You'd be forgiven for mistaking members of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers for real park employees. After all, they wear official-looking uniforms and speak with authority (plus a touch of Scout-tastic chipperness) about what you can and cannot do on public lands.
But as anyone who has spent time with them knows, the whole thing is something of an elaborate charade -- or is it closer to tongue-in-cheek performance art? It's often difficult to tell, and the ambiguity is definitely deliberate.
"People often mistake us for the real thing, and we don't go out of our way to correct them," says Jenny Price, one of the founding members of the group.
The L.A. Urban Rangers make it their business to inhabit a gray zone where reality meets fiction, art mingles with life and public interest clashes -- sometimes dramatically -- with private concerns. This month, they are conducting the latest in their series of "safaris" along the exclusive beaches of Malibu, showing their audiences how to negotiate the fuzzy line that separates your right to enjoy the beach from another's right to spectacular oceanfront property.
(The remaining safaris are today, Aug. 22 and 23 and are free to the public, but space is limited.)
In one sense, the safaris are a practical exercise in hands-on urbanism, L.A. style: The Rangers instruct their participants to stake out spots on public easements -- the patch of sand between the ocean and private property that the public is legally permitted to occupy. Easements can be difficult to discern because they literally shift with the tide -- the official boundary is the mean high-tide line over the last several months.
Once situated, participants are asked to perform typical "beach activities," such as yoga, building sand castles and reading trashy magazines. The intent, according to the Rangers, is for people to exercise their right to be on the beach as demonstratively as possible.
But there's an intellectual angle as well. "We want to shift the rhetoric of public discourse," says Sara Daleiden, another founding member of the Rangers. "We want people to think of these places as public beaches with private land next door, not the other way around."
The Rangers are planning to take the public-private debate to other parts of L.A., including downtown, where they hope to launch an urban safari next year. For now, however, they are concentrating on Malibu.
Not everyone is happy about the Rangers' presence along the Malibu coast. The safaris often attract local onlookers, some of whom angrily accost the Rangers, accusing them of everything from trespassing to encouraging littering. The Rangers say that dramatic confrontations -- whether in person or via e-mail -- have become a common occurrence.
Recently, one beachfront resident wrote the group an e-mail, saying: "Is it really necessary to open up all areas to the public? If so, may I please have your address? I would love to come over to your house and use your yard as a toilet and your porch as a garbage can."
Another confrontation that happened during a safari last year was caught on camera and found its way to YouTube. In the video, the accoster can be heard calling the Rangers and their group "scumbags" and telling them to "
The L.A. Urban Rangers say they aren't trying to pick a fight with Malibu locals. "Most of these people have a bone to pick and use us to unload," says member Nicholas Bauch. "You have to let them vent."
Despite the regular attacks, the Rangers have been garnering mostly positive attention this year. In July, the group won a $15,000 grant from the California Community Foundation, in cooperation with the J. Paul Getty Trust, which will go toward realizing new projects. The safaris, which accommodate about 30 people, have been booked solid this summer, prompting extra outings.
"They're teaching us things that most of us haven't really thought about before," says Sandy Kline, a Santa Monica resident who participated in a recent safari. "Just a simple thing like getting to the public beach can be challenging in Malibu."
The initial quartet
Formed in 2004, the L.A. Urban Rangers began as four acquaintances -- Price, Daleiden, Therese Kelly and Emily Scott -- who came together during a Pasadena show called Garden Lab that presented environmentally themed arts groups. Scott had worked as a park ranger, so the group decided to adopt that persona and create a fake campfire circle around which they gave talks about urban topics.
The persona stuck and the group took off. The seven or so members (it varies from year to year) come from different professions, including architecture, the visual arts, academia and freelance journalism. But when they are performing, they drop their outside lives to fully inhabit the ranger personality, complete with faux-ranger costume and that hyper-upbeat way of talking.
"We didn't consult with any real park rangers in the beginning," Price recalls. "We weren't sure what real rangers would think of us. What we do is not really a parody of them -- it's more of an affectionate take on it."
Gradually, the group attracted the attention of official organizations like the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the California Coastal Commission and the California Coastal Conservancy. But instead of asking the Rangers to stop what they were doing, the groups have been surprisingly supportive, with some of them providing funding and informational support.
Among the L.A. Urban Rangers' plans is a new safari targeted at downtown L.A., where they hope to bring their brand of exploration to a new human ecosystem. The areas of focus will be public spaces that seem private, public spaces that become private (like valet parking and filming spaces), and public spaces that have no public access. The group says it hopes to kick off the new safari by next year at the earliest.
Past Ranger projects include a guided hike of Hollywood Boulevard that deconstructed the famous street as if it were a natural park. The Rangers have also helped organize a guided cross-country road trip, complete with ecologically themed literature.
The Malibu safaris have been the Rangers' most successful effort, no doubt helped by such controversies as David Geffen's highly public battle with beachgoers at his Carbon Beach home a few years ago.
One favorite activity is inspecting the validity of the signs that locals like to place on their homes warning the public to keep off their property. The Rangers say that many of the signs are deliberately misleading.
One sign on a house on Malibu Road Beach reads "Sit 60' Seaward of Our House" -- a directive that would put pedestrians squarely in the ocean. Other signs that read "Private Beach" or "No Stopping" are false and are in violation of the Coastal Commission's rules on signage.
For reservations for the remaining safaris, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.