole family would be behind bars.' I politely agreed to leave. The policeman smiled warmly and politely gave me directions to a 'public' beach in a nearby town. 'It's where I take my grandkids,' he told me. Wow. You mean even the police who patrolled the area did not use it when off duty? At least I wasn't the only outcast.
We then drove to Rye, New York, looking for a beach, only to discover that these beaches were indeed open to riff-raff like us but that there was a charge. Nine dollars per adult. Kids were free. At least some members of society were valued in these areas. We paid and entered, trying our best to salvage some of our day.
As we drove home my kids asked me if we had entered another planet. 'What was that strange place, Tatty?' they asked me. 'Do they only want really rich people there? The place seemed a little snobby.' A little?
You see, my kids were raised in a community in New Jersey that has a beautiful wooded area at its center. But the idea of closing it off to non-residents would be anathema. The same is true of Miami Beach, Florida, where I grew up, one of the most heavenly places in America, where every beach is public. The same is true of where I spent my early childhood, in Los Angeles, California, where all the beaches are public, and Sydney, Australia, where my wife grew up, which has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, all of which, again, are public.
My wife and I were on our way to Australia to visit her parents when we stopped in Hawaii to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We discovered some of the most beautiful beaches and coastline on earth. Again, all public.
Which begs the question, what's wrong with Greenwich? Do they really want to be known as a closed and elitist community that makes it so difficult for people from out of town to simply enjoy themselves? Does it take lawsuits to teach people hospitality? And how would they feel if the rest of the country retaliated? What if, say, New York City put a special tax on people visiting from Greenwich to go to the theater simply because Greenwich makes it so unwelcoming for New York residents to use their beaches?
At the heart of the American dream is the belief in private property. No one is arguing with that. But some things should always belong to the people. Here's to public beaches and parks and those states and cities that are kind enough to grant warm hospitality to all who visit.
As for the cities who have far more miserly hearts, I hope they change their ways and learn, as the ancient Sages of the Talmud taught, to welcome all with a smiling countenance.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network and a radio and TV host. The best-selling author of 25 books, he will shortly publish, "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.