Walk with people as they imagine and realize their own futures. Be connectors, conveners, and collaborators — not representatives.
— BlackSpace Manifesto 1
On a sunny afternoon in late April 2020, 45-year-old Michael Pellet, better known as Sage, stood under fresh-leafed laurel oaks on a white-sand beach and let his gaze drift across the shimmering waters of Lake Pontchartrain. He was thinking about Ahmaud Arbery, murdered in Georgia less than two months prior; about how much New Orleans had changed after Hurricane Katrina, nearly fifteen years ago; and about the pandemic. The new virus had already proved exceptionally lethal for Black New Orleanians, who at that point accounted for 77 percent of the city’s Covid deaths. 2 Taking in the beach, with its crumbling brick seawall and decrepit concrete pavilions, Pellet said to himself, “This place was built because of racism. Only because of racism.” 3
In more than a century of development along Orleans Parish shoreline, only this beach has consistently provided safe retreat and communal joy to Black locals.
He had parked along Hayne Boulevard, a four-lane behemoth lined on the non-levee side with convenience stores, unkempt apartments, and tires and old furniture dumped in vacant lots. Ascending the grassy levee and climbing a low wall, he had stepped over yet another barrier, a foot-high chain-link fence, and jumped, dropping four feet down the graffitied concrete floodwall. He crossed two sets of active railroad tracks, found the spot where the trees parted nearly imperceptibly, and slipped into the woods.
It had been more than 20 years since he was last here. In the late 1990s, he ran his dogs along this lakefront, having learned about it from his father, who visited as a child. In more than a century of development along 23 miles of Orleans Parish shoreline, this place remains the only stretch that has consistently provided safe retreat and communal joy to Black locals. In the 1950s, Lincoln Beach was a Black day-resort, with a midway, swimming pools, a Ferris wheel, and a restaurant. By late 1964, the park was derelict, and today, it has been officially closed for nearly six decades.
As he left the beach, Pellet passed between two giant piles of trash, flanking the entrance to the narrow footpath. They buzzed with flies: broken beer bottles, rotting food, Styrofoam, water-logged diapers. But from the woods, he looked back at the lake, framed through an almost heart-shaped opening. The trash mountains were no longer visible, and the beach looked idyllic.
The site Sage Pellet surveyed that afternoon included two graffiti-covered, Art-Deco pavilions, connected by a concrete midway partially overgrown with greenery; a crumbling concrete pool deck, its rebar exposed, linking two beaches that were once a single expanse; rock jetties at the far side of each beach, jutting into the lake; and dirt paths at either end of the site, winding through the woods. In Lincoln Beach’s former life, three entrance tunnels, two large enough to drive a truck through, funneled pedestrians and service vehicles to the park, dipping beneath the railroad tracks. Since the resort closed, the tunnels have regularly collected stormwater that can rise several feet, nourishing algae and reptiles.
‘Lincoln Beach has everything,’ he explained. ‘Historic value, ecological value, economic value. This place could repair our lives, if only we recognize how it went wrong.’
In 2020, Pellet was a barber, unemployed by the pandemic and couch-surfing after an encounter with a violent neighbor. He felt lost. That day on the path, he decided he would start the next phase of his life here — rebuilding a piece of his city’s Black heritage. Pellet wanted to spearhead a movement to revitalize not only this long-neglected beach, but also the surrounding neighborhood of New Orleans East, once a symbol of Black prosperity. 4 “Lincoln Beach has everything,” he explained to me months later. “Historic value, ecological value, economic value … land preservation, environmental protection. This one place encompasses everything that can make America whole again. This place could repair our lives, if we only recognize how it went wrong.”
That April day, the beach was deserted, but the trash mountains made it clear it had never been abandoned. Pellet knew what the spot meant to him. He was too green then to fully understand what it might mean to others.
With the exception of the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain is New Orleans’s defining geographic feature. At 629 square miles, it’s a brackish estuary of the Gulf of Mexico, home to alligators and the occasional dolphin or bull shark. The city proper and the White-flight suburbs of Metairie and Kenner sit on the south shore, with similar enclaves clustered on the north shore, 24 miles across the Causeway — the world’s longest bridge over continuous water.
These days, just one patch of sand beside Pontchartrain offers New Orleanians sanctioned respite from concrete seawall. 5 Seabrook Beach, governed by the state-controlled Lakefront Management Authority, is overcrowded, polluted, and surrounded by transportation infrastructure. An LMA representative told me in April that the Authority doesn’t “condone” swimming at Seabrook; she’s not sure it’s technically legal. LMA also manages Pontchartrain Beach, but that is leased to the University of New Orleans and currently closed to the public. Lincoln Beach is owned by the city. But the site is neither managed nor funded by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, which oversees city parks. Anyone using it is trespassing.
Lincoln Beach is unique among New Orleans beaches in its rustic ambiance, as well as in what it memorializes, illustrates, and, ultimately, promises. For 60 years, it has offered both a legal and an illegal haven for Black residents — and, more recently, Brown ones. As the local Black beach of the Jim Crow era, it has been neglected by officials since being shuttered after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the absence of municipal oversight, the place has been cared for, at times, not at all; at other times by private entities; and, in the past three years, by private citizens — Sage Pellet prominent among them. In 2023, Lincoln Beach is a functional, convivial, unrestricted — albeit officially “closed” — waterfront recreation zone.
When a public space is free of infrastructure intended to control user experience, it becomes a canvas for collaboration, ritual, and play.
The years of governmental disregard have led to avoidable injuries, the destruction of historic structures, and lapses in supervision that, recently, allowed a man to hang himself onsite. 6 But this neglect comes with a silver lining. When a public space is free of infrastructure intended to control user experience, unburdened by explicit rules and unpoliced by centralized authority, it becomes a canvas for collaboration, ritual, and play; a place where radical equality can flourish. People do what they want, on whatever scale they can manage, and “experiences” aren’t packaged in sellable units. Spontaneity and serendipity intertwine. It’s also true, however, that such real-time exuberance may overlook a place’s history. And, as much as unregulated urban spaces allow people to create their own alternatives to hierarchically legalistic and profit-driven ways of surveilling enjoyment, lack of oversight can create a power vacuum. When horizontal organization is more happenstance than intentional, hierarchies tend to develop that prioritize the needs and wishes of some users over others.
New Orleans is perhaps uniquely positioned as a home to such experiments in what some activists call “urban acupuncture.” 7 The city is obsessed with the past and barely able to function in the present. Officials can’t reliably keep the streets drained, lights on, or trash picked up. Politicians are regularly convicted of crimes. The poverty rate is more than twice the national average, and the murder rate the highest in the U.S. 8 Many residents lack access to basic civic goods — strong public schools, well-paid employment, robust social services. What the city does have is a nearly mythical culture, rooted in Afro-Caribbean traditions. This is why drummers come to Congo Square in Treme, the nation’s oldest Black neighborhood, every Sunday, as they have since slavery times; it’s why Mardi Gras Indians toil all year to create a hand-beaded suit they’ll wear to “battle” with song in the streets on Fat Tuesday and St. Joseph’s Night. 9 It’s why dancers buckjump behind brass bands in second lines, twerk in bounce clubs, and hawk grilled oysters from steel-drum cookers mounted on truck-beds.
People speak about this place in reverent, almost magical terms, as redolent of lost utopias and ancestors both Black and Indigenous.
Epitomizing such innovation born from hardship, Lincoln Beach has been home, for decades, to a visionary experiment in self-governance, an ongoing communal improvisation that in the early days of the pandemic became more organized — and that, today, fosters something more vital than can be found in sanctioned gathering spaces. Part tactical-urbanist proving ground and part adventure playground, the beach provides a taste of nature to city folks. For those who can remember (or who research) the site’s history, it represents a generational link among Black New Orleanians. For others, it’s a free place to picnic, lounge, cut loose. At Lincoln Beach, there’s an amicable mixing across race and class that doesn’t happen elsewhere in New Orleans. Maybe everybody stands in the same crowd at Mardi Gras. But here, as in other American cities, most social spaces — bars, clubs, churches, parties, parks — are self-segregated. At Lincoln Beach, children dig in the sand with unfamiliar children. Undocumented families and unhoused tent-dwellers are able to relax. The unforced atmosphere of shared belonging makes people eager to play chess with strangers, and to share the fish they’ve caught (likely without a permit) and cooked on the spot. It makes them willing to toss their trash in bins (installed by volunteers) instead of dropping it at random. They’re happy to carry a burning stick from their own fire to light someone else’s.
In the past five years, I’ve talked to more than a hundred people on Lincoln Beach. I’ve heard many speak about this place in reverent, almost magical terms, as redolent of lost utopias and ancestors both Black and Indigenous. Voodoo practitioners hold ceremonies here. Mardi Gras Indians visit in full regalia. Drum circles, weddings, birthday parties, memorials, New Year’s Day polar-bear plunges, and music-video shoots take place. Every full moon for the first six months of the pandemic, my friends and I came to sit around a fire.
But before Pellet launched his reclamation project, many of these day-trippers knew nothing about Lincoln Beach’s heyday in the 1950s. When I — a White journalist, transplanted to New Orleans eight years ago — first climbed the floodwall in June 2018, having googled “abandoned amusement parks in New Orleans,” I expected a graveyard of rusted rides. Instead, I found dozens of Latin American families barbecuing and swimming. A sizable Latin American population has frequented the site since 2005, when many Hondurans found work gutting homes in New Orleans East that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But these immigrants and other regulars — a White “crust punk” crowd — would have had few ways of knowing that Lincoln Beach was once an upscale Black amusement park.
Two years later, I climbed the floodwall again, this time with Maurice Carlos Ruffin, a Black novelist who grew up in New Orleans East. He had heard stories of Lincoln Beach, but never visited. He felt, that day, as if he were exploring a lost civilization: “It’s so strange, these people who [came here but] had no idea what it was. It’s almost post-apocalyptic. Like there was this destroyed city, and they don’t even know.” For Sage Pellet, the floodwall is symbolic. “That wall is a prison wall,” he told me, “and one kind of man wants us living over there, in systems he created for us. This side of the wall is what God created out of man’s racism, out of man’s hate and neglect.”
Can a community of volunteers maintain their own green space, without interference from authorities, but also without help?
Pellet knew the history of Lincoln Beach, as did his eventual collaborators, Tricia “Blyss” Wallace and Reggie Ford. These three New Orleanians — initially strangers to each other — came together in spring 2020 to steward a grassroots campaign. They wanted to clean the beach, while exerting pressure on the city to make the site safe and handicap-accessible, and to provide jobs and recreation for Black New Orleanians. The 501c3 that Pellet and Wallace founded, New Orleans for Lincoln Beach (or NOLB), posted signs proclaiming the area a Black Heritage Site. Their clean-up efforts attracted scores of participants, even as many long-established beachgoers harbored doubts about the interventions. Some worried that publicity would attract ICE agents; others enjoyed the free rein and were skeptical about any managed framework, even under the auspices of a community initiative. These users hadn’t been waiting for the city or anyone else to revamp anything. They’d simply been enjoying a resource that, because it was there, felt like their own.
City administrators, for their part, had been ignoring beach trespassers for decades. But suddenly, with NOLB, some “trespassers” were staking a claim and, in doing so, seeking public attention and official validation. The administration of Mayor LaToya Cantrell has had to at least project the appearance of upholding the law, enforcing pandemic lockdown and policing unsanctioned gatherings.
Pellet, Wallace, and Ford themselves have struggled, over the last three years, with their self-appointed civic tasks. How long can a handful of volunteers fund and manage a fifteen-acre lakeside park that is used, at least in the summer, by nearly a thousand people each week? Can a community successfully maintain its own green spaces, without interference from authorities, but also without their help? Can a site mired in a history of discrimination, especially in regard to waterfront access — a site now primarily used by a Honduran community — be effectively managed by volunteers seeking to uplift African American heritage?
Originally, Pellet viewed Lincoln Beach as the future home of an eco-education space centered around Black history. He has since come to appreciate that other cultural groups have historical ties to the beach. For Wallace, the importance of the site has always been shared. As she told me in spring 2022, “This space has been used much longer as a natural resource than it was as a Black beach.”
A Century of Wrong and a Site of Black Joy
You segregated fucking water.
− “Sage” Michael Pellet
The East is the lost narrative. Nobody’s centered the East as part of the cultural narrative of New Orleans.
— Dasjon Jordan, urban planner
Two hundred years ago, the eastern shore of Pontchartrain was marsh, sparsely inhabited by escaped slaves. Then came sugarcane plantations. 10 In the 1820s, a segregated hotel and casino were established; the casino later added a rollercoaster. In 1878, a bigger, Whites-only amusement park opened. Both these venues closed in the 1920s. Over the next decades, as engineers drained thousands of marshland acres, a swath remained cut off from the growing city by the Industrial Canal, which had been dredged in 1923 to link Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River. Investors tried to plant the isolated parcel with citrus groves, but the area now colloquially known as New Orleans East remained largely the province of crude fishing camps. Meanwhile, in 1928, on the developed side of the Industrial Canal, Pontchartrain Beach was constructed, featuring another Whites-only amusement park. Black leaders, looking for a recreational option, petitioned the city for use of Seabrook Beach.
For a while, Black patrons swam legally at Seabrook. But White neighborhood associations complained that this devalued their properties. So the city made Seabrook inhospitable, refusing to hire lifeguards or install bathhouses or concessions, and denying permits to entrepreneurs hoping to close the service gaps. Police harassed beachgoers, citing noise violations or improper swimwear. Then, in 1934, the Flood Management Authority and Levee Board built a concrete seawall five-and-a-half miles long to protect White neighborhoods. This construction left behind dangerous underwater sinkholes. At Pontchartrain Beach, these were filled to keep White swimmers safe. At Seabrook, Black New Orleanians regularly drowned, and in 1943, the city outlawed swimming there. 11
The following year, a Black newspaper, Louisiana Weekly, published an editorial: “It is a disgrace to the citizens … that out of the many miles of waterfront around [New Orleans], not one foot is available to … the almost 180,000 tax-paying Negro people in our city.” 12 This wasn’t entirely accurate; beginning in 1938, Black residents could legally swim at one other place — Lincoln Beach, across the Industrial Canal. But this beach was dangerous for different reasons.
Named for the Emancipator, Lincoln Beach was established when a fruit magnate named Samuel Zemurray donated a portion of his unproductive orchard to the city, which turned the parcel over to the Orleans Parish Levee Board. A little more than two acres were designated a “permanent” Black beach. Fourteen miles from downtown, the location was remote enough that perceived threats to real-estate values could be rationalized; it was also unreachable by public transportation, and infested with alligators and snakes. Within a three-mile radius, 175 fishing camps were dumping raw sewage into the lake. The Work Progress Administration built a bathhouse in 1940, but there were no lifeguards. The water was so contaminated that city health officials soon recommended closure. 13
By 1951, however, Blacks accounted for 31 percent of New Orleans’s population. 14 The Levee Board invested one million dollars (the equivalent of $11.6 million today) in Lincoln Beach, developing a new bathhouse, a ten-acre parking lot, three pools, and a restaurant with rooftop and ground terraces. 15 Later, the White-owned, for-profit Lincoln Beach Corporation added a rollercoaster, arcade, and Ferris wheel. On May 8, 1954, the new park welcomed thousands of guests, including community leaders and both Black and White politicians, to an invitation-only dedication. The marching band from Booker T. Washington High School paraded on the midway, surrounded by palm trees and rose bushes. 16 Three weeks later, the public opening drew 25,000 people from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The first-rate Black amenity was such a novelty that the Louisiana Weekly printed the names of every employee, from the onsite nurse to the standby lifeguard. 17
A normal Saturday at the resort might feature a diving show, a free performance by pianist Fats Pichon, and dancing to the Bob Ogden Orchestra. National acts with local roots were showcased; customers paid 50 cents a ticket to see Aaron Neville, Fats Domino, and many others. The Red Cross offered swimming classes. The site hosted the Negro State Fair, and Nat (King) Cole invited June Foster, the eighteen-year-old winner of the 1954 Miss Lincoln Beach pageant, onstage at Treme’s premiere venue, the Municipal Auditorium. Photos taken at the beach regularly made the Weekly’s front page: beauty queens like Miss Foster, talent-contest winners, divers, children in swim caps. Juxtaposed against these celebratory images were more sobering stories: A.P. Tureaud, chief legal counsel for the New Orleans chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., leading the fight to integrate public parks and the Orleans Parish school system; the city of San Antonio, Texas, closing a dozen public pools after a Black Sunday School class swam in one. 18
In its prime, Lincoln Beach became something richer than an amusement park or picnic spot. Like Congo Square, it had been provided by White officials to contain Black people. Black New Orleanians had transformed it into a refuge that was joyful and expansive, yet intimate and safe.
Lincoln Beach’s tenure as an amusement park was short, but before it closed, the surrounding area of eastern New Orleans had been transformed. In 1959, a Texas business consortium purchased 32,090 marshy acres half a mile from the beach, to be infilled for a White working-class development; at the time, it was the largest privately owned tract within city limits. 19 Folgers Coffee opened a roasting plant nearby, and, in 1961, NASA retooled a weapons factory into a rocket-assembly facility that employed 12,000 (and would later prove to be environmentally disastrous). 20 By 1964 — four years after a quartet of first graders integrated Louisiana public schools — the Texas group, calling itself New Orleans East, Inc., was offering more than 500 new residences for sale or lease, with at least 1,000 more planned. 21 White families fled the inner city for the oilmen’s version of a garden suburb in a swamp.
The first-rate Black amenity was such a novelty that the Louisiana Weekly printed the names of every employee, from onsite nurse to standby lifeguard.
That same year, passage of the federal Civil Rights Act banned segregation in public places. Pontchartrain Beach immediately closed its swimming pools. 22 A few days later, a Louisiana Weekly headline proclaimed, “Lincoln Beach Closes Down, Mum on Reason.” The story reported, “While no racial issues were discussed publicly, it is known that the lease agreement carried an escape clause providing that if the segregation or separation of the races become impossible … the lease would be canceled within 30 days.” The Lincoln Beach Corporation had just signed a ten-year lease, and the Levee Board sued for breach of contract. The Board lost, and that was that. The Ferris wheel was left to rust in the humidity. And Black New Orleanians were left with no option but Pontchartrain Beach, where they sometimes returned from a swim to find the air let out of their tires. 23
As the city’s population shrank overall, New Orleans East filled up. Middle-class Blacks moved from historic Creole and Black neighborhoods that had been devastated in the late 1960s by construction of Interstate 10, and from the Lower Ninth Ward, which flooded in 1965, during Hurricane Betsy. Vietnamese refugees arrived from camps across the U.S., following recommendations from a group of Vietnamese Catholic priests, who promoted the region’s similarity to Vietnam in terms of climate and marshland topography. 24
Inconclusive efforts were made throughout the ’70s to redevelop Lincoln Beach, without swimming pools and for a Whiter clientele. The Levee Board leased the land to one marina company and then to another; when those deals fell through, the city budgeted $300,000 (roughly $1.4 million today) for picnic tables, a fishing pier, and a boat launch. 25 Private developers proposed condos, a waterpark, an amphitheater, and a training facility for the New Orleans Saints football team, even as residents of all races continued to use the beach illicitly. But Lake Pontchartrain was still polluted with sewage and industrial runoff, and the state health department again advised against swimming. In 1983, Pontchartrain Beach closed, leaving Seabrook as the south shore’s sole accessible beachfront. Two years later, the Levee Board traded Lincoln Beach to a firm called New Orleans Canal, Inc., in exchange for 50 acres of parkland elsewhere.
Passage of the federal Civil Rights Act banned segregation in public places. Lincoln Beach closed down immediately. The Ferris wheel was left to rust.
The oil bust of the mid ’80s hit the area hard. 26 New Orleans East, Inc., the residential developer, went bankrupt, and 23,000 acres of their tract were redesignated as Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. The East filled with Black families, some upwardly mobile — many would move on again, to newer subdivisions — and others applying Section 8 vouchers to rent in apartment complexes. 27 In 1989, the canal company also filed for bankruptcy. No creditors wanted Lincoln Beach, and it was returned to the Levee Board as a tax write-off. 28 The following year, the Levee Board settled a lawsuit for $4.9 million, after a child fell off a pier and was paralyzed. 29 Eventually, Levee Police erected barriers to illegally limit access along the five-and-a-half miles of seawall that ran west from Seabrook Beach. This meant that, throughout the ’90s, residents of New Orleans East had to drive miles out of their way to access the water. 30 For drivers coming from the “White” side of the Industrial Canal, the lakefront exit was directly accessible.
