I’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.
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.
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.
I 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.