by Anitra D. Brown
Shuttered in 1964, Lincoln Beach was closed for at least 10 years before Michael Pellet was even born. Still, somehow he has long been drawn to the site, first finding his way to the area as a teenager in the 1990s. It is a place he visited then in search of solace, to think and to appreciate nature, he says.
Although he is too young to have ever visited the Lincoln Beach when it was open, Pellet feels a special connection to it, he says. Abandoned and neglected now for more than 50 years, beneath debris and disrepair, he still sees its beauty and its potential.
“I think it’s just a beautiful place, and sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have,” he says. “Lincoln Beach is a different place. It’s a spiritual place.”
Pellet has now embarked upon a community-driven effort to lead the redevelopment of Lincoln Beach in a way that honors its history and nature—a Lincoln Beach for the community. He started a Facebook page to bolster his efforts, and it has attracted members from near and far.
Remembering the Past
Whether Lincoln Beach is in fact spiritual or different can be debated—an in-the-eye-of-the-beholder sort of thing. What is not up for deliberation is the history of the facility—one of the many stories of our nation’s dichotomous past where separate was fully unequal and morally wrong, but it was also safe and, in its own way, a welcoming space for Blackness to be celebrated, protected and respected—by us and for us.
It was the city’s segregated answer to Pontchartrain Beach, which first opened in the summer of 1928 along Bayou St. John. Of course, it is ironic that Bayou St. John was chosen as the original site of the Whites-only Pontchartrain Beach given that Bayou St. John was a place where Blacks and Native Americans gathered for commerce in the early history of New Orleans.
At any rate, in the early 1930s, the construction of a seawall from West End to the Industrial Canal created a new shoreline for Lake Pontchartrain, and Pontchartrain Beach was moved to the lake end of Elysian Fields. But Black New Orleanians were not welcomed there either. It took a few years; and while the promise of “equal” would never be delivered, the city of New Orleans would eventually come through with the “separate.”
In 1938, the Orleans Levee Board acquired land along Lake Pontchartrain from a local businessman and opened it to Black residents for swimming and recreation. A few amenities were added to the site a year later in 1939. But, it wasn’t until 1954 that the Levee Board invested $500,000 to develop Lincoln Beach, adding a park with rides, games, pools and restaurants for Black residents. It was smaller than Pontchartrain Beach, but it was a place where Black New Orleanians could enjoy themselves, swim, play, hold beauty contests, listen to live performances from young Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe or Aaron Neville, dance on the terrace of the Carver House restaurant and just, well, just be.
Then with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, came integration.
Danielle Abrams, a Boston-based writer, artist and a performance and fine arts professor at Tufts University, recently connected with Pellet through his New Orleans for Lincoln Beach Facebook page. She enjoys researching the history and impact of recreational segregation. Her interest in Lincoln Beach was piqued when she visited the city in 2017.
As a part of the Paper Monuments project, a public art and public history project to honor the erased histories of the people, places, movements, and events that have shaped New Orleans over the last 300 plus years, Abrams, who also was a resident artist at Tulane University’s A Studio in the Woods, wrote an essay on Lincoln Beach. At the end of the essay, she wrote a brief paragraph about her first visit there:
“Mr. Leon A. Waters (a local historian) took me to Lincoln Beach in the summer of 2018. We stood on the levee looking down into a forest that blanketed the beach. Mr. Waters said to me, ‘They let that forest grow so we’d forget it (segregation) ever happened.’ ”
“What I have discovered is what happened at Lincoln Beach has happened every where in the United States,” Abrams told The New Orleans Tribune.
She is right.
What happened was Black folk could now go to Pontchartrain Beach, which was bigger and still had more amenities than Lincoln Beach. The City stopped maintaining Lincoln Beach. With White New Orleanians taking flight from the city in response to integration of public schools and other facilities, Black folk became Pontchartrain Beach’s primary customers as they became the majority of the residents of the city. The owners begrudgingly accepted its integration by allowing it to go into disrepair and eventually closing it in 1983, though it has been suggested that it was dwindling attendance and the impending six-month tenure of the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans that ultimately forced its closure. Today, most of what was Pontchartrain Beach has been redeveloped into UNO’s technology park and technology center along with the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center.
