Keeping the Peace at Lincoln Beach

The concrete monolith of the levee is a menacing wall between Hayne Boulevard, Lincoln Beach, and Lake Pontchartrain—an unnatural border that is as much about keeping things in as keeping things out. Ostensibly, the levee exists to keep the water from reaching us, but in reality it exists to keep us from reaching the water. A squat, black chain-link fence sits on top of the massive concrete structure as an exclamation point, driving the point home like the railroad spikes that anchor the track just on the other side of the wall. Unlike the river levees which formed naturally over time as the river danced with the shoreline, the brutalist wall along Hayne Boulevard is a rampart.

“The people who built and designed the levee system, they have failed,” Michael Pellet says emphatically. “And those people have also segregated land. It’s not about the levee, it’s about the land around the levee. Because we know now the test of it doesn’t work. You can examine it right now. There’s cracks in it. It’s increasing global warming because of the concrete. It increases flooding because of the concrete. It increases the flooding of the streets. It increases the heat. It serves no literal purpose. It’s not a levee, it’s a prison wall.”

New Orleans for Lincoln Beach, cofounded by Pellet and Tricia Wallace in April of 2020, is a community-based grassroots effort to clean up and redevelop the historically Black beach, as well as an effort to help rectify the economic and environmental racism the Black community in New Orleans has faced and still faces. It is about reclamation and redemption. And for the past few months, Pellet, Wallace, artist Reggie Ford, and a host of others have been doing the heavy lifting of cleaning up the site, which has been abandoned since 1965, and whose deterioration was expedited by years of neglect and Hurricane Katrina. But no good deed goes unpunished in New Orleans, where co-opting the ideas of the Black community without compensation is a way of life.

In May of this year, Mayor Cantrell announced that the city was assessing Lincoln Beach to determine the feasibility of cleaning up and reopening the site. Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen echoed Cantrell’s statement, calling the reopening of Lincoln Beach a “top priority.” There was only one problem. The work to clean up and develop the beach was already being done by New Orleans for Lincoln Beach. But the City refuses to acknowledge the group or their work, setting up a showdown between City Hall and the citizens of New Orleans who expect better.

To understand Lincoln Beach we must first look at Seabrook, the Orleans Levee Board/Orleans Levee District, and the long history of economic and environmental racism that has been foisted on the New Orleans Black community. You can play connect the dots, from the development of the Lower 9th Ward and Gordon Plaza to the interstate that bisects the Treme, oaks painted on its columns to remind its residents of what was taken from them. And if you keep tracing you will find your way to the Lakefront, where property and privilege combined to disenfranchise Black New Orleanians from even the most basic of summer pleasures.

Seabrook sits in the crook of Lake Pontchartrain where it meets the Industrial Canal. It was the predecessor to Lincoln Beach. It is unsightly, even today. The murky waters lie at the bottom of the seawall steps. The canal carries whatever detritus and funk it funneled from the Mississippi into the lake here. There are a few signs that say “No Swimming Beyond This Point” but I can’t see why anyone would want to swim before it, save for necessity.

The whites-only beach that would become Pontchartrain Beach was originally situated behind Old Spanish Fort. But with the development of the seawall, and real estate booming due to the National Housing Act of 1934, Pontchartrain Beach moved to Milneburg, a location originally promised as the site for a Black beach. This is the first in a string of broken promises between the city and the Black community. So Black swimmers and sunbathers moved east, to Seabrook.

By all accounts, Seabrook was a deathtrap. The combination of the seawall and the Industrial Canal caused sinkholes to form, and it was not uncommon for swimmers to be sucked under and drowned. There were no lifeguards provided, and no lights either. The real estate community thought that Seabrook was still too close to the white beaches and white subdivisions, and that the sight of Black swimmers would drive down tourism and real estate prices. By 1943, swimming was banned at Seabrook. The police were tasked with maintaining this edict by force, which they were happy to oblige. (Much of this history is recounted in Andrew Kahrl’s feature in 64 Parishes, “The Making, Unmaking, and Memory of White and Black Beaches in New Orleans.”)

