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.”

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.

“There is a long and documented history of predominantly white and affluent communities restricting access to public recreation spaces out of racial motives,” said Andrew Kahrl, a historian at the University of Virginia who wrote a book about Connecticut’s restrictive beach laws.

“It's beside the point to go in search of that smoking gun that proves that racist motives were behind a particular measure,” he added. “If a racially exclusive community adopts a resident-only beach policy, then we know who that's going to affect more than others.”

A man in shorts and a T shirt skateboards on a paved path, with large rocks marking the edge along the water.
Fredy Hincapie, 27, skateboards from his home in Lynn to Nahant to enjoy the beautiful beaches and rocky coastlline where nonresident parking is prohibited. Here he is enjoying the scenic route in Nahant.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

There’s no government agency tracking the race and ethnicity of beachgoers in Massachusetts. The last time the state even asked the question was a decade ago in a survey of 400 residents conducted by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, concluding simply that wealthy, white households used the coast more frequently than non-whites.

The recreation agency is preparing a new Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan this year — as mandated by the National Park Service to receive federal funds — and plans to survey about 500 residents about their beachgoing habits and their race or ethnicity.

An Amherst College study published this year found huge disparities in access to open space for communities with the highest proportions of people of color. The study was co-authored by Neenah Estrella-Luna, a sociologist in East Boston, who said feelings of not belonging on the beaches are common among marginalized populations.

“At public beaches, in protected open spaces, people of color are often intentionally made to feel unwelcome,” said Estrella-Luna. “It’s very difficult to get there. And so these little signals that people experience are also a major barrier to people even utilizing spaces that actually do exist for them.”

"At public beaches, in protected open spaces, people of color are often intentionally made to feel unwelcome."
— Neenah Estrella-Luna, sociologist

A history of racial and economic discrimination and government policy have fed this system, she added, pointing to coastal towns’ pervasive resident-only beach policies, local police that enforce these exclusions and the lack of affordable and efficient local transit to beaches.

Beach towns such as Nahant, Dennis and Plymouth aggressively enforce their parking bans. Over a five-year period, Nahant ticketed more than 4,000 people for violating the parking ban for nonresidents, according to public records obtained by GBH News.

Segregation on the sand

Critics say these 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.

The evidence is hidden inside heavy old binders shelved at the Dukes County Registry of Deeds on Martha’s Vineyard.

Several deeds in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, dating from the early 1900s to the 1940s, contain covenants requiring properties “shall be used, occupied or enjoyed only by persons of the White Race who are of the Christian religion, excepting only servants actually in the employ of the occupant.”

Several deeds in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, dating from the early 1900s to the 1940s, contain covenants requiring properties “shall be used, occupied or enjoyed only by persons of the White Race who are of the Christian religion, excepting only servants actually in the employ of the occupant.”
Chris Burrell GBH News

Such deeds were for houses that specifically included access to nearby beaches in the island towns.

Discriminatory covenants are illegal now, and the old language voided by the state Land Court. Since the content of deeds in Massachusetts is not digitized, there’s no efficient way to search for and quantify them.

But the history of these covenants resonates to the present, said Estrella-Luna.

“You would definitely see (them) in coastal communities that have been persistently white and also persistently higher income. These deed restrictions are a lot more common than New England folks would like to believe,” she said. “It’s part of a longer legacy of creating that sense of, ‘Some people belong here, and everyone else does not.’”

Racist covenants found in some Oak Bluffs deeds also roughly coincide with the arrival of Black families forming their own summer community a century ago in this island town.

It’s not clear how the advent of Black people summering in Oak Bluffs might have influenced a 1931 vote by the town to relinquish a public, town-owned beach near the Black-owned settlement and lease it for $1 a year to a newly formed private beach association. But in an oral history interview in 1983 with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Dorothy West — a Harlem Renaissance writer and one of the early Black summer residents of Oak Bluffs — said the arrival of African Americans visiting from New York may have been the tipping point to losing beach access in their neighborhood.

