Robert Moses and Me

exxonlongislandI’ve always been fascinated by roads. Whether it was mapping them, talking about them, analyzing them, or driving them, they always had a unique appeal to me. Much of my wasted youth was spent rummaging through my family map collection, laying them out one by one on the living room floor, and taking imaginary treks out to the far reaches of the maps’ corners.

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Northern State Parkway

The 1970’s metropolitan New York map offered seemingly endless possibilities. I could head east to the twin forks of the island and imagine myself touching the last piece of land at the end of each one. I could skim the miles of shore parkways and drive endless miles criss crossing the southern barrier islands. I could drive through Manhattan and cross over to New Jersey, riding vast highways and bridges each time. The metropolitan map offered fantasies of miles of trips into and away from the big city.

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Completed and Projected Roads

The network of highways around the city is in great part the brainchild of Robert Moses. The New York city planner, coordinator, builder extraordinaire who spent decades laying out these roads is a well known and often polarizing figure. Cast as both hero and villain, he either made the city great or nearly destroyed it depending on your perspective. For me, in my youth, knowing that he had built all these roads, I had always asked myself, how could he not be great?

When I was 14, I found out Mr. Moses had passed away. I remember a photo of his hearse slowly taking him down his last highway. The newspapers pointed out how relatively few people were in attendance, but it didn’t really say why. It did seem odd for a man who was such a huge figure.

It was from the 1990’s Ric Burns documentary on the history of New York City  that I learned of the negative side of the Moses story.  The show’s message was that while he was of great benefit to the city during the 1930’s and 40’s, he wasn’t so wonderful in the 50’s and 60’s. Moses attempted to make the city into something it was never meant to be. He rammed wide roads through dense neighborhoods, demolished thousands of dwellings from fragile working class communities in a misguided attempt to clear the city of its slums. In the end he helped make much of the city’s areas poor, isolated and desolate.

The most memorable scene for me in the show is an interview with esteemed Moses biographer Robert Caro, shot right over the Cross Bronx Expressway. With the sound of cars and trucks whizzing by in the background, Caro describes what a massive undertaking building this road really was. Subway tracks, sewer mains, utility lines all had to be kept intact while the great road was built right underneath them. Caro explained that General Thomas Farrel, builder of the famous Burma Road, came out to look at the Cross Bronx during construction and said it was nothing compared to this.

PowerBrokerI finally read Caro’s book, The Power Broker, in late 2011. For me, a New York history blogger, it was high time I read the definitive biography of the master builder. The book is eye-opening in terms of what it reveals about Moses; there are countless episodes of injustice and callous cold behavior. I tried to discuss them and Moses’ legacy in an earlier blog entry. But it is my own research that I wanted to talk about here. I wanted to talk about the episodes where my path crossed that of Moses’.

The Raunt
Its name is intriguing. It was a fishing resort town located in the middle of Jamaica Bay. It was thought to be either a Swedish word for fishing area or Dutch one meaning breeding place for ducks. There was no road access to The Raunt. Dwellings could only be reached by foot or boat. There was a train station a little distance from the town, but most people who rode the train said they never saw anyone get on or off at The Raunt. The houses had no plumbing, no modern services at all, and it had become something of a mystery what Raunt life exactly was like.

By the 1950’s, the glory days of The Raunt were long since past. Just three small rickety hotels still stood surrounded by a few more houses. It all came to an end in a brokered deal between the transit and parks departments. The city in effect had to sell out The Raunt to the Parks Commissioner Moses in 1953 to get an allowance to build a subway line down to Rockaway. Moses demolished the village completely to put a bird sanctuary in its place.

The bird sanctuary was a success, and many will say that establishing a fresh water collecting pond is a better use of the land than a rundown fishing village. But for me, coming to find that such a unique resort town that dated back to the 19th century was now destroyed, I sincerely lamented its loss.

archbridge

Grand Central Parkway at Hollis Court Blvd Bridge 1935-1959

Hollis Court Arch Bridge
When the NYC Department of Records released 800,00 photos from its archives in 2011, there was much history revealed. Photo historians were able to to find great glimpses back into the city’s past.

Among the thousands, I found several shots of a beautifully high arched bridge over Hollis Court Boulevard in Central Queens. The bridge took the Grand Central Parkway through Cunningham Park over the boulevard. Constructed by Robert Moses in the mid 1930’s, it’s a beautiful example of how a highway can compliment its surrounding area.

clearviewtoday

Grand Central Parkway Clearview Expy Overpass today

Caro states that much of Moses’ earlier work was more tasteful than his later, and this bridge is certainly a good example. When Hollis Court Boulevard was replaced by the Clearview Expressway in the late 1950’s, the bridge was taken down and replaced by a much more functionally oriented but clearly less attractive intersection structure.  The contrast in style and approach to design is apparent. To know that such a stately bridge once stood there and that now such a basic one is in its place seems to be a loss.

flushingfountain (1)

Flushing King Neptune Fountain 1874-1947

The Lost Fountain
I was asked by author and Queens Historical Society Director Marisa Berman to write a piece on a fountain which once stood on the inner island of Northern Boulevard at Main Street in the center of Flushing and can be seen in photographs throughout the early 1900’s. The fountain was a focal point for folks to congregate. It was built in 1874 to coincide with the instillation of running water for the town. By the mid 1940’s, the fountain was no longer standing, but nobody knew exactly why.