The key player in all of this was the Orleans Levee Board, which oversaw the Orleans Levee District. Created in 1890 and disbanded after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the Orleans Levee Board and its corresponding district had, much like Robert MosesTriborough Bridge Authority, tremendous power and little oversight. The board was formed initially to improve substandard levees and protect the city from storm surge, but its powers were soon expanded by the state Legislature. In 1928 the state constitution was amended by Act 292, which gave the Orleans Levee Board agency “to perform certain works of reclamation, construction, and improvement” as well as authorizing the board to “sell, lease or dispose of land not dedicated to public use.” This constitutional amendment was the beginning of a massive property and real estate development scheme by the Levee Board. The seawall along Lake Pontchartrain, the planned communities of Lake Vista and Lakeshore, and the construction of Lakefront Airport were all in the purview of the Orleans Levee District. The development of these properties led to massive cash influxes that were supposed to go toward building impenetrable levees—levees that were breached in multiple places during Katrina.

In 1938 the Levee Board acquired the property in Little Woods now known as Lincoln Beach. They also relocated a slew of fishing camps from Seabrook to the area just west of Lincoln Beach at this time. The camps dumped raw sewage into the lake, and the water around Lincoln Beach became contaminated. But this didn’t concern the Levee Board. For the Levee Board and white New Orleanians, the redeeming value of Lincoln Beach was its distance from the city center. “It was a long ride,” John Terrell, 78, remembers. “You had to catch at least three buses to get there.” Terrell, who lived Uptown near the Magnolia Projects, remembers Lincoln Beach fondly, despite the trip. “It was a lot of fun as a child. That was the only place we had to go as far as the rides go,” Terrell recalls.

It wasn’t until 1951 that there was any real improvement at Lincoln Beach, when Mayor Chep Morrison decided to upgrade the facilities. The site expanded from 2.3 acres to 17 acres, and the beach was filled in with white sand. Still, the lake water remained polluted, which led to the construction of two swimming pools equal in size to those at Pontchartrain Beach. It was also outfitted with a bathhouse, a restaurant, and rides and attractions. By 1954 it was rededicated with a ribbon cutting ceremony (much of this history is collected in Andrew Kahrl’s The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South).

For many Black residents of New Orleans, Lincoln Beach was difficult to access by public transportation, and the gate fees were more than many could afford. But despite these obstacles, Lincoln Beach could offer dignity. During the horrors of the Jim Crow South, it provided a respite for Black New Orleanians who were unwelcome in white spaces like Pontchartrain Beach. It was one of the only outdoor recreational spaces for Black people in the city.

“As a child it was a place where we were able to go; it was like a shelter,” Irma Phillips, 69, remembers. “My family and I, we were able to go to Lincoln Beach and shed ourselves of racism. Lincoln Beach was a shelter of calm, peace, and laughter for us. Family picnics, rides, dances—just having fun. And we didn’t have to worry about people throwing rocks at us, calling us filthy names. It was just peaceful.”

In addition to this peace was the celebration of Black music and culture. On Pontchartrain Beach they had Elvis. But on Lincoln Beach they had Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Neville Brothers, and Irma Thomas. It was sacred ground.

from the June 26, 1955 Times-Picayune

By 1965, however, it was all over. Integration allowed Black New Orleanians into formerly white spaces—spaces that were more centrally located with better access by public transportation. But the fool’s gold that was an integrated Pontchartrain Beach spelled the end for Lincoln Beach, as white flight eventually doomed the sustainability of both sites. Lincoln Beach receded back into the sands.

In 1999 Lincoln Beach was bought by the City of New Orleans from the Orleans Levee Board, and there have been numerous attempts at the city level to bring it back. During his tenure as mayor (from the mid-90s to the early 2000s), Marc Morial had an elaborate plan that never got off the ground. Then there was the collaboration between developer Sean Cummings and the City, along with sculptor John Scott. At the time, Cummings was the acting director of New Orleans Building Corp., an agency created to make money from flipping blighted and underused City-owned properties. This was an early foray into gentrification for Cummings, who went on to develop the Rice Mill Lofts (among other properties). The project promised to have people swimming in the waters of Lincoln Beach by July 4, 2005. But it never happened. And by August 29, 2005, everything changed. In a city facing a massive recovery effort post-Katrina, Lincoln Beach was a footnote. John Scott died in September 2007, and this iteration died with him.

