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The Master Builder
How planner Robert Moses transformed Long Island for the 20th Century and beyond

By George DeWan
Staff Writer

Robert Moses Robert Moses (Nassau County Museum Collection, Long Island Studies Institute)

Lt. Gov. Herbert Lehman, left, and ex-governor Al Smith, obtain Heckscher Park Lt. Gov. Herbert Lehman, left, and ex-governor Al Smith, obtain Heckscher Park (State Division of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Moses on a bulldozer at Bethpage State Park in 1935. Moses on a bulldozer at Bethpage State Park in 1935. (State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Moses cuts his birthday cake while celebrating the opening of the Northern State Parkway. Moses cuts his birthday cake while celebrating the opening of the Northern State Parkway. (State Division of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Robert Moses at the Verrazano Bridge Robert Moses at the Verrazano Bridge

The builder stands in front of a map of Long Island. The builder stands in front of a map of Long Island.

The Triborough Bridge during construction in 1934 The Triborough Bridge during construction in 1934 (Long Island State Parks and Recreation Commission Photo)

The Southern State Parkway entrance to the Meadowbrook The Southern State Parkway entrance to the Meadowbrook (State Division of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

The construction of the Northern State Parkway in 1937 The construction of the Northern State Parkway in 1937 (State Division of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

More Coverage

Robert Moses' Legacy (Newsday/Linda McKenney)

Rerouting a Parkway (Newsday/Linda McKenney)

One day in 1926 Robert Moses took several architects and engineers across the bay and onto a deserted sandbar called Jones Beach, where the quiet was broken only by the harsh squeals of the seabirds and the rhythmic pounding of the Atlantic waves. They looked around in disbelief as the animated, 37-year-old Moses spun a magical, futuristic vision of what would be one of the grandest bathing beaches in the world.

``It was the scale of the thing -- nothing like this had ever been done in public recreation in America,'' one of the architects would recall later. ``Here we were on an absolutely deserted sand bar - there was no way even to get there except by boat -- and here was this guy drawing X's on the back of an envelope and talking about bathhouses like palaces and parking lots that held ten thousand cars . . . We thought he was nuts.''

He was not nuts. He was Robert Moses.

Decades later, in a quiet moment when his years were winding down and most of his monument-building was behind him, Moses was asked what he was proudest of. ``That's easy,'' he replied. ``Jones Beach.''

``Let us have no illusions about Jones Beach as we found it,'' Moses told the Freeport Historical Society in 1974. ``It was an isolated, swampy sandbar accessible only by small boats and infrequent ferries, inhabited by fishermen and loners, surf casters and assorted oddballs, and beach combers trying to get away from it all . . . The tales told of a lovely, primitive, paradised wilderness with indestructible dunes were fiction.''

Before there was Robert Moses, there was an emptiness. The master builder filled this void with billions of dollars worth of bridges, tunnels, parkways, expressways, power projects, public housing, sandy beaches, concert halls and tens of thousands of acres of parkland.

Moses did as much to promote the use of the automobile as Henry Ford. For this, commuters, nature lovers, sand-worshippers and passionate autoists are forever in his debt. And also for this, critics who promote public transportation will never forgive him.

Whoever lives on Long Island or in New York City has been touched by Robert Moses. He was a builder, and his monuments are everywhere. There are the magnificent state parks, the parkways and expressways, and the cat's cradle of superhighways that moves traffic in and out of New York City. There are the mighty bridges and tunnels that tie the metropolitan area together, allowing motorists to move -- sometimes at the pace of a snail -- through, in and around the metropolis. In addition, there are Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, the United Nations and the New York Coliseum. Also, huge New York City middle- and low-income housing projects. And, of course, both the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs.

The public works projects that bear Moses' imprint -- including upstate dams, superhighways and state parks as well -- stagger the imagination. Between 1924 and 1968, according to Robert A. Caro's 1974 book, ``The Power Broker,'' Moses developed projects costing $27 billion, which, adjusting for inflation, is about $125 billion today.

``More than any other single individual, this one man shaped Long Island as we know it, in its modern form,'' Caro said last week in a telephone interview. ``He shaped it for the better, and a striking example is Jones Beach. And for worse, a striking example of which is the Long Island Expressway, which did not have to be built the way it was built. The building of the Long Island Expressway, the zoning policies with which he influenced communities, and the systematic starving of mass transit condemned Long Islanders to traffic jams for the rest of their lives.''

``He in a sense, created the park system for Long Island,'' Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, said in an interview. ``Certainly, the major jewel in the crown was Jones Beach, which is one of the finest beaches to be found in the world.''