As for Lincoln Beach, it has been all but forgotten—a stretch of Lake Pontchartrain next to a concrete slab buried under a blanket of overgrown forestry—completely abandoned.
Finding His Way Back
It was the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the ensuing protests against racial injustice that recently prompted Pellet to visit Lincoln Beach again for contemplation and consolation, he says. And when he did, he found what he described as an “environmental emergency,” he says.
“I saw the trash polluting the area, the sands, and the waterway,” says Pellet, who is also known as Sage Michael. “I just started, on my own, cleaning it up, showing the beauty, sharing it on my social media and inviting other people to come along.”
In early June, Pellet started the Facebook group called New Orleans for Lincoln Beach. The page is a place where people share fond memories and the history of the segregated beach and amusement park.
In one month, the private page’s membership grew to over 6,200. People shared pictures and stories. Some even shared their initial lack of familiarity with the beach, admitting to knowing little about its existence, its history or where it is even located until recent years.
One of those people is Wanda Herbert Romain, a local educator who recorded a post on the New Orleans for Lincoln Beach Facebook page, telling how she only learned in the last decade or so about Lincoln Beach and where it is located. It is a fact she bemoans and one that ostensibly prompted her to learn more about the history of the beach.
“I just want to see Lincoln Beach come back and be what it was and what it can be—not just as a spot in New Orleans, but as a spiritual place. It is part of New Orleans that tells a unique story. It is a story I didn’t get to see. I want to thank everyone who is leading the charge to reclaim the beach.”
Another member of the Facebook group, whose user name is Bridget Foster, also shared a recorded post.
“(Lincoln Beach) is a place of freedom. It’s a place of restoration. It’s a place of second chances,” she said in the video. “It’s been hidden behind that wall far for too long without (people) knowing about it. I am proud to be a part of the group of people who are working behind the scenes and on the frontlines to reopen (it). And I am thankful for all of the memories that everyone shares; because for a person like me that had no idea that Lincoln Beach existed, it is a place of hope for future generations.”
As for the Facebook group, Pellet says, “it has morphed into an organization. We have been growing as a Facebook Page—grassroots. Now, we are a legal entity with the Secretary of State. Now we can move forward in our organizing phase.”
Early on, some members of the group joined Pellet in what he has called acts of “social disobedience”—trespassing to clean up of the abandoned beach. They have collected 250 contractor-size garbage bags of trash, and placed them under an old shelter to be picked up by city sanitation workers, he says.
Since those early efforts, Pellet says the group has partnered with other organizations and moved its clean-ups to other spots across the city in order to maintain momentum without causing disruption or breaking trespassing laws.
In recent weeks, they have organized clean-ups at East Shore Playground on Curran Road in New Orleans East, in Gentilly and other locales across the city. But he hopes to be able to return to Lincoln Beach to also help keep it clean by working out some agreement with the City.
“We’re not trying to violate the law,” says Pellet. “We want to work with the City—maybe get some type of a cooperative endeavor agreement. We have already proven what we can do. So if we can get an agreement with the City, we can preserve the property while it’s in the assessment stage.”
For now, this is mostly wishful thinking on Pellet’s part. An agreement with the City allowing the group to go to Lincoln Beach for clean-ups or any other activity is not likely to happen any time soon. District E City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen says she has met with Pellet and his team on several occasions via Zoom.
Their enthusiasm is commendable, but Lincoln Beach is off limits.
“While I appreciate many unofficial clean-ups of the area, Lincoln Beach is not open to the public,” Nguyen told The New Orleans Tribune. “The area is not safe and (I have) cautioned the group about their clean-ups activities. Once we receive the outcome of the study, I am confident that a community clean-up will be needed. I will definitely join them as well.”
