Establishing a Right to Public Recreation: State-Based Water Law Reforms to Remedy the Nature Access Gap
When it gets too hot, Eugene Williams likes to swim. He floats on his back, eyes closed to the sun. He feels cool droplets evaporating off the parts of him that remain unsubmerged—his nose, his toes, the top of his belly and thighs. He listens to the stillness of the water below the surface. Until he accidentally drifts into the “white section” of the unofficially segregated Lake Michigan waters. Until someone begins throwing stones. Then there is only the sound of rocks hitting the water’s surface. There is only the feeling of solid earth against skin. When he dies, South Side cannot sleep for a week. The white man who killed him is not arrested. One thousand Black families lose their homes in riot fires. Footnote #1 content: Author’s words. Based on the following article: The Red Summer of 1919, HISTORY (Aug. 6, 2020), https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/chicago-race-riot-of-1919 [https://perma.cc/4X6J-NUX4]
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Washington, D.C., a historically Black city, is one of the only cities in the United States where it is illegal to swim because of raw sewage in the waterways. They call it Chocolate City. The water brown like your neighbor’s skin. Footnote #2 content: Author’s words. Based on the following articles: Why Statehood for DC, STATE OF WASH., D.C., https://statehood.dc.gov/page/why-statehood-dc [https://perma.cc/HJ55-RZ93] (last visited May 26, 2023); Jacob Fenston, Time to Lift the Ban on Swimming in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, Advocates Say, NPR (Mar. 23, 2022), https://www.npr.org/local/305/2022/03/23/1088192692/time-to-lift-the-ban-on-swimming-in-the-potomacand-anacostia-rivers-advocates-say [https://perma.cc/VN4M-38UG]. Poughkeepsie, New York is the sort of postindustrial city familiar to descendants of the Great Migration’s midwestern settlers. Full of “Closed” signs, abandoned buildings, arid talk of decline. Sunrays intensify on concrete. So, we jump over the metal fence, ignoring “No Trespass” signs. We wriggle through the overgrown path. We run to the water. There, at last, we are weightless. Footnote #3 content: Author’s words. Based on the following article: Amitava Kumar, Opinion, An Ode to the Queen City of the Hudson, N.Y. TIMES (July 3, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/03/opinion/poughkeepsie-watering-holeshudson-valley.html?searchResultPosition=66.
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At three years old, her mom decided it was time the family learned to swim. For mom, making sure her babies could swim was an act of resistance, an act of healing. If they could swim, they would not die like her brother, Easter Jones, did—in a mysterious drowning accident near Coos Bay, Oregon in 1964. An “accident” the family suspected was an act of racial violence. No, if her babies could swim, they would live. And they would teach other Black children to swim, too. They would change their legacy. Footnote #4 content: Author’s words. Based on the following video: Evan Grainger, The Deep End – Mardi Fuller, VIMEO (Nov. 16, 2021, 10:30 PM), https://vimeo.com/646722900.