Wreck Beach under siege
Were Eli content to let his 10-inch-when-erect “gift from God” merely lie in the sunshine at Wreck Beach, Judy Williams could relax. Back in 1970, that’s what the beach’s defenders fought for: the right to be nude in nature.
Instead, the 28-year-old office worker—who didn’t want his real name to be used because, he said, he’d lose his job—claims he regularly uses his substantial rig to shag in the bushes at Wreck. He, along with a gang of mostly under-40s, advertises on Craigslist for casual encounters. They’re men seeking women, men seeking men, women seeking women, and couples seeking add-ons.
Williams thinks public sex could ultimately ruin the beach. For 27 years, she’s been at the helm of the Wreck Beach Preservation Society, defending Canada’s first clothing-optional beach against a “never-ending and ceaseless onslaught” of attacks. After as many as 80 years as a tacit clothing-optional zone, and drawing as many as 12,000 users in a day, Wreck has no legal protection and no real representative government.
If the cruisers take over, she fears, the heat will come down on everyone. With 2010 on the horizon, she’s afraid that the same folks who brought us Project Civil City will crack down on Vancouver’s “green-light” district—where just about everything goes, but not quite.
“If you’re an exhibitionist, go down to English Bay and have your rocks off there,” Williams told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from the deck of her Langley home. “It doesn’t belong on the beach, which is a family beach and a beach at risk from politicians just because we’re nude. We don’t need to add lewd acts.”
Williams isn’t paranoid. On May 28, the superintendent of parks banned nudity at Wreck’s “sister” naturist beach in San Onofre, California. The reason: a ranger had complained that the nude beach was attracting public sex. California, like B.C., tolerates some clothing-optional areas, but there’s no legal protection in either jurisdiction. And Williams is concerned the same thing could happen here. Both nudity and public sex are still Canadian Criminal Code violations.
Eli, on the other hand, believes he represents the “new Vancouver”—young, Internet-savvy pleasure seekers with no articulated philosophy backing up their behaviour. It seems that no one, including Eli, is publicly fighting for the right to have sex on the beach (as the naturists did for their own rights, at the 1970 Georgia Straight–promoted Wreck Beach “nude-in” and other group protests).
But he disdains the WBPS’s wish to control his behaviour. “These people figure they own the beach,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “They feel they’ve got people coming into their back yards.”¦I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t worry about it. I don’t have the energy for it. I’m an open, free-spirited person and I enjoy life, and I’m going to spend my time at a nude beach, and if something happens, great.”
Williams and others, however, know that the beach is far from a free and easy place. Never mind the old struggles: plans starting in the 1950s for a restaurant, ferry, rowing club, hotel, and road on the prime piece of real estate; the 1977 march against Wreck’s nudity by then–Vancouver city councillor and evangelist Bernice Gerard; and the perpetual cliff-erosion issue. Now the “new Vancouver”—prestige, frenzied condo development, individualism, and youth—is butting up against Wreck, one of the last vestiges of the “old Vancouver” as imagined by the 1960s’ and 1970s’ egalitarians, idealists, feminists, and peaceniks: the hippies.
So Williams is calling for the beach to become a national or UNESCO heritage site, to protect it from local authorities.
If Wreck Beach did become a national historic site, it would get an on-site bilingual bronze plaque explaining its importance. The beach’s hippie-era history would stand out on the register of local historic sites, though. All are pre-1945, so far: the Abbotsford Sikh Temple (1910), the Gulf of Georgia Cannery (1894), and the Vogue Theatre (1941), for example.
To have the beach designated a historic site, an individual or group must apply to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The board, according to its Web site, receives more than 200 requests each year, and conducts studies on about 70 of those. Ultimately, it is the minister of the environment who approves the board’s recommendations, a process that takes at least six months. Then the board may offer the applicants financial assistance and protection agreements, and may even acquire property to preserve the site.
Watermelon—performance artist, Rio Theatre owner, High Times cover model, and roaming vendor of fleshy pink fruit—loves Wreck Beach.
She’s 35 now and has been a fixture there since she was 19, except for the time she was temporarily banned by the courts for allegedly selling THC–laced cookies. Even though the world has changed since the 1970s, she said, Wreck is more relevant than ever, iconoclastic and an urban retreat. But she, too, fears for its future.
“People partying for free is totally against capitalism and how the world works,” she told the Straight, noting that last summer, the RCMP stationed five officers on the beach for five hours a day, standing 20 feet apart, waiting for beach visitors to do something illegal (beyond being naked). “It’s prime real estate”¦so I don’t think it’ll be there forever. I just get the feeling they’re going to slowly snuff us out.”