Assessing the Future
Pellet’s mention of “assessment stage” is a reference to the recent announcement by city officials that a study to explore the feasibility of re-opening Lincoln Beach to recreation has been approved.
“We are excited to look at the potential to bring this cultural gem back to life in a neighborhood that deserves more recreation options. We look forward to learning more about what we can do for all of our residents,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a printed statement announcing the study.
The study is set to be complete in 2021 and will assess the current conditions of the beach to determine the kind of mitigation activities that would be necessary to clean and return it to public use.
Councilwoman Nguyen is committed to fully gauging the feasibility of bringing Lincoln Beach back, calling it “a top priority” since she has been in office.
The feasibility study will include environmental site and habitat assessments to determine plant species that are present on site, and characterize habitat types and percent cover. Specifically, identify potentially poisonous flora, such as poisonous oak or ivy, which could pose a risk to staff or volunteers performing clean-up activities. Identify invasive species and percent cover, provide an estimate to facilitate removal of such invasive species.
Facility asset and access assessments will inventory and assess the conditions of the beach’s structures such as the parking lot structures, shelters, tunnels, swimming pool, concrete pads as well as evaluate current pedestrian, bicycle, vehicular, and public transit access possibilities and limitations. Potential future access points that meet the Americans with Disabilities Act will be identified. And opportunities and challenges for creating new access points for pedestrian, bicycle, vehicular and public transit will be evaluated. The study will also include a topography survey and a comprehensive site assessment along with an assessment of the existing drainage, sewerage, potable water, gas and electrical utility systems.
The city currently only has funds for the study, the results of which will determine estimated costs for clean-up activities.
But Pellet has some concerns that the feasibility study could make way for the type of redevelopment that leaves long-time residents out of the plans.
Councilwoman Nguyen says she believes the history of Lincoln Beach can be honored while embracing its future, and that is her goal.
“Lincoln Beach has a rich history as a place where Black residents spent most of their time. As we work to revive Lincoln Beach, we want to continue to keep the rich history and culture, and also to create a space where all families can come together and enjoy the environment.”
Her vision couples commerce with family fun, which has been a mantra of her administration as it related to District E, which encompasses most of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward.
“I would love to see families able to spend quality time together and enjoy what Mother Nature provides, as well as areas where we can promote small business opportunities such as a jet-ski rentals, beach chair rentals, restaurants on the lake, dock for boats, a walking trail along the lake and so much more,” Nguyen said. “I truly want to build up Lincoln Beach to where families can enjoy and there will be no need to go to Destin, Florida.”
To be sure, reviving Lincoln Beach would be a boon for the local economy, and Black New Orleanians must be integral part of that.
Now that we have changed names and taken down monuments, it is time to pivot from symbolism to substance. The project to revitalize Lincoln Beach would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate a true commitment to empowering Black people through economic opportunity.
What Pellet does not want to see is a “land grab” by wealthy developers that ultimately commercializes and gentrifies the historic beachfront property in a way that pushes out the very people for whom it was originally built.
And perhaps his vision for the redevelopment of Lincoln Beach is a little quainter and a little more cultural, with nature and history tours and a culturally-centered market place.
“We have gained the confidence of the community,” says Pellet. “They like what we are doing. This is an exercise in democracy. We want Lincoln Beach developed for the community, by the community.”
Most of all, he wants to see Lincoln Beach reopened for the people, and he wants to ensure that the people are front and center in that process.
“Keeping this beach away from the public is criminal,” says Pellet. “We want to change the narrative. It’s not about when are they going to reopen Lincoln Beach. It’s about when are we going to reopen Lincoln Beach.”
Residents interested in tracking the Lincoln Beach feasibility study can visit nola.gov/lincolnbeach to sign up for quarterly newsletter updates.