We are Water Evanston is a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. Local water activists and educators from Citizens’ Greener Evanston’s Watershed Collective and researchers from Northwestern’s Center for Water Research came together in early 2020 to better understand water-related challenges in the City to inform evidence-based solutions.
This is part one of an eight-article series. In the series, we share some of our key findings and calls to action on topics including beach access, water experiences of the housing insecure, flooding and green infrastructure, drinking water safety perceptions, water information sources and what it means to our community to live next to Lake Michigan. For more information on this series, click here.
Watching the sunrise, swimming and enjoying time with family and friends are just a few of the many activities that residents enjoy at Evanston beaches, according to interviews conducted with 75 Evanstonians last year through We Are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project exploring the City’s relationship with drinking water and Lake Michigan.
However, making memories at the beach is not an option for all Evanstonians. Beach passes (formerly known as beach tokens), cost $10 for a single day or $30 for a season pass, creating a barrier to beach access.
Recent activism for universal beach access
Evanston Fight for Black Lives began advocating for free beach access earlier this year, raising awareness on social media about the inequity of the current system and starting a petition drive demanding free beach access for all, garnering over 6,000 signatures.
Evanston’s City Council then voted in May to declare that beach access would be free on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. The Council will also explore the possibility of making Evanston beaches free all days of the week for all residents in 2022, according to an earlier Evanston RoundTable article.
A brief history of beach tokens
Evanston beaches were segregated until 1930, when Alderman Edwin B. Jourdain, the first Black alderman of Evanston, worked to desegregate beaches.
However, in 1931, Evanston began to sell beach tokens to white residents only, framing the tokens as a way to raise money for a “beachfront beautification program.”
Black residents could only access one rotating free beach, according to a recent article in The Daily Northwestern.
When the tokens were instated, Ald. Jourdain did not approve of the new system, according to a civic leader interviewed by We Are Water whose identity was kept anonymous for research purposes.
“Ald. Jourdain was offered a token, and his response was, ‘If these tokens are not available for my people, then I don’t want one either,’” the civic leader said.
Resident perspectives on beach access
Universal beach access resonated strongly with the 75 residents interviewed from July to December 2020, with more than half expressing concerns about the current beach token system. Many wanted free beach access. “I feel like the lake is for everyone,” one resident said. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that, and because of that, there is a system where people have to pay to have access to a body of water that is for everyone. I think that’s ridiculous.”
Interviewees often discussed beach tokens through the lens of equity, which revealed why many Evanston residents support universal beach access: increasing access among racial and socioeconomic groups.
For example, one resident shared their belief that beach tokens continue to exclude Black residents, noting that “I think it has a lot to do with class and race and segregation. I feel like [universal beach access] would be like another reparation, and another way of giving back to the community is stop white-washing the [expletive] lakeshore.”
Some interviewees described beach passes as prohibitively expensive without any reference to race. One resident told us the high prices make it costly to buy passes for their entire family: “There’s four members of my family and when I add it all up, I’m like, are we gonna go to the beach often enough to make it worth it?” Some interviewees discussed regularly visiting non-Evanston beaches due to their lower cost.
Though the City offers free tokens for residents who qualify for Parks and Recreation fee assistance, a local faith leader we interviewed said many people may not know how to access these tokens, creating another barrier for low-income residents.
Outside of fighting for equitable beach access based on race and socioeconomic status, some residents simply wanted the lake to be free as a public good. One resident cited the lake’s spiritual benefits: “People do not live on bread alone,” they said. “They have a spirit too, and everyone needs relaxation and getting away from their troubles. I think the lake is part of that.”
Concerns about universal beach access
While most residents we interviewed supported universal access to Evanston beaches, 11 had reservations about completely free beaches. These interviewees were most worried about non-Evanston residents using “our beaches.” One resident, for example, was supportive of providing free tokens for Evanstonians, but noted that free beaches would mean crowded beaches, “flooded with people.”
Another resident expressed safety concerns that would come with an increase in beachgoers: “I have a daughter, and what if people come and we don’t know where they come from, we don’t know them?” they said. “That would be very worrying.”
A recurring concern among those we interviewed was how the City would pay for maintenance, lifeguard services or erosion control without the income generated by beach tokens. However, beach token/pass revenue, which totaled $779,833 in 2019, actually goes into the City of Evanston’s general fund, which means it could be used for law enforcement, emergency services, public works or parks and recreation among other services.
Still, one resident said funding for these services should not have to come at the expense of residents paying for beach access. “If our City budgeting has gotten to the point where we have to charge for our beaches, for whatever bizarre reason they decided to do that, then our City budgeting has failed,” the resident said.
Potential solutions and a call to action
Interviewees offered creative alternatives to the token system. For example, one civic leader suggested an annual tax offset while another resident emphasized prioritizing beach access for Evanston residents, only charging beach tokens for nonresidents.
The overarching sentiment captured from our research is the need for the beach to be open to all.
“If the answer is that completely universal free access would be problematic in one of those other ways, then you’ve got to figure out a mechanism to ration, but until you show me that’s the case, my instinct is, yeah, of course – free and open to humans, not just Evanston residents,” a civic leader said.
We want to hear from you. Did this summer’s free beach days (Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays) change the way in which you accessed the beach, for better or for worse? How so? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories!