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Dr Elsa Devienne


Department: Humanities

I joined Northumbria University in 2019 as lecturer in US history. My research lies at the intersection of urban history, environmental history, and the history of gender, body and sexuality, with a focus on the 20th century. I am particularly interested in the history of Americans’ intense engagement with their coastlines, from the 19th-century beach-bathing boom until today’s climate crisis and its catastrophic consequences for coastal communities.

My first book, The Sand Rush: An Environmental History of the Los Angeles’s Beaches (Sorbonne Editions, forthcoming in February 2020), recounts the formidable beach modernization campaign that transformed Los Angeles into one of the world’s greatest coastal metropolises, revealing how the city’s man-made shores served as a central locus for the reinvention of seaside leisure and the triumph of modern bodies. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, L.A. engineers, city officials, urban planners, and the business elite worked together to transform the relatively untouched beaches of the early twentieth century into modern playgrounds for the white middle-class. They cleaned up and enlarged the beaches—up to three times their original size—and destroyed old piers and barracks to make room for brand-new accommodations, parking lots, and freeways. The members of this powerful “beach lobby” reinvented the beach experience for the suburban age, effectively preventing a much-feared “white flight” from the coast. In doing so, they established Southern California as the national reference point for shoreline planning and coastal access, and opened up vast public spaces for Angelenos to express themselves, show off their bodies, and forge alternative communities. Yet these transformations also had adverse consequences for certain groups of beachgoers, including African Americans, gay men and women, and bodybuilders, whose presence on the sand did not fit what the beach lobby had in mind for the shores. By fully integrating environmental, cultural, and social history, The Sand Rush not only uncovers how the Los Angeles coastline was constructed—both literally and discursively—, but also how this major planning and engineering project affected the lives of ordinary city-dwellers and their relationship to nature.

The book will be published in French first (it was originally written as a French PhD dissertation) but I'm working on an English version. 

I am also the author of several articles published in academic journals in the US and Europe, including in The Journal of Urban HistoryThe European Journal of American Studies, California History, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d'histoire and Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. My article, “The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach: Reassessing the Muscular Physique in Postwar America, 1940s-1980s,” published in Southern California Quarterly (Fall 2018) was awarded the 2019 Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. Award by the Historical Society of Southern California. Please do get in touch if you'd like the PDF of any of these articles but can't have access to them. 

I regularly try to write for a general audience. You can find an op-ed (in French) I wrote for Libération in reaction to the 2020 Australian bushfires here, a short article on the early 20th-century bathing suit controversies published for Metropolitics here, and some thoughts on urban beaches here

In a previous life, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities at Princeton University and an Assistant Professor in American History and American studies at Université Paris Nanterre in France. I hold a PhD in history from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). 

Elsa Devienne


  • History PhD
  • History MA

Key Publications

  • Please visit the Pure Research Information Portal for further information
  • Spectacular Bodies, Devienne, E. 1 Aug 2019, In: European Journal of American Studies
  • Urban Renewal by the Sea, Devienne, E. Jan 2019, In: Journal of Urban History
  • The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach, Devienne, E. 2018, In: Southern California quarterly
  • « Il y a des lois sur la plage ! », Devienne, E. 2017, In: Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales
  • Plages de la discorde, Bidet, J., Devienne, E. 2017, In: Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales
  • La question raciale sur le littoral de Los Angeles (années 1920-années 1970), Devienne, E. 2016, In: Vingtieme Siecle: Revue d'Histoire
  • Shifting Sands, Devienne, E. May 2016, In: California History
  • The Right to the Beach? Urban Renewal, Public Place Policing, and the Definition of a Beach Public in Postwar Los Angeles, 1940s-1960s, Devienne, E. 2016, In: Revue Francaise d'Etudes Americaines
  • Controverses à Los Angeles, Devienne, E. Nov 2015, In: Modes pratiques. Histoire du vêtement et de la mode


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