Since Katrina and until the recent clean-up effort, Lincoln Beach has had a more transient population. “The people in Little Woods, they’ve been using the beach up until Hurricane Katrina,” Ford explains. “Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and another group of people came in. Kind of like some spiritual people. They used to hang out on the beach. Then another group came in. A lot of explorer-type white kids would come in and hang out here and spray paint and just chill. Then they disappeared off the scene… Then the Latin community started coming out here. And that Latin community has been out here heavy for at least three years swimming in these waters.”

Reggie Ford doesn’t trust the city. The personable Jackson Square artist hasn’t been shy about telling anyone who will listen, either. Reggie has become an unofficial spokesman for New Orleans for Lincoln Beach. He sees a long history of the city saying one thing and doing the other, especially when it comes to the Black community. “They’re gonna push us into the Bayou,” Ford reflects grimly.

Before West End was a white neighborhood, it was where Black New Orleanians enjoyed Lake Pontchartrain. Then they were forced to Milneburg. And from Milneburg to Seabrook, where they tried to make a stand. From Seabrook they were pushed to Lincoln Beach, until white people decided instead of pushing any further, they would just leave instead.

What Ford hopes for is that instead of more gentrification, the City could find a way to work with its residents. But he has his doubts. “After speaking with Cyndi Nguyen, the councilperson who is over this area, she’s talking about her vision of seeing it connected with South Shore Harbor,” Ford said. “She’s talking about jet-skis and all that stuff, when everyone that comes here uniformly says this is a place of tranquility, of relaxation. We don’t want to hear jet-skis. It’s just a safe, relaxed beach for meditation, relaxation, and unwinding.”

Ford’s fears are not unfounded. In 2016 Lakeshore Landing was approved by the City Council. If built, it would feature riverboat gambling, a 5,000 seat theater, restaurants, and retail space. Ford intimated that Nguyen wanted to use it as an “anchor property” to develop the area and bring tourism to Lincoln Beach.

The tension between the City and the organization New Orleans for Lincoln Beach has been mounting. In an August 12 statement, Mayor Cantrell said “It is not a safe place. And we continue—as we’re cleaning it up—again capturing alligators, livestock from the water. So we do not want to put our people at risk.”

Ford sees this as a dodge by the City in an attempt to control the beach. “There has not been one safety issue back here on the beach. The only safety issue I see is the train tracks, because you have to cross the train tracks to get to the beach,” Ford said. He envisions a scenario where a “Rainbow Bridge” like the one in Crescent Park could be built to cross the tracks.

The members of New Orleans for Lincoln Beach have put a lot of thought into what they would like to see. Yet the city still hasn’t engaged with them in any meaningful way, which Pellet finds frustrating and denigrating, especially in his dealings with councilmember Nguyen. “When you begin to separate yourself from the people in your mind and think you are not a part of them you’re dehumanizing them. You’re gonna say things that are very condescending to them. Cyndi Ngyuen told us, on Lincoln Beach, ‘Say Michael, do you know it might take more than $20 to develop Lincoln Beach?’ Quote unquote that’s what she said, on Lincoln Beach, she said it on a phone call, I felt insulted. The reason why I felt insulted is because I know damn well it’s gonna take more than $20,” Pellet said.

New Orleans for Lincoln Beach isn’t merely battling for the right to clean and develop the beach. They are battling for autonomy, for the right of the community to dictate what happens in the community, for economic and environmental justice for Black New Orleanians—and for the dignity of a community, New Orleans East, that is often maligned and neglected. New Orleans for Lincoln Beach knows this won’t come without a fight. But for the organizers, it is worth it. They want to feel like Irma Phillips felt 60 years ago as a little girl. She felt safe at Lincoln Beach. She felt whole. She felt free.

For more info on the status of Lincoln Beach, follow New Orleans for Lincoln Beach on Facebook @NewOrleansForLincolnBeach

For updates by Reggie Ford, you can follow him on Twitter (@ReggieFordart) and Instagram (@reggieart)

photos by James Cullen

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