When I located a July 1947 newspaper article which reported that in the middle of the night the Parks Department had removed the fountain from its foundation I had my answer. The paper deemed the incident a “Parks Department Murder.” We know from Caro’s detailed work that the Parks Department did nothing without explicit instructions from its comissioner, Robert Moses. So we can assume that these orders came from the top.  The RKO Keith’s Theater which stood across the street from the fountain for many years might itself have had a better chance of surviving had the fountain remained in place. Accompanied by a beautiful place to sit and wait, more moviegoers might have found their way back into the theater. To this day, little has been done to replace the area where the fountain once stood. A few benches rest on its space and the theater has remained vacant and decaying since 1987.

In comparison to the list of worst infractions by Moses, these three are very small. My point is not what they may have meant for Moses, but what they meant for me. The admiration I once had for the man I felt no longer. I did not go looking for instances of Moses and his oppressive past, I came across them by accident. Moses’ often misguided path of dominance and control over the city affected many things. We often try to equate the effect of Moses on a grand scale, but much of what he did over time also added up on the small.

Related Links

LIFE Mar 17, 1967 The Scene / Raunt – John Ferris

Keeping Jamaica Bay For the birds – New York Magazine Dec 8, 1969

Flushing Wags Have It Neptune Is On Way To Heaven, Piecemeal,

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9 Comments

  1. Scott Berkun

     /  October 10, 2014

    Nice essay. Your opening paragraphs reminded me how I miss maps too. Google maps is amazing, but I am totally nostalgic for running my fingers over the folds of paper maps.

    I know that in the 50s and 60s many American cities did made similar plans, routing major highways directly through downtown areas. Did Moses pioneer this philosophy?

    It’s also interesting to note that American cities are still trying to undo this design approach. Boston’s Big Dig was largely about undoing what they did in the 50s. Here in Seattle we’re also planning to convert the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a major highway built in 1953 that splits the waterfront, into a tunnel.

    Reply
    • Some who defend Moses say it wasn’t completely his fault because other cities were doing it at the same time. I am not sure who was first. All of a sudden the war was over everyone had a car and there were these huge cities in the way, keeping everyone from getting where they wanted to go.

      Reply
  2. Jprev

     /  October 10, 2014

    Well done….I too am somewhat obsessed with the NY road system, Robert Moses, Penn Station and historic preservation (with limits)….And yes, his earlier efforts like Jones Beach were much better than some of his later ones….but you do have to wonder what NY & LI would be like WITHOUT the Cross-Bronx Expressway…it was a road that needed to be built and Moses was the only one who could have built it.

    Reply
  3. well you can include the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn to your list. Moses was totally against
    Helping O’Malley, through eminent domain, to assemble the parcels needed to build a new
    Dodger stadium in Brooklyn, where Barclays Center now stands at the LIRR terminal.

    Reply
  4. Gene B

     /  October 10, 2014

    With your encouragement, I’m plowing through the 1,200+ pages of the Caro book. My old boss (umpteen levels removed) certainly knew how to play the system — and win!

    Reply
  5. Kathy Stern

     /  October 11, 2014

    Moses wanted the Dodgers to move to Queens and play where Shea Stadium was built for the Mets. I plan to read Caro’s bio of Moses too.

    Reply
  6. Gene B

     /  October 16, 2014

    In the late 1930s and early 1940s, our family drove from Brooklyn to vacation spots on the south shore of Long Island, namely Seaford and Massapequa Park. This was before the time of speedy travel on the Belt Parkway. I don’t have road maps from those days, but vividly recall the way.
    From Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, we hooked up with Linden Boulevard, Route 27, a major eastbound route from Brooklyn and Queens, toward Long Island. As I recall, the road was made up of slabs of cream-colored concrete, about fifty to sixty feet long. They were joined at the seams by ribbons of hardened tar that gave our 1931 Chevy a continual “bump-bump,” as each axle crossed over, hurtling along at about thirty miles per hour. In the center of the lane there were oil stains, deposited by a multitude of leaky crankcases.
    At the end of the city line, in Queens, the road merged onto Sunrise Highway, which then split after Lynbrook, and Merrick Road, Route 27A, followed a parallel course closer to the Atlantic Ocean. Merrick Road was the original east-west route on southern Long Island, likely following paths formed by the Meroke, Shinnecock and other Indian tribes centuries earlier. It was a pleasant, meandering road, with leafy trees providing welcome shade. Sunrise Highway, however, seemed straight as an arrow, running alongside the Babylon line of the Long Island Rail Road. In Nassau County, it traversed: Valley Stream, Lynbrook, Rockville Centre, Baldwin, Freeport, Merrick, Bellmore, Seaford, Massapequa and Massapequa Park; then in Suffolk County: Amityville, Copiague, Lindenhurst and finally, the Biblical-sounding, Babylon.
    Each town in those days set its own speed limit, so there were several speed traps along the route to catch New York City drivers trying to take a relaxing ride to the countryside.

    Reply
  7. Giancarlo

     /  October 18, 2014

    About Moses: While he did indeed destroy neighborhoods, worsened traffic (which probably would have happened anyway), and some of his roadways were (allegedly) designed to make it difficult for the “urban masses” to travel to Long Island via busload, the question to ask is simply this: Since Moses, what major infrastructure was built in and around NYC? The answer appears to be “few” or “none.” While this may be analogous to saying “Mussolini made the trains run on time,” it nonetheless reveals a simultaneous truth about both Moses and the muddled bureaucracy of NYC since his epoch. The man might have been a power hungry, mono-vision ass, but he got things done that– in many ways– did benefit the growth of this City.

    Reply
  8. Read The Power Broker by Robert Caro… everything you ever need to know about Moses… his strengths, his limited vision, his subtle racism, his deviousness and his brilliance

    Reply

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