When a Beach Becomes More Than a Place to Swim

By Isabelle Cunis

History flows through every neighborhood and structure within New Orleans, much of which is preserved and protected for future generations. But for many New Orleanians, an important part of their history remains a hidden and neglected oasis.  

Between a community-driven movement and a city-funded site assessment, New Orleans is exploring the possibility of reopening Lincoln Beach for recreational use. Located in New Orleans East on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Lincoln Beach consists of over 15 acres of land and remains overlooked as an important part of New Orleans’ history. In the mid-20th century within a nation of “separate but equal” and the segregated Jim Crow era, Lincoln Beach opened for people of color, providing black communities with a place for summertime activities, like swimming, amusement park rides, and restaurants. “I could feel the energy of the past,” New Orleanian Butchie Beverly says, reflecting on photographs of his grandmother relaxing on a sandy beach.

While Lincoln Beach became a place full of memories and fun for black families in New Orleans, Lincoln Beach and its amenities were not equal to those at Pontchartrain Beach. The differences between the two beaches exemplified the issues of racial segregation and the reality of the “separate but equal” rulings that flooded the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pontchartrain Beach was significantly larger in size, featured more expensive amusement rides, and was easily accessible for New Orleanians. 

Lincoln Beach was twelve miles from central New Orleans, and the city offered no public transportation to the beach at its first opening in 1939. “Accessing the lake was almost impossible,” says Kevin McCaffrey, a researcher and New Orleans filmmaker, when reflecting on the conditions of Lincoln Beach during its heyday. New Orleans District E Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen comments on the accessibility of the beach if it reopens, and she says, “There needs to be more than one point of access. We need to connect a neighborhood to Lincoln Beach for easier access.” 

As Lincoln Beach gained popularity, facilities improved, but the beach still did not compare to Pontchartrain Beach. Ten years later under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black families could now enjoy Pontchartrain Beach, which offered more room and fun activities at a location central to residential New Orleans. As a result of desegregation, Lincoln Beach became a place of the past and, very quickly, a place of abandonment. The businesses along the beach closed, the amusement park shut down, and wildlife consumed the land. “The environmental challenges at Lincoln Beach are huge,” says Kevin. 

Even though Pontchartrain Beach quickly became a popular spot for all families to enjoy their summers, the condition of Pontchartrain Beach also deteriorated after its closure in the early 1980s. “People fondly remember their childhood on the lakefront beaches,” Kevin says, describing his own memories of summertime concerts at Pontchartrain Beach. Between his research on the New Orleans’ beaches, his filmmaking experiences, and his own memories of Pontchartrain Beach before its closure in 1983, Kevin recognized the immense environmental and administrative hurdles involved with revitalizing both Lincoln Beach and Pontchartrain Beach. 

Butchie Beverly, an active community member in the efforts to reopen Lincoln Beach, reminisced on the Lincoln Beach he knew as a teenager. About 20 years after its closure, Butchie visited Lincoln Beach for the first time, describing his surroundings as “a world that nobody knows about.” Even though weathered amusement park structures and picnic shelters remained, Lincoln Beach was in a state of decay and neglect. 

The condition of the land and the beach’s remains were deteriorating, but Butchie’s passion for Lincoln Beach was doing the exact opposite. As rumors of reopening spread in the 1990s, Butchie, a young entrepreneur at the time, envisioned a sunglasses shop he wanted to open up on the shore. Butchie says, “I am still connected to this idea, and I could see the shop there today.” 

While the current efforts and assessment plan seem promising, Butchie remains fearful for the future of Lincoln Beach.  He has followed the reopening efforts since the talk of reopening in the 90s. “I kept in the conversation of reopening. I wanted to make sure the economic opportunities were given to regular folks and not some big company,” Butchie says. City Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen was on the same page as Butchie, “This will be a local opportunity for residents to invest in.”  