In 1997, the Levee Board committed $1.5 million to clean up Lincoln Beach, and hired an engineering firm to draw up a masterplan, which outlined a $20 million project with a restored beach and entertainment plaza. 31 (No funding source was identified for the $18.5 million shortfall.) A University of New Orleans biologist launched a $2 million marsh-restoration project, funded by the city Sewage and Water Board as part of an EPA consent decree. 32 But, the following year, the Levee Board backed out, claiming that New Orleans Canal, Inc. had failed to pay its property taxes, and as a result the city of New Orleans — and not the Orleans Levee Board — was actually the owner of Lincoln Beach. 33
Throughout the 1990s, residents of New Orleans East had to drive miles out of their way to access the waterfront along Lake Pontchartrain.
Plans moved forward anyway, transferred to the jurisdiction of the New Orleans Building Corporation, a city agency tasked with management of revenue-losing properties. Dozens of volunteers pulled trash and rusted equipment from what a state-funded monitor announced was now the “cleanest water on the lake.” 34 A grassroots group called ACT (or All Congregations Together), headed by religious leaders in the East, organized a fundraiser featuring Irma Thomas, who once sang for fans at the Lincoln Beach resort. Working from the Levee Board’s masterplan, the city demolished several structures. 35 When at last it came time to redevelop the remediated site, however, officials balked. In May 2005, after receiving a single, over-budget bid, the city put the plan on hold. Their intention was to take six months to reassess the budget. 36 But, in six months, New Orleans would be a very different place.
A Brand-New Map
Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes … but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.
― Lafcadio Hearn, 1879
They tried to make a brand-new map without us.
— Lil Wayne, “Sky’s the Limit”
When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, levees breached in 53 places, and 80 percent of the city was inundated, including Lincoln Beach and the surrounding areas. For a time, local news dubbed the beach’s neighborhood “the most dangerous” in the city. 37 Even so, another population began settling in. A federal decree had waived employers’ responsibility to check work visas, and thousands of Central Americans moved in to clear debris, with many sleeping in the empty shells of houses in the East. Others camped at Lincoln Beach. 38
These disaster workers were the latest in a lineage of Latin American laborers exploited in New Orleans−based enterprises. In the early 1900s, Zemurray’s fruit companies had established plantations throughout Central America. Under his leadership, United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) became the largest landowner in the region; in Honduras, many Garifuna people — descended from Indigenous Arawak and Carib tribes, and free Africans — grew bananas and worked the ports. 39 Eventually, Zemurray orchestrated coups in both Honduras and Guatemala, installing leaders who would protect his profits at the expense of their own citizens. 40 Economic migration, fueled in part by U.S. foreign policy, continued, and New Orleans gradually became home to one of the largest Honduran diasporas in the world. 41 On warm weekends throughout the 2000s, dozens of Latino families came to Lincoln Beach.
When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, levees breached in 53 places, and 80 percent of the city was inundated, including Lincoln Beach and its surroundings.
White gutter punks and “urban explorers,” who knew the abandoned resort as “Trash Beach,” were taking advantage of the free-for-all too, hanging swings, building tree houses, and spray-painting elaborate graffiti. On Earth Day, 2018 — not long after a hospital and a grocery store were finally reestablished in New Orleans East — the beach saw its biggest party since the 1960s. Amplified bass thumped off tree trunks, and tents lit from within glowed like magic mushrooms on the sand, along the midway, and atop the derelict pavilions. The organizer, a 22-year-old named Angelo Levene, estimated that 4,000 people attended the three-day rave, including 120 DJs playing six makeshift stages. Eventually police showed up, alerted by the hundreds of cars parked along Hayne Boulevard. Rather than arresting anyone, though, they just warned the racially mixed crowd to stay off the railroad tracks.
A (Multiracial) Black Heritage Site
Reckon with the past to plan the future: meaningfully acknowledge the histories, injustice, innovations, and victories of spaces and places before new work begins.
− BlackSpace Manifesto
After that April afternoon when Sage Pellet committed himself to Lincoln Beach, he went back daily for two weeks, carrying a fat roll of contractor bags. Mostly he cleaned the big beach, working away at the trash piles and posting pictures on Instagram. Some nights he slept in a tent.
Blyss Wallace and Pellet had mutual friends; she didn’t know him personally, but followed his Instagram. The photos of white-sand beaches, more reminiscent of Puerto Rico than anything she’d seen in New Orleans, intrigued her. Despite spending most of her teenage years in the East, at the mall and skating rink — and having heard stories from her grandmother of the resort’s heyday — Wallace had never explored the beach. She’d never even known quite where it was. So she called Pellet. The next day, she visited, watching awestruck as a largely Honduran crowd fished and swam. The euphoria of discovery was tempered with anger: “Why is this being kept from [New Orleanians]?” She gave an interview to a local news station, which Pellet had arranged. 42 As he saw it, she was a generations-deep Black New Orleanian, returning to a Black heritage site.
In May 2020, the volunteers created an event called Clean Up and Chill. More than a hundred people arrived to bag eight tons of trash.
Pellet wanted to solidify his efforts, and Wallace jumped on board; in May 2020, they created a Facebook event called Clean Up and Chill. More than a hundred people arrived to bag eight tons of trash. The two kept hosting clean-ups every Sunday, and volunteers kept coming. They set out plastic garbage cans and stacked full bags under the pavilions, unsure how to move them offsite. Pellet and Wallace also had more ambitious plans. They co-founded New Orleans for Lincoln Beach, with a six-person board of directors that included the president of the local neighborhood association, and set about publicizing their endeavors. Wallace had been an accountant at a hotel, but the pandemic claimed her job. So she and Pellet spent full days building the nonprofit. Soon they had more than 6,000 Facebook followers.
They had been cleaning for just over a month when Pellet noticed a man on the small beach, bagging trash alone. This was Reggie Ford. Ford had seen the Facebook invitations, but he worked weekends, selling art in the French Quarter. Besides, he wasn’t interested in being part of NOLB. “I don’t need somebody to hold my hand and tell me how to stuff a trash bag,” he reasoned. At first, Pellet wasn’t sure about this rogue effort, meticulously documented on Ford’s social media (currently 32,000+ Instagram followers). Was Ford trying to outflank NOLB for stewardship at Lincoln Beach? They settled into a slightly uneasy rhythm, with Ford focusing on the small beach and NOLB volunteers on the large one.