At the beach on July 8, Watermelon and Williams were literally surrounded by “new Vancouver”. Jet boats that Williams believes leak fuel directly into the water had anchored next to the swimming area. The tallest of the 2005-built UBC Marine Towers loomed behind the trees. In winter, Williams said, it’s visible from the beach—the only development that is.
Williams blames the construction for increasing runoff on the cliffs, which, she said, brings cadmium, lead, mercury, and fecal coliform onto the beach. To Watermelon’s left and right, young people wearing board shorts and bikinis, with apparently no memory of the fight for their naturist freedoms, frolicked in the surf. In the bushes, strangers with a bevy of sexual desires were likely discovering one another.
“I’m aghast when I go back and look at the records of how many months and years of my life I’ve spent, along with some really wonderful people, staying one step ahead of UBC,” Williams said of her constant battle to save the cliffs. Since 1988, the UBC Properties Trust, a private company wholly owned by UBC, has been rapidly developing the campus, in part to raise money for the university. Of the eight neighbourhoods originally proposed for construction on campus, only one has stalled: the strip that runs along the top of the cliffs adjacent to Pacific Spirit Regional Park, near Wreck. Williams takes part of the credit.
The company is waiting for the results of a study of cliff stability, according to its Web site. Though the Straight made repeated calls to the UBC Properties Trust, no one agreed to be interviewed.
“The greatest threat to the beach is the development boom and the appetite for market housing at UBC, and the [rainwater] runoff problems that this is going to increase manifold,” Williams argued.
Carellin Brooks, on the other hand, thinks it’s the people, not the planners, who are the bigger threat. Last year, the UBC English professor published an exhaustive history called Wreck Beach (New Star Books). At a Davie Street café, she told the Straight that even though there have been an unusual number of slides on the cliffs since 2005, it’ll be the clash between Wreck folk and monied society that will ultimately undo the beach.
“In all the records I searched, I never came across anyone who wanted to get rid of it because it’s a nude beach,” she said. “But when you get enough people in University Town [UBC’s planned “sustainable” live-study campus], you’ll get calls for changes in behaviour. Just think about what happened when Sam Sullivan moved to Yaletown. All of a sudden, he called for the late-night sirens to be turned off.
"The people who are moving into University Town are—let me go out on a limb here—not the type to go to Wreck Beach. There’s leftover hippies [at the beach], pot-smoking students. Those who have just paid $2.5 million for a condo will want something a little more manicured. ”˜I want to go for a walk down Trail 7 with my kid without seeing men having sex in the bushes.’ That’s a compelling moral argument.”
Brooks also thinks the beach should become a government-protected heritage site, with plaques at the Trail 6 rest stops documenting milestones in the struggle to keep the beach usable. In 1974, for example, protesters blocked bulldozers from re-engineering the cliffs and pebbling the beach. And in 2004, the WBPS forced UBC to modify plans for the towers so they would be less visible from the beach.
Though Wreck is outside of Vancouver proper, it wasn’t always, and it may one day return to the city’s jurisdiction.
The Straight left messages for mayoral candidates Peter Ladner and Gregor Robertson, asking them what they would do to defend this piece of the city’s history. Neither chose to reply. Gary Gibson, the appointed director of Metro Vancouver’s Electoral Area A, which includes Wreck, also didn’t return the Straight’s calls by deadline.
Brooks believes the beach’s iconoclastic role has remained, and that’s the important history that should be officially preserved. In 2008, she said, Vancouver is missing a “commons”, a truly public area where everyone can gather as equals and not be harassed on the basis of class. Project Civil City has killed this idea in Vancouver, she said. But nudity still shreds social stratification. “Vancouver is turning into a money-talks town,” Brooks pointed out. “Citizenship is bought through property ownership.”¦When you’re at the beach, you’re not consuming, you don’t own the property, and you’re not producing.”
But even if the function of the beach has remained steady over 40 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find an under-30 beach visitor (let alone a mayoral candidate, evidently) who can articulate what the historical beach is about, and thus defend it as more than just a beautiful spot.
Back in 1970, Korky Day was 22 and helping to organize the Wreck Beach nude-in. He was an archetype of his generation: a war resister from California, a defector from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a self-declared social revolutionary. When the Straight met with him at a Gastown coffee shop, he was again a Vancouver archetype, this time as an aging ex-hippie. With fluffy, greying hair, a plaid shirt open to reveal his 60-year-old chest, and Scotch tape holding together his thick ’80s-style glasses, he outlined why naturism was more than just nudity.
“This was a way to overturn imperialism, the patriarchy, capitalism, all kinds of oppressions. And it was the sexual revolution.” He walks Wreck Beach these days, evangelizing the old concepts to new users.
“The beach changed because the world changed,” he said. “We try to teach each generation coming to appreciate what we’ve done, to improve it, and to make it their own. But, frankly, we’re a little disappointed, like most parents in their children, that they haven’t fully taken up our ideals.”