City Councilmember Nguyen did not shy away from the challenges involved in this project either. After over 50 years of abandonment, Lincoln Beach requires an immense amount of work in order for it to safely reopen to the public for recreational use. Even though groups of community members have entered the property to pick up trash and start the clean-up process, damaged structures need to be removed and there is dangerous wildlife that has taken over the area. “We have to make sure it’s safe for the public. Look at the infrastructure. It’s overgrown,” City Councilmember Nguyen says. 

Lincoln Beach is not the only New Orleans attraction to undergo plans for reopening that did not follow through. In New Orleans East, specifically, Six Flags remains abandoned as plans to revitalize the site remain at a standstill. Along the Lake Pontchartrain short, projects involving the preservation and possible revitalization of Pontchartrain Beach faced similar challenges to those related to the reopening of Lincoln Beach and resulted in a halt to reopening efforts. 

In 2016, Kevin worked alongside the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and began filming a documentary about the process to revive Pontchartrain Beach. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation raised enough money to purchase and transport new sand for the beachfront, one of many needed improvements for the redesign. Looking back on this milestone in the redesign on Pontchartrain Beach, Kevin says, “the sand was perfect for the beach… but it is still piled up there today.”    

Due to a change in leadership and funding allocations, the efforts fueled by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation ended before significant progress in the redesigning of Pontchartrain Beach. “My guess was that there were other priorities,” says Kevin, who no longer could document and film Pontchartrain Beach when the new director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation took over. 

While Kevin pursued an environmentally focused approach to documenting the revitalization of Pontchartrain Beach, he remembers the challenges that the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation was facing when cleaning up the lakefront. “The condition of the beach was deteriorating… There was rusty metal in the water, and the sand needed to be at a certain grade for the water,” he says, discussing some of the things needing to be fixed before the beach could reopen. From Kevin’s experience documenting Pontchartrain Beach and the condition of the beach today, Pontchartrain Beach still remains inaccessible to the public with no plans, as of right now, for reopening in the future. 

The histories and current conditions of both Lincoln Beach and Pontchartrain Beach cannot be compared to each other. Lincoln Beach has graded sand and calm waters, both of which contribute to an enjoyable swimming and recreational environment. Lincoln Beach is also in the midst of a city-funded study to explore the reopening of the beach to the public. Pontchartrain Beach and its revitalization efforts, like Six Flags New Orleans, remain at a standstill. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation fueled the initial efforts for the redesign of Pontchartrain Beach in 2016, but after a halt in plans, the project lacks community support and funding needed to successfully and safely reopen Pontchartrain Beach to the public. 

Between his work at Pontchartrain Beach and his research surrounding Lincoln Beach, Kevin realizes the demand for outdoor gathering spaces in New Orleans. “People want to have barbeques and family meals outdoors… people and communities need public spaces,” says Kevin. In a city like New Orleans, families continue to seek safe and accessible outdoor recreational areas. Lincoln Beach has the potential to provide this space for families, especially in an area of New Orleans that lacks a vast outdoor space that is designated for recreation. 

While both beaches lack ease of accessibility and require extensive efforts to reopen, the community involved in the efforts to reopen Lincoln Beach have established a strong stance and support base behind the importance of preserving Lincoln Beach. Given their social media presence, clean-up efforts, and community support, the city-lead study could result in a successful re-opening. “Stay engaged and keep the government accountable… I am very optimistic. We have creative minds in our community,” says City Councilmember Nguyen.     

Despite the challenges the whole country is facing due to COVID-19, the efforts to reopen Lincoln Beach have been positively impacted because of the pandemic. “COVID made this happen,” Butchie said, “People realize how important this area is.” When people could not work, they had the time to think about the future of Lincoln Beach and, as Butchie put it, “Slow down and look at what we have… remember what we value and what’s important.” 

Among the movements battling racial injustice throughout the U.S. and given the history of the beach, Butchie sees the Lincoln Beach clean-up and reopening efforts as something good for the black community. By reopening the beach, people will remember the history and the culture that Lincoln Beach established in New Orleans East. Even though some community members trespass the abandoned land to start cleaning up Lincoln Beach, this is their form of civil disobedience and standing up for the black community. “They are doing something good,” Butchie says, “It’s a coming together of communities for one common good.”

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