Pellet welcomed those who arrived for Clean Up and Chill, but he was cooler toward other users. He thought the Hondurans trashed the beach, and told Dave “Shipwreck” Larsen, a White man who’d been living under a pavilion for more than two years, that he was an “eyesore” who didn’t belong on “the Black man’s beach.” Wallace, for her part, organized NOLB’s weekly meetings, which were held at the beach and regularly drew 30 to 50 people. She directed volunteers, and fielded media requests — exposure she didn’t think they were ready for. Monitoring NOLB social feeds, she received angry comments and even death threats. The gist, she said, was “we was chilling till you came out.” Pellet “approached everybody,” and some resented his self-appointed jurisdiction. “It’s like he’s the director of the beach, and people were like, ‘I’ve been coming out. Who are you?’ You can’t be representing New Orleans for Lincoln Beach and going off on people.” She didn’t feel that protection of Black heritage should be their only mission. “How are we different, if we’re saying this is a Black thing and only Black people can come here? How are we different than the people who made this a Black beach in the first place?”
But if Pellet, Wallace, and Ford — as well as other long-time users — clashed over how, or even whether, to fix up the site, they agreed on one crucial point: they wanted Lincoln Beach to be by the people, for the people. The question of which people might have been in dispute, but no one wanted to see the park turned over to for-profit ventures that would make the beach inaccessible not just physically, but financially. “If you don’t have money in America, you can’t get to the water,” Pellet says. “Because the industries take the water, and the Levee Board takes the rest.”
In May 2020, Mayor Cantrell’s administration announced its own plan for Lincoln Beach, with a site assessment to be completed within the year; the project lead was (and remains) Cheryn Robles, Chief of Staff for the New Orleans Department of Public Works. At first, the city seemed to engage the unofficial beach-keepers. Pellet asked Robles to relocate alligators living in the flooded entrance tunnels, and the city complied. Then a city representative contacted Ford for his perspective on the renovation. Yet tension quickly escalated. In June, Pellet confronted the East’s then-councilperson, Cyndi Nguyen, leading a beach tour for a group he pegged as developers.
As the pump worked, he waded into the water in shorts and sneakers to clear debris; he pushed a shopping cart ahead, for protection against snakes and alligators.
By this point, Pellet had been trying for months to drain the entrance tunnels with a small pump. Then, in late July, Ford noticed that the tunnels’ security gate was open. The city had paid the Levee Board to clear the way for site surveyors. Seizing an opportunity, Ford rented a larger pump and, for three days straight, he and his cousin slept onsite, running it. They funneled 100,000 gallons of water to a storm drain. As the pump worked, Ford waded into the murky water in shorts and sneakers to clear debris; he pushed a shopping cart ahead, for protection against snakes and gators. Then he rented a construction Bobcat and drove it into the tunnels to move branches. When the Bobcat sank in the mud, Ford paid a tow truck to haul it out. When he was done, for the first time in decades, you could walk through the tunnels to Lincoln Beach. The city threatened Ford with a misdemeanor for draining to a sewer without a permit. But Ford had finally won Pellet’s respect. Two weeks later, when the tunnels filled again, city employees pumped them out.
Throughout that pandemic summer of 2020, crowds swarmed Lincoln Beach each Sunday, barbecuing, blasting reggaeton and hip-hop, fishing, and lounging on furniture Ford constructed from packing pallets. Was Covid even real? Masks and social distancing existed on the far side of the wall. And that was part of the beauty of Lincoln Beach. Out here, Sundays felt like they had before the coronavirus — except better, because now the leisure-seekers were more diverse. In addition to the Hondurans and Garifuna, there were African Americans, Vietnamese families, and a new kind of White people. These weren’t the fringe-dwellers who’d been coming for years. Some brought children; others looked like students from the uptown universities. For awhile, the crowds went undisturbed. Then one steamy July Sunday, a uniformed police officer stood at the mouth of the path and announced, “Due to Covid restrictions, you all have to leave.”
The following month, the city issued what Pellet, Wallace, and Ford considered an alarmist press release, telling people not to go to Lincoln Beach because of reptiles. It also threatened $500 trespassing fines. Vehicles parked on Hayne were ticketed. (Mayor Cantrell had the fines dropped when Pellet pressed, admitting that the tickets were a tactic to discourage beach visitors.) De facto eviction notices were posted on tents and trees, warning that anything left would be forcibly cleared. City workers bulldozed Shipwreck’s camp. They also removed 1,200 bags of trash that NOLB volunteers had collected. This would be the first of only two instances, to date, when the city has hauled away bagged garbage.
They removed rebar and big rocks, ripped up poison ivy, created permanent fire pits, and chopped brush into firewood.
In the three years since Ford first cleared the tunnels, he has drained them more than a dozen times; the city has done it twice, most recently in May 2023. All the while, authorities have continued to threaten Ford and Pellet, as well as other beachgoers, with legal action for doing what the city itself should do — clean the beach and make it safe. The grassroots clean-up effort has featured in local news. Ford has been named a “Gr8t Neighbor” by the Fox affiliate, and Pellet was awarded a $10,000 grant by the Foundation for Louisiana. 43 But public accolades notwithstanding, the beach-keepers are technically breaking the law, and all through summer 2020, they continued to get pushback from the city.
That July, Ford reported on Instagram that city representatives had told him, “If you don’t post pictures, you don’t have to worry about the police coming back there.” 44 It was a quintessential New Orleans solution. You don’t have to obey the rules; just don’t flaunt your defiance in a way that embarrasses folks at the top. Ford saw the admonition as a ploy to distract attention from the property:
If you don’t post pictures, how will the public know what’s going on? And if the public isn’t aware, they [the city] can just sell it off .… Right now, the public is in a position to say that they want this beach redeveloped, whether the city redevelops it or whether a grassroots organization like New Orleans for Lincoln Beach develops it.
Ford continued to post on his own channels, but NOLB stopped sharing photos of “trespassers.” Instead, they posted photos of the clean, peaceful beach, taken in rare moments when it was empty. By the end of that first summer, volunteer efforts had waned, and the site was being maintained primarily by Ford and Pellet, now working in tandem. They removed rebar and big rocks, ripped up poison ivy, created permanent fire pits, and chopped brush into firewood. They raised paths, using shells dredged from the water. A group of Black beach-frequenters set up camps in the woods, with about a dozen in residence on any given night. Pellet’s camp wound around trees between the two beaches. Ford’s was more isolated, in the woods near the entrance tunnels; he constructed a tiny, lockable shed, hidey-holes to stash tools, and an adjoining screened sleeping porch with a sand floor. After dark, the beach usually became the province of men — fishing off the jetties, passing spliffs around a communal fire. But some nights it was busier, with tiki torches, loudspeakers, parties that went late. Once the organizers of a birthday party lined the path with LED lights, and Black women arrived in cocktail dresses.
NOLB, meanwhile, was experiencing growing pains. The meetings moved to Zoom, and participation dwindled. The lack of financial transparency bothered Wallace. Their organization had no bank account, and Ford had spent thousands out of pocket; both he and Pellet received personal donations. Wallace wanted donors to know where the money went. The authority the group had accrued also had its downside. “There was a lot of stuff that had to be managed,” she explained. “People wanted to throw parties and have functions. They’re asking your permission, and you’re like, ‘I can’t give you permission to do a video shoot. That’s your own risk.’”