Koppelman says Moses ignored the fact that the superhighways he was building to carry people to his parks were destined to become jam-packed commuter roads, contributing to suburban sprawl. ``Every time he extended a major road,'' he said, ``all it did was create more traffic.''

Moses has been criticized for not paying more attention to mass transit as an alternative to highways and automobiles, and is today blamed for much of the congestion on his own highways. He responded that mass transit was other people's business, not his.

The national flower is the concrete cloverleaf, city planner Lewis Mumford once said in derision. But Mumford, Moses' bitterest critic, knew success when he saw it. ``In the 20th Century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person,'' he said.

``Anyone in public works is bound to be a target for charges of arbitrary administration and power broking leveled by critics who never had responsibility for building anything,'' the 86-year-old Moses responded to Caro in 1974. ``I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.''

Born of prosperous Jewish parents on Dec. 18, 1888, in New Haven, Conn., Moses grew up in New York City, where the family lived on East 46th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. He received degrees from Yale University, Oxford University and a doctoral degree in political science from Columbia. By this time, at 6-foot, 1-inch tall, he was athletic and broad-shouldered, an outdoorsman and a fine swimmer.

Thus intellectually armed, Robert Moses was loosed upon the world. Cultured, educated, sophisticated and not in need of a wage-paying job, he moved into New York City life with the passion of an idealist and a reformer. Registered as a Republican, he would make his friends and his enemies not on political grounds, but on personal ones. In 1914, one of these new friends was Frances Perkins, who would later become U.S. secretary of labor under President Franklin Roosevelt.

``He was always burning up with ideas, just burning up with them,'' Perkins later said. ``Everything he saw walking around the city made him think of some way that it could be done better.''

Moses was then only 25. The big ideas about making things work better would keep coming for the next 60 or so years.

Just before his 30th birthday, Moses fell into an opportunity that would change his life. In 1918, Democrat Al Smith had just been elected governor of New York for a two-year term (the length of terms at that time), and Smith asked Moses to become chief of staff for a new commission that was to reorganize the state administration. In the process, Moses became notoriously expert at drafting legislation, especially at writing a bill in which he could hide clauses that would further his own interests.

Telling other people how to reorganize their lives was a natural for someone with the talent and chutzpah of Moses. More important to Moses' career, however, was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Smith, the poorly educated, gruff-voiced Irishman from the Lower East Side who virtually willed himself to become a great debater, one who could have his audience laughing one moment, crying the next.

Defeated for re-election in 1920, Smith won back the governorship in 1922, and he made Moses his right hand man, a sort of unpaid adviser. Moses jumped at the chance because it gave him his first taste of political power, a taste that would grow to a gargantuan appetite as the years went by. Smith was the only man Moses would ever call ``governor.'' All others, and this included Franklin D. Roosevelt down to Nelson Rockefeller, Moses called by their first names.

In these years, one subject kept bubbling to the surface when Moses was on the prowl for problems to solve. Moses began thinking that the state should be getting involved in the planning and control of huge parks, well beyond the capacities and imaginations of the local town and county governments. One of the places he began thinking about was Long Island, with its vast open spaces.

In the summer of 1921, a friend invited him and his wife, Mary -- they had married in 1915 and had two children -- to weekend vacations in Babylon. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the village, the Great South Bay and the entire South Shore. The next year, they rented a bungalow in Babylon for the summer, and later they would buy a house on Thompson Avenue, where their backyard was edged by Carl's Creek, which led to the bay.

Moses prowled around Babylon Town Hall. He was surprised to learn that in 1874 the City of Brooklyn, before it became part of New York City, had bought up water-carrying properties that ran the length of Nassau County and part of Suffolk. It was a hedge against a future water supply problem, a problem that never arrived, so that the land lay undeveloped. A perfect place for a highway, Moses thought.

The almost-deserted barrier beaches, Fire Island and Jones Beach, separated by a narrow inlet, fascinated him. Moses would often take his old motorboat out through the reeds in the bay and pull up at Jones Beach, where he would sit and think and marvel at the possibilities for this almost virgin spit of sand.

``Sometimes, when Bob Moses stepped out of his boat onto Jones Beach, he could not see another human being,'' Caro wrote. `` . . . He had returned to it a hundred times, pushing and pulling his little boat through the reeds, to sit lonely on the beach with wind rustling his hair, drinking in the wild, desolate scene.''

There were millions of people longing to escape the sweltering New York City streets, if only for a day's relaxation, Moses thought. And Long Island could be that vacation haven. All it would take would be a road to get them there. A large part of the right-of-way was already owned by the city. One property even went all the way down to Great South Bay, directly across from Jones Beach.

``That was the idea behind Jones Beach and the Southern State Parkway,'' Moses told Caro. ``I thought of it all in a moment.''