“We said, ‘They’re going to lose the beach for us, they’re going to lose the beach.’ And I swear to God, one summer we came back, and it said ‘Private,’” said West, who died in 1998.

One of the most iconic beaches on the Vineyard evolved in this era from more overt segregation on the sand.

“At that time, they had the Pay Beach, and the Blacks couldn’t go there, oh no,” Leona Coleman Flu told the oral historian at the Vineyard museum in 2004. “They had all the little stalls where they could change their clothes, and they put a fence that separated Pay Beach from the Inkwell.”

Blacks coined the name Inkwell Beach as an inside joke, she said, knowing what whites thought of their stretch of sand just below a low cliff and aside the roadway.

You can find a mix of races now on Inkwell Beach, but the place is a point of pride among longtime African Americans on the island, who claimed a spot that whites had viewed as inferior and then cherished.

“It was leftover. However, the leftover part was the best part of the beach,” said Abigail McGrath, an Oak Bluffs summer resident who is also Dorothy West’s niece. “And then we had so much fun there.”

The Inkwell is now emblazoned on touristy clothing, but the legacy of exclusionary beaches on the Vineyard survives, said Erik Albert, an African American innkeeper in Oak Bluffs.

Albert, a vocal critic of town policies that ban nonresidents from beaches in the island towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury, calls it “Beach Apartheid.” He has picketed town meetings, lambasted the towns for spending state taxpayer dollars on beaches that are off limits to the public and demanded the beaches be open to everyone, not just the very wealthy residents and summer visitors paying thousands of dollars to rent a home.

“If we’re a community that sticks together, then you don’t deny people from going to your town beach,” said Albert, pointing to a pledge by West Tisbury’s town leadership to “stand in solidarity with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and all People of Color against racial injustice and for racial equity.”

Then he added, “And they tell you you can’t come to the beach?”

Officials in the two island towns did not respond to requests for comment.

Seeking solutions

State Rep. Fernandes said no towns with restictive beach access policies should be receiving any state funds for their shores. But it is happening all over the state, GBH News has found. The lawmaker, along with State Sen. Julian Cyr, a Democrat representing Cape Cod and the Islands, has proposed legislation that would upend the system of private beaches in Massachusetts, allowing recreational access to the intertidal zone.

If passed, Fernandes said he’d welcome a legal battle in the state courts. And there are other initiatives aimed to increasing racial and economic equity to beaches:

  • Revere Beach has new signage with a QR code for translation into seven languages.
  • The Metropolitan Beach Commission later this year will release a report on improving access for people of color, for people who don’t speak English as a first language and for people with disabilities.
  • King’s Beach in Lynn is edging a bit closer to cleanup with $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, but the total cost to repair the combined sewer system is likely over $20 million.
  • And Lynn residents last year formed a nonprofit aimed at getting people in their coastal city in and on the ocean at its doorstep – kayaking, sailing and paddle-boarding. The city awarded the nonprofit $22,000, also from ARPA funds.

City and state lawmakers in Lynn said they are trying to come up with solutions that would make their coastline more accessible to this diverse community, including the installation of a new outfall pipe that would redirect contamination away from King's Beach.

“It’s a wasted resource for King’s to be un-swimmable,” said State Rep. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat. “Our beaches could be such an attraction for all to enjoy.”

Climate change is also raising tge urgency of beach access equity in cities such as Lynn, said Estrella-Luna.

“People need spaces where they can retreat to, where they can cool off, particularly low-income people who are not going to be able to afford to run their air conditioner — if they have an air conditioner,” she said.

Fredy Hincapie is convinced that time spent in the ocean — swimming, diving and surfing — is critical to his mental health. But he wishes more people in his city could find their way to the state's beaches.

Even though Hincapie found a way to skate past one beach town's parking bans, he said said there aren't such workarounds in most coastal towns. And watching people swim recently at King's Beach, even though red flags flying mean that it's too polluted for swimmers, Hincapie is convinced more action is needed: "There's just not enough advocacy in that sense to let people know what's going on," he said.