Pellet stepped down as president of NOLB, largely because he had spoken out against the city and didn’t want to hurt the nonprofit. Wallace was elected president, and her work became more diplomatic and desk-based. Yet Pellet and Ford (who was still uninterested in formally joining NOLB) continued to spend nearly every day at the beach. Cantrell visited, accompanied by an entourage of city department heads, and praised Pellet to his face as “Mayor of Lincoln Beach.” But the administration never acknowledged NOLB in a truly public-facing way. Sometimes it seemed that Cantrell was taking credit for their work, as at an August press conference when she stated, “My administration activated cleaning up Lincoln Beach.” Pellet found this insulting, though Wallace takes a more generous view: “[We] attack the politicians and city workers, and also call them every time we have an issue,” she told me. “To me, that’s us continuing to step on our own feet.”
The administration never acknowledged the volunteers in a truly public-facing way. Sometimes it seemed that the mayor was taking credit for their work.
In May 2021, Robles created a Lincoln Beach Community Advisory Committee, with Wallace as president. The CAC has been meeting every few months on Zoom, although some members have never actually visited Lincoln Beach. (Most meetings have been little more than brainstorming sessions.) The city also released a site assessment. Cost estimates for revitalizing the beach — where water and soil are now officially deemed safe — and the vegetation-choked parking lot on the far side of Hayne Boulevard, are between $9.5 and $15 million. The 2021 report acknowledged Lincoln Beach as a heritage site: “While safety improvements and accessibility are paramount, equally as important is the preservation of … cultural significance.” What it didn’t acknowledge, at least not directly, were NOLB, Pellet, Ford, and their ongoing contributions. Instead, the document referred to “squatters” and “potential biohazard areas.”
The City’s Beach, Run by The People
I motivated a movement. I wasn’t the first anything. There were people here before me; I just did a part.
− “Sage” Michael Pellet
Here, we don’t have to worry about people looking at us. We don’t have to worry about Karens, nothing like that. It’s peaceful.
− Destiny G., New Orleanian
In New Orleans, summer often ends with a hurricane, and Hurricane Zeta made landfall in Louisiana on October 28, 2020, with the eye passing over the city at sunset. In that respite, people stepped out into an eerily still world, the sky tinted cotton-candy pink and power lines dangling. When the storm’s battering began again, transformers blew in impromptu fireworks.
At Lincoln Beach, Zeta power-washed 1,000 trash bags out of the pavilions. Beer cans bobbed in the waves, and shreds of black plastic hung from bushes. Suddenly the beach was chilly and dirty, and people stopped coming. Activity stalled on NOLB’s social feeds. Lincoln Beach wasn’t a priority for the overwhelmed city administration, dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath, a sanitation strike, ongoing social-justice protests, and an upcoming election. It took Pellet and Ford five months to re-bag the Zeta-scattered trash. By then, Lincoln Beach had attracted other high-level attention.
On February 3, 2021, Troy Carter — then a state senator, now a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives — had climbed the wall and crossed the railroad tracks, alongside Ford, Pellet, and Wallace, to film a site-tour-cum-campaign-commercial. On April 2, NOLB and Pellet were mentioned in a New York Times story on “Black healing spaces.” 45 Two days later, on Easter Sunday, the beach was packed. It was essentially the second season’s kickoff; grills, coolers, and music were back. The beach bustled even on weekdays, and sometimes out-of-towners found their way there. Still, in a city where three out of four police detainees are Black, Pellet worried that the intimidation tactics — the parking tickets and fear-mongering press releases — had succeeded. He thought the beach was less Black than before. 46
One Saturday in August 2021, Pellet and Ford were perched on the low remains of the big beach’s brick seawall. The city had just surpassed the average rainfall for the entire year, and the two congratulated themselves on how well their DIY drainage system — plastic pipes and small canals crisscrossing the site — had handled the mosquitos. A Garifuna group packed the remains of a birthday party. Beyond the levee wall, the Delta variant of Covid raged, overwhelming Louisiana hospitals. A new school year had begun, and the state attorney general was fighting the governor’s mask mandate. The lull before the Delta wave now felt like gaslighting — rescheduled festivals canceled again; vaccine cards required to enter public spaces; a fresh designation as the nation’s “murder capital.” Beyond that wall, people were overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted. On this side, kids buried each other in sand, and adults picked their way across the rock jetty, gorgeously silhouetted against pastel clouds.
Beyond the wall, people were overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted. On this side, kids buried each other in sand, gorgeously silhouetted against pastel clouds.
A few weeks later, on August 29, 2021 — the sixteenth anniversary of Katrina — Hurricane Ida struck southern Louisiana as a Category 4 storm. Ford lashed his homemade beach furniture to trees. Ida swamped his mower and weed-eater, and scattered the contents of 1,200 trash bags. His shed bore a high-water mark of about three-and-a-half feet. On Instagram, Pellet urged people to reach out to Mayor Cantrell. 47 And he called for volunteers. Training his camera on Ford, shirtless in green cargo shorts, tugging bulging contractor bags out of the weeds, Pellet exhorted his audience: “It was a storm, your property got hit, everybody checking on their property. I don’t see anyone from the city checking on Lincoln Beach .… All the Black men in New Orleans, this is your land. Step up and take care of this for your community.”
This time, it took four months to re-collect the garbage. A year earlier, officials had told Ford and Pellet that the city would remove bagged trash. More recently, I got a disclaimer from Robles, at the Department of Public Works: “If you make it too comfortable, then people will go on abusing it.”
On March 27, 2022, Ford posted a video with the caption “Family Day”: men kicking a soccer ball; children clustered around tide pools. A few hours later, he was walking with a friend when they heard a pop. It’s common to hear gunshots from the far side of the wall. But this sounded close.
“Run!” Ford shouted. More gunfire exploded as they tore through the woods.
Lorenzo Caesar was also there that day. He ran from his beach camp to the train tracks, where two men had fallen, dialed 911, and began CPR on the nearest downed man. Ford sprinted to the big beach, where grills were heating and music blaring, and raised his voice: “Y’all have to go. Leave now!” As families streamed over the wall, Caesar attempted CPR on a second man, and beachgoers carried a third to the tracks. By Caesar’s estimate, it took the ambulances more than 30 minutes to arrive. One man was saved by his interventions. One died on the tracks, and the third died en route to the hospital. They were each 20 years old.
Two weeks after the (likely gang-related) shooting, Ford hopped the wall to spend the night at the beach. The seven men must have been crouching in the shadows, and he saw them first in his peripheral vision — charging at him, shouting. Ford spun and sprinted toward his car. The next day, he posted a nine-minute video, with text pasted across the top: “No vi nada, no se nada.” (“I didn’t see anything, I don’t know anything.”) Looking at the camera, he addressed his unknown assailants: “What it comes down to is, you went home last night, I went home last night. It’s finished … I can say this, I’m not working on the Lincoln Beach project no more. Because I can’t work and protect myself at the same time.”