Suddenly, Moses' imagination took off, as he began thinking about the possibilities for the rest of Long Island, as well as the rest of New York State. Moses never learned to drive, but he had himself chauffeured all over the Island, and everywhere he went, he saw other potential state park sites.

And he wanted not just one highway, but many, to get people to these parks. ``He wanted 124 miles of parkways,'' Caro wrote. ``And he wanted the parkways to be broader and more beautiful than any roads the world had ever seen, landscaped as private parks are landscaped, so that they would be in themselves parks, `ribbon parks,' so that even as people drove to parks they would be driving through parks.''

In 1923, Gov. Smith offered to make him president of the Long Island State Park Commission, which didn't even yet exist. Moses took on the job of writing the legislation to create it. As one of the craftiest writers of legislation in the state, he gave the commission and its president broad powers, especially in the area of condemnation and appropriation of private land.

A battle soon erupted over acquisition of the the old Taylor estate in East Islip -- choice property that would eventually become the huge Heckscher State Park, fronting on Great South Bay. There came a prolonged legal battle with the members of the posh Timber Point Club, who feared having city riff-raff engaged in unspeakable sexual escapades in the sylvan glades next to their finely manicured golf fairways. At a hearing in New York to settle the issue, Smith bantered and joked with both sides, trying to get them together. But when one club member testified that he feared East Islip would be ``overrun with rabble from the city,'' the laughter died abruptly.

``Rabble?'' Smith said angrily. ``That's me you're talking about!'' Smith picked up his pen and signed the form authorizing the state taking of the land.

Neither was Moses himself keen on the ``rabble'' from the city using his Long Island parks, which he designed for the middle class, auto-owning people. Although he denied it, the bridges on the parkways had been built too low to accommodate buses so that poor people without cars, especially minorities, could not get to parks and beaches. Caro said that he was told this privately by one of Moses' right-hand men, Sid Shapiro, who later himself became head of the park commission.

``He doesn't love the people,'' his old friend Frances Perkins later said, according to Caro. ``It used to shock me because he was doing all these things for the welfare of the people . . . He'd denounce the common people terribly. To him they were lousy, dirty people, throwing bottles all over Jones Beach ... He loves the public, but not as people.''

Jones Beach itself was owned in sections by the Towns of Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Babylon. And they did not want to give it up. In a 1925 referendum, Hempstead residents opposed selling the land to the state by a vote of 12,106 to 4,200. ``It looked like we'd lost Jones Beach,'' Moses later told Caro. ``It looked absolutely hopeless.''

Well, not exactly. The power broker-to-be went to see the man who already had the power in Nassau County. Moses held a series of meetings with Republican Party boss G. Wilbur Doughty. It is not known what transpired at those meetings, but a new referendum the following year reversed the earlier vote, and the town ceded all its Jones Beach rights to the park commission. The neighboring towns soon fell into line.

Creating Jones Beach was a monumental task. Surveys showed that the mean level of the beach was only two feet above sea level, meaning that high waves during storm periods would inundate the beach. That was not a problem for the beach itself. But farther back, where buildings, parking lots and the incoming parkway were to be built, the land had to be 12 feet higher than that. Huge floating dredges were brought into the bay, and over a period of several months they pumped more than 40 million cubic yards of sand out of the bay bottom and onto the beach.

The vision that Moses laid out for his unbelieving engineers in 1926 soon became a reality. In June, 1929, Heckscher State Park opened. The Southern State Parkway opened in July. And on Aug. 4, in a howling sandstorm that ruined the paint on automobiles and choked carburetors, Jones Beach, in all the magnificence that Moses had planned, was opened as 25,000 cars rolled across the Wantagh Causeway.

``This is the finest seashore playground ever given the public anywhere in the world,'' one visiting Englishman exalted.

That same year, there were problems brewing with the planned Northern State Parkway. The whole project had stalled over the direct route that Moses originally planned, because it ran straight through some of the most valuable property on Long Island, the estates of some of society's richest and most famous people.

When banker Otto Kahn found that the parkway was scheduled to go straight through the 18-hole private golf course he had recently built on his property in Cold Spring Harbor, he asked Moses for a meeting. Kahn offered to secretly donate $10,000 for new surveys, Caro wrote, providing they came up with a route that did not touch his property. Moses accepted the money. When Caro tried to ask Moses about this, Moses refused to ever talk to him again.

When attorneys for the Nassau estate owners found out about the Kahn-Moses deal, Caro wrote, they threatened a messy public battle over the issue. What happened next is not certain, but within a few weeks, Moses announced a change in the parkway route, one in which the road avoided the homes of the wealthy landowners.

