Reopening Lincoln Beach: New Orleans Activists, Officials Working To Revive Once Popular Black Beach

Jun 8, 2021
Originally published on June 8, 2021 1:02 pm

In bygone days, New Orleanians would spend summers cooling down at one of two beaches on Lake Pontchartrain. Now, the city is working to raise the millions of dollars needed to re-open one of them — Lincoln Beach.

Lincoln Beach, the once popular Black beach on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans East, was one of two lakefront beaches decades ago along with Pontchartrain Beach, the white beach at the end of Elysian Fields. Pontchartrain Beach fell into disrepair due to racism and lack of investment after it was integrated, and Lincoln soon followed in the 1960's.

New Orleanians have had few options for lakefront swimming since, aside from the Seabrook Canal.

Community activists, like Sage Michael, have been pushing to reopen the beach for years and say they want a voice in the city’s planning process. A few years ago, Michael decided to start cleaning it up and also started a petition for it to be reopened. He and other volunteers have picked up hundreds of bags of trash and built benches and tables for people to use.

For Michael the site is about a lot more than a beach.

“It was built because of fear,” Michael said. “Fear that Black people would recreate around white people. That fear made them create policies and create this place - they disenfranchised my people from pursuing the American dream.”

Lincoln Beach used to be a major attraction, with folks traveling from all over the city to enjoy its amenities -- pools with diving boards, an amusement park, food and live music.

A train track runs between it and Hayne Boulevard. But many people still visit. They park along Hayne, climb the levee, hop the fence, cross the train tracks and walk through the overgrown swampy woods to get to the sandy beach.

On any given weekend you can find a handful of families grilling out, swimming and fishing. It’s dangerous though - there’s trash, broken glass, snakes, poison ivy, even the occasional alligator.

“There's so much spirit here that everybody wants a piece...This is the best place on a lake,” he said, as he prepared to put his kayak in the water for the afternoon.

Michael has a very particular vision of how the beach could serve the local community by employing locals and creating educational opportunities for youth.

“You gave it to black people. So we want it,” he said of the importance of local control over the site.

Michael and the other activists with New Orleans for Lincoln Beach have succeeded in getting the city’s attention.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has visited the site and sent staff to help with the cleanup, and has also assigned Cheryn Robles, the acting deputy chief of staff for New Orleans’ Department of Public Works, to the project. Robles said reopening Lincoln Beach would fulfill a crucial community need.

“Right now if you're going to the lakefront you have to go on a levee and you can maybe go down some stairs, but there aren’t really ways to get into the water very safely,” Robles said.

Robles said that she appreciates people like Michael cleaning up the beach, but that there needs to be a formal process to legally make it open to the public again.

The first step was assessing the property for safety hazards - testing the soil and water and whether it’s possible to fix the remnants of the old cement structures there. The assessment found that the water and soil were safe, but that many of the cement structures need to be removed or rebuilt.

The next step is figuring out how much money it would take to make those improvements as well as create safe access, since the only way to get there now is by crossing working railroad tracks. She said that will take about $10 million, money the city doesn’t have yet.

Robles is looking to use $3 million from municipal bonds and apply for more capital outlay funds from the state. She’s also hoping that they can get the beach designated as a historic site, which would potentially make the project eligible for grant funding. A Tulane graduate student is working to get the site added to the national register of historic places.

The city has created a community advisory committee to help with the planning, and activist Tricia Blyss Wallace is a member.

“When I first started doing this everybody thought I was crazy,” she said about when her family found out that she was going out to the beach and helping Michael with cleanup. “But as I was talking to my family my grandmother just lit up.”

Her grandmother has fond childhood memories at Lincoln Beach.

“She started pulling out pictures and talking about how they used to come there all the time and it just generated some great memories for them… like seeing Fats Domino and Irma Thomas.”

She said most of her neighbors in the East are on board with the plan. More than 50 people attended their last Zoom meeting. Many just want to know when it will be open.

“It's gonna be a couple of years,” Wallace said, with a sigh. “We just want it to be open for everyone.”

She’s hoping for a no-frills plan, with as little development as possible and lots of opportunities for kids to learn about nature and jump in the water. And she’s hoping it’ll open in time for her grandma to go back and visit one last time.

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