On the Waterfront


by John Stilgoe
Yale University Press, 443 pp., $35.00

Waterfronts: Cities Reclaim Their Edge

by Ann Breen and Dick Rigby. maps by Diane Charyk Norris and Charles Norris
McGraw-Hill, 333 pp., $49.95

On the beach, where the sea wets the land, boundary disputes and ambiguities naturally pile up with bladderwrack and plastic bottles. The seaman looks anxiously to his depth sounder as he closes with the shore, for land is always dangerous to ships, while the landsman fears the water—the tide fanning out at speed over the level sands, the undertow, the deep. The law of the land gets into trouble when it reaches the ocean, often being hard put to it to say where the land is, or if the land is. Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, for instance, whose mixed diurnal and semidiurnal tides work in a lolloping daily rhythm of high-high-water, low-low-water, low-high-water, and high-low-water, the state of Washington holds title to the inshore seabed “up to and including the line of ordinary high tide,” which would be a tidy definition, except that no such thing as an ordinary high tide has ever been witnessed in these parts.

Legally, socially, morally, the beach is a marginal zone to which marginal people tend to gravitate, and where respectable folk tend to behave in marginal and eccentric ways. The best beach architecture reflects the limbo-like character of the place. In David Copperfield, Mr. Peggotty’s residence on the sand at Yarmouth has long since ceased to be a ship but has not yet entirely become a house. Author and illustrator are at odds over what sort of an object it is:Dickens describes it as a stranded barge, right side up; Phiz pictures it as an upturned boat. The discrepancy is a happy one, for everything about Peggotty’s “ship-looking thing” is importantly discrepant—his apparent wife is not his wife, his stable family, seated snugly round the fire, turns out to be an assortment of stray widows and orphans. The warmth and solidity of their domestic interior, crowded with knick-knacks, freshly painted and “beautifully clean,” are pitched against the “great dull waste” of the sands outside. That a wrecked ship should serve as a welcoming lighted haven from the cold and storm of early nineteenth-century England is a wonderful, paradoxical transformation of a kind that could happen on the outermost fringe of society—on the beach.

So the Prince Regent, later George IV, built his astonishing royal pavilion beside the sea at Brighton. Many years later an aged courtier, Lord Pitt-Lennox, fondly remembered George as “that mighty magician, who, Aladdin-like, raised a magnificent town from a small insignificant fishing village.” (Thackeray, born in 1811, the first year of the regency, recalled him as “Swaddled in feather beds all his life, lazy, obese, perpetually eating and drinking,” and referred to the pavilion as “the Prince’s hideous house at Brighton.”) The pavilion was—outlandish. Its onion domes reminded early guidebook writers of the Kremlin, its stables were “Indian,” its furnishings a riot of chinoiserie. Recreations there were famously dissipated in the Byronic style of cards, women, wine, and laughter (sermons and soda-water the day after). The Prince’s chief architects—first Humphrey Repton, then John Nash—were paid to…

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