Later that day, he and Pellet posted more videos. In one clip, Pellet speaks to Ford’s camera: “We accomplished what the city never did since they closed this place down. We restored it to a beautiful park and advocated in every way.” “We’ve been out here almost two years straight,” Ford says. “I’m tired. Peace out.” Overlaid text declares: “Restoration Complete.”
The shooting complicated possible futures for Lincoln Beach, and muddied myths about the refuge on “this side of the wall.” “It did something to me. It shifted my thinking,” Wallace told me, a week after it happened. “We need protection out here. We’re going to have to have some type of security.”
No option is perfect. If the city regulates the space, it may become safer for some and less safe for others — for instance, undocumented folks, and others who might be profiled or harassed. Weddings and video shoots may require fees and permits, and users may no longer be able to build fires or camp. Robles says that the city may ultimately manage the site as a public-private partnership, with private companies handling vending and security. In the worst-case scenario, developers may create a profit-driven venue that, like so much else in New Orleans, caters to tourists and is inaccessible to Black and Brown locals.
No option is perfect. If the city regulates the space, it may become less safe for undocumented folks, and others who might be profiled or harassed.
In the early days of the clean-up, Pellet had ideas: “Nature trails, public access, a deck overlooking a wetlands sanctuary … social services and programming. We could have a working farm for all that acreage on the back side … employing people from the community, teaching skills, having those products in corner stores.” He envisioned the park funding itself via event-space fees, as well as a paid role for himself, as beach-keeper and educator. In 2022, however, Pellet got a full-time job as a climate-justice organizer with the nonprofit Healthy Gulf. This meant that, even before the shooting, he had less time for the beach.
After the shooting, Wallace, too, thought she was done with the beach. But the very next day, a microgrant came through from Louisiana State University. “I never expected to be in this type of position or be involved in politics, but I care about this project enough to see it through,” she said soon afterward. “If I’m going to live in New Orleans, I want a beach in New Orleans.”
Early on Easter morning 2022, four weeks after the shooting and five days after he’d posted that he was done, Ford returned to the beach to pick up his belongings. He looked around in astonishment. He and Pellet hadn’t cleared trash in a week, but the beach remained clean. Garbage bins were full, leftover trash neatly stacked beside them. So Ford emptied the bins and bagged the piles — 20 bags total — documenting the process on social media, as always.
In the caption, he wrote: “Came too far to let it turn into a wasteland again.”
A Potential Victory and a Murky Future
Common things may not be owned by anyone. They are such as the air and the high seas that may be freely used by everyone conformably with the use for which nature has intended them.
– The Louisiana Civil Code, Articles 448 and 449
This land was stolen from Chitimacha, from Choctaw, from Houma and Tchoupitoulas.
– “Sage” Michael Pellet
Our people are the ones who mainly come here.
– Esperanza Moreno, New Orleanian
April 2023 marked three years since Pellet and Ford began cleaning Lincoln Beach. Recently, both have been there nearly every day, and the site is cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. The place could easily be mistaken for an official park, with a few anomalies. Anywhere from six to ten full-time residents live in a handful of new camps, and not long ago, the fire department responded to flames shooting high enough to be visible from Hayne Boulevard. The next day, Ford put on a hazmat suit and respirator, and cleaned up the charred debris. “Meth lab,” he guessed. He bagged the noxious rubble, and added it to the pile under a pavilion.
The city is still not picking up trash, but the site now boasts its most complete infrastructure since the 1950s. The beaches are nearly spotless.
The city is still not picking up trash, but the site now boasts its most complete infrastructure since the 1950s. Thanks to citizen donors, the path to the big beach and the first pavilion are lit by solar-powered, motion-triggered floodlights. Bamboo scaffolding built by Pellet raises paths over drainage channels. The beaches are nearly spotless, and more trash bins have appeared. Some entity (Robles says it wasn’t the city) buffed the graffiti-covered wall that separates Hayne from the beach. Almost immediately a new mural went up, a collaboration between artists Sasha Swan and Seek 78, with portraits of Irma Thomas and Fats Domino beside a retro-styled sign reading “Lincoln Beach.” Pellet has made peace with the fact that the majority of beachgoers are Hondurans, and compares their “water culture” to Black “porch culture” — places where private life spills over into semi-public spaces. “It’s like an onion,” he said. “I’m learning to peel the layers. Now I know the aboriginal connections to this land. Now I know the Honduran connection. This land was donated to the city by Sam Zemurray, who exploited Hondurans on their own land.”
On March 31, the city announced an appropriation of $24.6 million for Lincoln Beach, with a Request for Proposals released in late June, and groundbreaking anticipated later this year. 48 At a Joint Climate Change and Sustainability and Governmental Affairs committee meeting, Robles stated that a pedestrian crossing will be built over Hayne, and that the boulevard may be narrowed from four lanes to two, with added bike lanes. 49 In an interview, she offered more detail: the park will be open during daylight hours; the tunnels will be reopened; some structures will be removed; there will be vending, and eventually, an administration building with bathrooms and meeting space. Two weeks later, the two-year-old Community Advisory Committee held a contentious Zoom meeting; Wallace tried to remain patient as members who have never visited the beach debated procedures for electing committee officers. Later, in an attempt to smooth things over, Robles called a meeting with leaders of various New Orleans East nonprofits. Most of these groups are represented on the CAC, and all have strong, often opposing opinions on what the beach should offer. Some, such as NOLB, have been engaged far longer and more actively than others. The person who has been most active, Pellet, also wants an “official” voice. However, since he wants to operate through an LLC he has established, Sageville, rather than under the umbrella of NOLB or any nonprofit, Robles says he is ineligible for membership.
How will the city avoid transforming this eclectic haven into the latest example of community displacement?
At the March meeting, several city-council members stressed the importance of community input. But all seemed focused on Black residents. In nearly an hour of comments and presentations that repeatedly cited “culture and heritage,” no elected or appointed official mentioned the beach’s Spanish-speaking users. Only Pellet, in his two minutes of public comment, acknowledged them: “We’re returning this land to our community, to those Indigenous people that you see on that [city seal of New Orleans], back to the Black community, and back to our Latin friends, the Hondurans.”
