Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

When Moses became head of the Long Island State Park Commission the only state 'park' in the section was on Fire Island, a sand reef reached only by boat. All the rest of the island, with its fine beaches, lakes, bays, and wooded ridge running through the centre, had been preempted by those who appreciated natural beauty spots, or by speculative realty interests. Moses's first big undertaking, and in many ways his most remarkable achievement, was the now famous Jones Beach. This stretch of clean, wide ocean beach, some thirty miles from the centre of the city, was almost inaccessible. Only a man of unusual vision would have selected the site as a likely seaside resort for a vast population. Engineers, architects, and experts thought he was dreaming, but he persuaded Al Smith to visit the beach and secured an initial appropriation for a bathhouse. There are now two miles of developed ocean beach, a milelong still-water swimming area in Zach's Bay, and a large salt-water enclosed pool for both swimming and wading. Almost eight additional miles of beach are available for future expansion.

Architecturally the two immense bathhouses, with a picturesque water tower dominating the vast expanse of beach and water, are impressive and pleasing. Between four and five million enjoy this park during the summer, yet there is no crowding. Sunday crowds run to 125,000. Concerts are given in the Music Shell on the Marine Boardwalk, and popular-priced operettas, operas, and concerts are staged over the water in Zach's Bay. Although a maximum of freedom is permitted, this is perhaps the cleanest and best regulated of public beaches. Robert Moses believes that giving the public the best arouses cooperation in maintaining high standards.

Since then Moses has acquired and developed thirteen parks on Long Island, totaling 10,631 acres and stretching from Montauk Point to the city line, which, with the connecting parkways, cost more than $50,000,000. He tramped the entire island, where he knows both farmers and millionaires whose land has been traversed by parkways or taken for parks. He had to overcome the most formidable opposition at every turn, using strong-arm methods at times. Many owners of large estates on the North Shore opposed the parkways, and millionaires on Great South Bay fought the creation of a park next to their club. Local politicians and officeholders threw obstacles in his way. Moses took on all comers in a rough-and-tumble fight with all rules suspended. 'I know that was not good government,' he says, 'but it was the only way to keep the programme going.' A characteristic note in Moses is his disregard of precedents in pushing things through.

In 1930 he began to extend the island parkways into the city. A Moses parkway means a 'ribbon park,' beautifully landscaped, usually from three hundred to six hundred feet wide, through which gracefully curving highway safely carries pleasure vehicles at forty miles an hour. There are no traffic lights, grade crossings, or left turns. Commercial traffic, signs, hot-dog stands, and gas stations are taboo, with the exception of a few service stations built to conform to the landscape and controlled by the Park Commissioner. Arched stone ridges enhance the charm of the contantly changing vistas. Lamp posts and low fences of hewn, unpainted timber blend with the background. Everything about these 'ribbon parks' is designed to convey naturalness.

When huge government spending was inaugurated to fight the depression, commissioner Moses was one of the few officials in the country ready with definite plans for putting men to work. In 1933 Governor Lehman made him chairman of the Emergency Public Works Commission to develop a programme for New York State. The more important projects adopted were the Saratoga Springs Authority, which has reatly expanded that spa; the Catskill Bridge Authority, to provide a new crossing of the Hudson River; the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, whose new international bridge through the Thousand Islands to Canada was opened in August 1938; and the Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Parkway, and Bethpage Park authorities. Mr. Moses administers the last three, as well as the New York Parkway Authority. In addition, the State Commission sponsored Knickerbocker Village, Hillside, and other housing developments, and secured funds for the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

An 'authority,' as evolved in New York, is an ingenious corporate device calculated to get things done while a confused people hesitates between private and public ownership of natural monopolies. The authorities administered by Moses, whether financed by public or private funds, are self-sustaining and self-liquidating enterprises, supported solely by those who use them. Set up by law for clearly defined purposes, the authorities are empowered to issue bonds based on revenue to be collected from tolls or services rendered.

After his election in 1933, Mayor La Guardia asked Mr. Moses to take a place in his administration. The only post that interested Moses was one relating to parks, but he insisted that a single, unified city department be set up, with one head; furthermore, that he be permitted to retain his state positions in order to coordinate city and state programmes for parks, parkways, and recreational facilities. This was not a new idea. As organizer of the Metropolitan Conference on Parks in 1928, Moses had developed a plan of this kind. Special legislation giving him the status and powers he asked was passed, but he also wrote out, on a single piece of paper, a four-year park programme for the city and presented it to La Guardia before taking office. When developed in detail it called for 1700 work relief projects and the employment of 75,000 men.

This was the beginning of a miraculous transformation of the city park management, which was in a deplorable condition after years of neglect, inefficiency, political favoritism, or plain indifference. Old parks were redesigned or rehabilitated, and new parks and playgrounds developed. Playgrounds have increased from 119 to more than 400. Ten well-planned swimming pools -- costing more than $1,000,000 apiece -- were built, and the acreage of city parks doubled. Then Commissioner Moses set out to recapture New York's waterfront.

The 'West Side Improvement,' for thirty years in the air, was achieved by covering the railroad tracks along Riverside Drive and building a magnificent Ringstrasse extending to Westchester County and connected with the express highway on the lower West Side of Manhattan. One may now drive from the Wall Street district to the northern city line in less than thirty minutes, stopping only to pay a ten-cent toll at the new double-decked Henry Hudson Bridge over Harlem River. Along the way 132 acres of new park land were created. A similar treatment is now being accorded Manhattan's East Side, where the notorious 'Dead Ends' of slum sections are to terminate in parks or join a beautiful East River Drive. Harlem River Drive, as planned, will complete the encircling of Manhattan with express highways and 'ribbon parks.' Other East River improvements include the development of Ward's and Randall's islands as city parks, playgrounds, and recreational centres. Both of these large islands are connected with three of the city's five boroughs by Triborough Bridge, and a pedestrian bridge will open Ward's Island Park to the crowded upper East Side.

Reclamation of Manhattan's waterfront is being duplicated in the other boroughs. In Brooklyn a thirty-four mile circumferential parkway follows the outer harbor to the Narrows, where it swings inland north of Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay and runs along Jamaica Bay. It connects with the Long Island parkways, traverses Queens, and follows the shore of Long Island Sound to the new Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. An extension of Hutchinson River Parkway will connect this span with the Westchester parkways and Merritt Parkway, leading to New England. Marine Park Bridge, connecting Brooklyn and the Rockaway Peninsula, was built in less than a year to give the city a Jones Beach type of resort at Jacob Riis Park. An additional mile and a half of ocean beach is being reclaimed in the Rockaways. This undertaking was made possible by merging the Henry Hudson and Marine Parkway authorities in the New York City Parkway Authority and floating $18,000,000 in bonds, based on the collection of bridge tolls and parking fees. An even more comprehensive plan contemplates converting the entire Jamaica Bay section of 18,000 acres, largely city-owned, to residential and recreational uses. Even Coney Island may have its face lifted if its concessionaires don't watch out.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In