Northeast
Brothers Fredy and David Hincapie, 27 and 25, stand on the cliffs near 40 Steps Beach in Nahant on Aug. 21, 2022. Jenifer McKim / GBH News

MA - Historic racism still raises barriers to beach access

An ongoing GBH investigation found that rising home prices, parking restrictions and beaches shrinking due to climate change have all further limited access to one of the country’s most restrictive coastlines.

Less than 12% of the state’s roughly 1,400-mile-long shoreline is open to all members of the public. Some of those beaches cost as much as $40 to visit. The rest are municipally owned and reserved mostly for residents, or privately owned all the way to low tide line.

Fredy Hincapie grew up in Lynn, a low-income city north of Boston sitting on 4 miles of Atlantic shoreline, but he says he had little connection with the water during his childhood.

The 27-year-old Colombian immigrant says there was a dearth of city programs to draw young people to the beaches. And when he grew older and wanted to explore on his own, Hincapie found that local beaches were either dirty or so crowded that parking lots quickly filled up on hot summer days. Adding to his frustration, the wealthier neighboring town of Nahant passed parking bans to keep out nonresidents. Then Hincapie found a way: skateboarding along miles of bike paths to reach Nahant's cliffs, where he takes a breathtaking jump into the cold ocean water.

“It’s just therapeutic, like tranquility,” Hincapier told GBH News. Still, he worries that he doesn’t really belong there, wondering if police will show up and tell him to leave or neighbors will call and complain, leading to the same outcome.

Lynn is 40% Latino, and Hincapie says most of the Latinos he knows don't take advantage of the nearby coastline.

“They never touch the ocean,” he said. “They just never thought it was possible or (that) they could do something with it.”

Lynn residents are not the only people of color struggling to access Massachusetts' beaches. In some of the most racially diverse and low-income urban communities along the coast, including Lynn, pollution caused by inferior wastewater infrastructure can force local beaches to close to swimmers. And beaches in many other areas simply aren't open to the public, which critics link to lingering effects of overtly racist housing practices in coastal communities.

"It’s disgusting — the fact that Massachusetts, a state that claims to be progressive, has the most restrictive beach access that really impacts the poorest, most vulnerable people in our community,” said state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, a Democrat from Woods Hole. “A lot of antiquated beach laws across the country enabling restriction to access were born out of trying to keep African Americans from accessing the beach.”

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An ongoing GBH investigation found that rising home prices, parking restrictions and beaches shrinking due to climate change have all further limited access to one of the country’s most restrictive coastlines. Less than 12% of the state’s roughly 1,400-mile-long shoreline is open to all members of the public. Some of those beaches cost as much as $40 to visit. The rest are municipally owned and reserved mostly for residents, or privately owned all the way to low tide line.

And too often Black and brown people are those losing out.

Coastal towns in Massachusetts are overwhelmingly populated by white residents, and real estate values along the coasts have soared in recent decades at a much higher rate than other regions of Massachusetts. Critics say wealthy beach towns' practices that ban nonresidents outright or make it hard to park anywhere close to their beaches are a form of racism rooted in a history of discriminatory housing markets.

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