Several other avenues toward community engagement are being pursued. Wallace used her LSU microgrant to hire Water Leaders Institute, an incubator established in 2018 in partnership with the nonprofit Central City Renaissance Alliance. The group has hosted a series of community visioning sessions, the most recent of which took place in late July; last December, NOLB and WLI released the Lincoln Beach Community Vision Report, which has been cited by the city in a Request for Qualifications for the Lincoln Beach Development Master Plan, released at the end of June. 50
Yet, while WLI reports that nearly 100 people have taken part in their workshops, those sessions — like the meetings of the CAC — seem to have been attended primarily by people who have rarely, if ever, visited the beach. No Spanish-speakers were in evidence at the public session I attended, in part because WLI did no outreach on the beach itself. Indeed, the Spanish-speaking users — residents of the city, and important fuel for its economic engine, though not, thus far, a key voting bloc — seem largely not to realize that the beach will soon be inaccessible for an unspecified period, while construction occurs. The local Spanish-language outlet, Jambalaya News, has published just one story about Lincoln Beach, dealing with the 2022 shooting, and there are few other channels through which to spread information. Robles seems open to gathering input directly on the beach, via multilingual surveys, and Wallace suggests an even more effective approach — an onsite, city-hosted party, with refreshments and translators. “It’s probably better not even to advertise,” she notes, but just to plan this event for a weekend day, when everyone will already be at the beach.
Beyond soliciting public input, however, the city needs to make certain that the redeveloped park remains a place where marginalized people feel safe. What will the new Lincoln Beach look like? Robles doesn’t expect that the city will charge an entrance fee, but she noted this could change, depending on actual operating costs. What steps will officials take, then, to ensure that undocumented people aren’t arrested and turned over to ICE for fishing without permits? 51 How will the city avoid transforming this eclectic haven into the latest example of community displacement?
On a Monday in late May, the city opened the tunnel gates and drained the passageways for the second time — a sign that soon, official work is likely to begin. There were about three dozen people at the beach, roughly two-thirds Spanish-speaking and one third Black. The six I spoke to, all Honduran, didn’t know the city is planning to renovate. Xiomara, who was grilling steaks for her preteen kids, asked if I knew what the new rules would be. She’s been coming for nine years, but isn’t sure who’s been cleaning up. (“Maybe the city?”) She made a sour face at the prospect of official hours; she doesn’t want the beach to change. Several others said it was their first time at Lincoln Beach — something I’ve heard from many Spanish-speakers over many visits. This time, though, I was with my Mexican friend, Isaac, and he didn’t believe them. “They’re scared because they’re immigrants,” he said. “They know they aren’t supposed to be here.” He thought people would be more forthcoming if he did the talking, so I sat nearby as he chatted with a man fishing off the jetty. The man is undocumented, and he has come nearly every afternoon for four years, to relax and catch dinner after work. When Issac tells him about the planned reopening, he answers flatly, “Estoy asustado.” (“I’m scared.”)
A week earlier, Jorge Barahona, who has been using the beach for a year, said he would be willing to pay two or three dollars as an entrance fee. But he stiffened when my friend Jazmin, who is Honduran like him, mentioned security. “I don’t see the need for that to happen here,” he said, in Spanish. Barahona sometimes visits a beach on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, about an hour east, and feels that he’s “the only Latin person” there: “So it’s nice to have a place here where a bunch of Latinos can get together.” He was surprised when Jazmin explained the Black history of Lincoln Beach. Barahona has experienced animosity from some of his Black neighbors, and considers the beach a respite from that. Since the funding announcement, similar animosity has been increasingly displayed in comments on Ford’s beach-related Instagram posts, likely from folks who aren’t actually using the beach. The hostility never comes from Ford, or seems to be present on the beach itself.
Carlos Aguilar, also originally from Honduras, has been using the beach for 20 years. He’s the single Spanish-speaker that Isaac, Jazmin, and I spoke to who seems interested in the city’s meetings. For now, Pellet and Ford are his sources of information. Yet Aguilar has had the impression that they work for the city, rather than as grassroots activists. He and his wife, Olimpia, have been selling food on the beach for the past three summers, and he hopes they can continue “after all the changes happen.”
The fact that the city, for the first time in more than half a century, has found funding to reopen Lincoln Beach is a credit to locals — primarily Black New Orleanians — who raised their voices and demonstrated with sweat equity that waterfront access is a civic priority. 52 But it seems likely that an official reopening will catalyze a demographic shift; that Spanish-speakers will be forced away during construction, and may never feel safe enough to return. Other than Pellet, Ford, and Wallace, the current administrative conversation is being led by people who have rarely, if ever, set foot on the beach. The territorial squabbling among nongovernmental stakeholders, and the clumsy bureaucratic attempts to mediate, seem ominous. Is this egalitarian space about to become a pawn, again, in political power struggles?
The real experts, here as elsewhere, are on-the-ground users. And it’s unsustainable to assume that the only way to restore a site is to build something new.
In order to succeed, a redeveloped Lincoln Beach will need to maintain a delicate balance between recognizing the fundamental injustice that gave rise to the segregated site in the first place and, conversely, the Black pride associated with its history; between keeping the area wild, without superfluous programming and commodification, and treading lightly on a delicate ecosystem; between keeping the beach accessible to Black and Latin communities in the surrounding neighborhoods, and welcoming visitors from the city at large and beyond. New Orleans is often considered exceptional and, in many senses, both good and bad, it is. It’s also true that, in some ways, the city’s leaders are no different from those in other Louisiana municipalities or at the national level; none have the ability to truly meet the demands of a future in which interventions advancing climate justice, social equity, and the reining-in of corporations must be paramount. Nevertheless, here, in this very particular location, it remains essential that any redevelopment take into account the goals of the two men who have built this place day by day, over three years, with their own hands; the contributions of the woman who helped them grow this project and continues to advocate; and the preferences of the Spanish-speaking New Orleanians who have been the site’s most faithful users for the past eighteen years.
Governments tend to award contracts to professionals, and architects and planners like to exert control over their designs. But the real experts — here as elsewhere — are on-the-ground users. It’s unsustainable to assume that the only way to restore a site is to build something new. “The role of government is not to function like a business,” says Dasjon Jordan, an urban planner who grew up in New Orleans East. “It’s to create protection and support for the best interest of society that’s not based simply on monetary gain. We need to support the building of a civic society .… The scale needs to include both big public-space investment and grassroots intervention.” If the city won’t pick up the trash and pump the tunnels, a couple of dedicated volunteers will do it. If the city won’t provide concessions, the people will fill the gap. In its current state, Lincoln Beach supports not only shared public respite and adventure, but a necessary underground economy. As long as regressive immigration policies render it impossible for many people living in the U.S. to legally work, there has to be a place to fish without permits, and ways to make money off-grid.
Wallace, Ford, and Pellet have never been officially paid for their Lincoln Beach work. “We aren’t trying to get checks; we’re just showing our community what we can [collectively] do,” says Pellet. For him, it’s about leading by example, reminding the people and the government what’s possible. In March, Aguilar built a concession stand on the big beach. It’s expertly crafted, sheathed in weatherproof wrap. “No more bringing a table,” he explained. The first Sunday in April, Olimpia celebrated her birthday there, passing big slices of tres leches cake to Pellet, Ford, and me. She usually feeds Pellet and Ford for free, for the same reason that Spanish-speaking men sometimes hand them $20 bills — because she sees them out there working, every time she comes. As we ate our cake, Pellet told me, “Liberation is a worldwide movement. It ain’t local.”