Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

As a result of this investigation the Superintendent of Banks was sent to prison. Significant were the recommendations made by Moses for reform of the banking laws to prevent the recurrence of such scandals. He urged segregation of 'thrift' accounts in commercial banks; official examination of private banks; regulation of brokerage houses; control of the issuance of securities, 'down to the last detail,' whether those of a bank or a utility company; abolition of private banks, and the holding of directors criminally liable for the management of financial institutions. These recommendations were disregarded by the joint legislative committee, whose alternatives were denounced by Moses as 'puerile.' He declared that the words of the legislative reports 'will come back to haunt the gentlemen who wrote them.' And it was not long before the failure of the 'Bank of the United States,' with $200,000,000 in deposits and 400,000 depositors, revealed more of the evils Moses had denounced. Moses's stinging prophecies have a way of coming true.

IV

PRIOR to 1924, New York State had no unified park system. Scattered through the state were some forty parks and places of historic or scientific interest, directed by as many administrative bodies. In 1922 Moses drew up a State Park Plan proposing a unified system and a bond issue of $15,000,000 with which to expand and rehabilitate the parks and build highways leading to them. The Governor's early reaction was not particularly encouraging, but he finally became a park enthusiast. The bond issue was voted in the fall of 1923, and in 1924 eleven regional commissions were set up under a Council of Parks, with Moses as chairman. He was also made president of the Long Island State Park Commission.

In the next few years the State Park System of New York became a model for the country. From Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, through the Adirondacks, the Alleghenies, and the Catskills, to the sand bars of Long Island, there stretches a chain of seventy public parks of the most varied sizes and character. Mr. Moses has promoted and coordinated the work of the various commissions throughout the state, but his special interest has been on Long Island, a natural playground for the millions who live in metropolitan New York.

Long Island is one hundred and eighteen miles long and about fifteen miles wide for most of its length. Four million of the seven and one-half million inhabitants of New York City live at its westerly end, in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Several hundred thousand persons live in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which spread out a hundred miles from the city line. Many of these people work in Manhattan, daily battling their way back and forth in jammed subways or overcrowded bridges.

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.

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