Elsa Devienne

2016 Princeton-Mellon Fellow

Ph.D. History, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)

Elsa Devienne is a an Assistant Professor in American history and American studies at Université Paris Nanterre. Her book project, "Beaches in the City: A Social and Environmental History of Los Angeles’s Shoreline," traces the transformation of Los Angeles’s beaches in the twentieth century from relatively untouched natural spaces into artificial playgrounds for the wealthy. Using a wide range of data, from engineering reports to popular literature, municipal archives, photographs, and urban planning documents, she argues that the spectacular rise of Los Angeles in the postwar era and its close association with urban modernity hinges on this story. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, engineers, city officials, urban planners, and businessmen worked together to clean up and enlarge the beaches—up to three times the original size— and develop parking lots, freeways, elite clubs, theme parks, and high-rises on the sands. By imposing order on the beach, city leaders hoped to attract and retain the white, middle-class residents on the shore. In relation to this environmental transformation, she examines the importance of the beaches as the birthplace of multiple subcultures that contributed to the emergence and diffusion of alternative values and bodily norms. Devienne argues that they constituted a highly contested terrain where Angelenos could test and challenge the social, racial, and gender boundaries that permeated the city. In the postwar era, city officials modernized the beaches to combat white flight, destroying the traditional leisure spaces of African-American, working-class, and gay Angelenos. Devienne thus uses Los Angeles as a case study to propose re-reading the history of twentieth-century American cities from an original standpoint, that of the beaches of a vast metropolis.