When World War II ended, Moses was in his 50s and heavily involved with building projects in New York City, primarily through the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, for which he had an office on Randalls Island. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Major Deegan and the Bruckner Expressways had yet to be built, as did the Throgs Neck Bridge and the awe-inspiring Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Something was happening in these postwar years, however, that planners had been predicting for years. As prosperity returned to the nation, millions of new automobiles moved onto the nation's highways. Many planners had theorized that new roads, instead of relieving congestion, would generate new traffic and more congestion. They were right.

Moses' new highways competed directly with mass transportation like the Long Island Rail Road, and many rail commuters were seduced by the idea of getting to work in the city by driving on the parkways. What Moses had built as a roadway for the city masses to get to his parks turned into rapidly clogging commuter highways. The postwar LIRR peak ridership, for example, was 116,000 a day in 1946; by 1973 this had dropped to 57,000.

A singular event occurred on Long Island in 1955 that experts feel could have helped turn around the growing congestion of the roadways. That was the year construction started on the Long Island Expressway, a commercial highway that Moses had first proposed in 1936. Planners like Koppelman have argued for years that, by refusing to get involved with local zoning boards to control building along the parkways and the expressway, Moses was a key contributor to the ``suburban sprawl'' that has developed on Long Island.

Koppelman and Caro agree that when the Long Island Expressway was built, the state should have acquired enough right-of-way to build mass transit tracks down the middle. ``Every other metropolitan area in the entire nation, except New York, has combined some form of mass transit built into their arterial network,'' Koppelman said. ``If we had had down the center median some form of mass transit, we would not have the congestion.''

What the planners mean is that drivers on the expressway, when they exit, do not mind driving another quarter-hour to get home. And this leads to sprawling developments all over the Island. But men and women arriving on high-speed transit would want to be within walking distance of their neighborhoods. As a result, high-density development would take place primarily along the central corridor in which the expressway ran.

One academic who disagrees, in part, with Caro and Koppelman is Columbia University urban history professor Kenneth Jackson, who says that there were larger forces at work, and that Moses was merely a product of his times. He argues that postwar national policy, reflected in the 1950s creation of the interstate highway system and federally backed low-cost mortgages, would have encouraged suburban sprawl on Long Island regardless of Moses.

Moses heard the criticism, and he occasionally responded to it. At a 1962 ribbon-cutting ceremony when the LIE first crossed the Nassau-Suffolk border, he defended his vision, and he did it eloquently.

``I have, with many others, been falsely charged with neglect, lack of vision, and general obtuseness in road building and with failure to anticipate the march of population to the suburbs,'' said Moses. ``There will be squawking no matter what we do. We must face at once the demands of those impatient for new facilities and the anguished cries and curses of those who want to be left alone, who, like Canute, can command the waves to halt on the beaches and, like the Indians, keep the new settlers in the blockhouses.''

One person who has a family story to tell about Moses and the Northern State Parkway is Mineola attorney John V.N. Klein, formerly Smithtown supervisor and Suffolk County executive. ``My father, before I was born, used to live in Lake Success, with my mother,'' Klein said recently. ``He came home one day and said that some guy named Moses was going to put a parkway through his property. To which my father said, `Over my dead body.' He was half right. Moses put the parkway through my father's property, but fortunately my father didn't die.''

Given all the power that Moses had and all the monuments he caused to be built in metropolitan New York, it sometimes comes as a surprise to realize that on a few proposed projects -- a very significant few -- he was defeated. And some of the defeats ate at him until the day that his heart finally gave out and he died at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip early in the morning of July 29, 1981, when he was 92.

Two Moses defeats were of significance to Long Islanders. He wanted Ocean Parkway to extend beyond Jones Beach to the eastern end of Fire Island, but that idea died when the Fire Island National Seashore was created in 1964. A more explosive issue was Moses' proposal for a cross-Sound bridge to run from the village of Bayville in Oyster Bay to the City of Rye in Westchester County. He described the proposed bridge as `` . . . spidery and unobtrsive as to be at most times eerie and almost invisible . . . a gossamer thread over an arm of the sea.'' But Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who at first supported the plan by Moses, then a consultant to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, changed his mind and killed the idea in 1973.

Moses' career effectively ended on March 1, 1968, when the MTA came into existence with William Ronan as its head.

Recently, Koppelman -- a man who, after saying something that irritated Moses many years ago, received a letter from him that began ``Dear Nincompoop'' -- was asked for an assessment of Moses, adding up the good and the bad.

``For me,'' Koppelman said, ``those parks are so priceless that I can live with the shortfalls. I'd have to say, yes, he was an absolute positive force for Long Island.''

Copyright © 2006, Newsday, Inc.

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