About half of beach users are at least partially clothed, according to an early-1990s WBPS count conducted for the then–GVRD. Indeed, on July 8, the Tuesday-afternoon crowd was a mix: early-20s skimboarders in shorts; boomers in straw hats and nothing else; UBC students in string bikini bottoms; a pot-cookie vendor in a sarong and sunglasses.
On his missions, when Day asks young people why they’re wearing swimsuits, they tell him it’s because nude freedom is a given, he said. So it doesn’t matter whether they’re nude or not.
But it does matter, according to Day. Those same struggles—against capitalism and the like—are not dead, and naturism is still the answer, he believes. Tack on environmentalism, and Wreck is still the spark for a 21st-century social revolution, says Day.
Give the kids a break, Mark Wexler, a Simon Fraser University professor of applied ethics, told the Straight. The reality, he said, is the third generation of users of any facility won’t resemble the first.
“The first-generation users believe they created the place,” he said in a phone interview from his office. “The second generation comes and rebels a bit, but by and large fall under the first. The third generation [under-30s] realize the first generation are really old and no longer with it”¦the third generation will not understand the mumbo jumbo of Judy [Williams’s generation].”
But 20-year-old regular Sasha Smith is discovering the meaning of naturism for herself. When she first tried the beach at 18, naturism as a philosophy was foreign to her. Now, she said, she gets it, and it’s still relevant.
“The first time you see someone with their junk out you’re like, ”˜Woah!’ ” she told the Straight in a phone interview. She’s a former bikini-and-headphones Kitsilano Beach girl, she said. She stopped going because “it’s a meat market” and she was looking for something more genuine. She found it at Wreck.
“You just get over yourself.”¦I feel like it’s definitely anti the majority of society.”¦Wreck symbolizes somewhere you can go and just be your essence, because there’s nothing attached to you. That’s the nudist concept. There’s no bullshit surrounding you. You’re just being enveloped in the experience.”
Smith, who has a background in volunteering and activism, said she’s well aware of Wreck’s struggles, thanks to beach conversations with Day’s generation (though not with Day himself). Yet she hasn’t joined the fight.
Again, Wexler suggests giving Smith and her peers a break. To Williams’s generation, he said, the ideas of good and bad were fairly obvious, the notion of authority and antiauthority plain—and they felt like “the beautiful outsiders”. For Smith and others her age, the world is a much more complicated place.
“Each generation lets the last generation down,” Wexler said. “That’s the nature of the beast. Will it [Smith’s generation] step up? Yes. Will it satisfy Judy’s [Williams] generation? No. But it’s a piquant disappointment.”
Outside of the Vancouver Museum’s “You say you want a revolution” gallery, little physical evidence remains of the movements that gave rise to modern Wreck Beach. The 4th Avenue location of Black Swan Records is now a Starbucks; the Women’s Bookstore Collective is closed; Cool-Aid is no more; COPE is having a near-death experience; Vancouver 2010 is no UN Habitat; the old False Creek mix of housing wasn’t re-created in Southeast False Creek; and although the original freeway was stopped, the Gateway project is on our doorstep.
The idea of Wreck as a historic site commemorating a generation of activists seems like a good one. But it doesn’t fit easily into Canada’s heritage-site definitions, nor UNESCO’s. Plus, a designation will only offer, at best, a few protections. Wexler pointed out that inviting any kind of bureaucracy to the beach may create more problems than it solves for the “feeling where people can take off their clothes and be free”. To him, the biggest issue for the beach could be skin cancer. People of Williams’s age, he said, aren’t scared of melanoma in the same way that 20-year-old Smith’s generation is.
A threat the old fighters didn’t identify is the aging of their generation. Sure, there are younger beach users coming up behind Williams, who is a card-carrying senior citizen living with osteoporosis. But fighting for Wreck is a big job. She spends up to 80 hours a week working on preserving the beach, researching outdoor toilets, investigating Steller sea lion deaths, writing reports, liaising with UBC and Metro Vancouver, and holding court by the curve of the breakwater, at the beach neighbourhood known as the Oasis.
The WBPS has been meeting monthly since 1977, Williams said, and new members come to each meeting. Yet she admits that “people don’t want to regularly attend meetings.” And the younger, sexually driven beach users have not been invited into the fold, for obvious reasons.
Brooks’s book ends with quotes from aging regulars who believe the beach’s unique spirit alone will cause it to endure. But if it’s just a pretty place, devoid in modern minds of a deeper history and meaning, can it? The author thinks the beach’s value lies in its relevance as a continuing mirror for urban Vancouver’s successes and failures.
“The beach is home to wildly competing groups of users who all seem to make it work,” she said, “and it’s a blueprint for what the rest of our city could be.”¦Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is that the beach represents freedom. I think it represents possibility.”