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Robert Moses’s Jones Beach

How the planner and the project helped create each other

In 1923, the young, ambitious, then-unknown city planner Robert Moses visited Jones Beach on Long Island countless times. He’d launch a small boat from across the bay and, according to his biographer Robert Caro, spend days alone out there. Across the dunes, Moses would look onto the Atlantic, the Fire Island lighthouse further east, and New York City 25 miles west. Besides a few men who lived in caves among the dunes and seasonal hunters who visited Jones Beach, the place was empty, wild, and far away. It conjured up something in Moses.

He wanted to learn more. In the Babylon Library on central Long Island, he read about Maj. Thomas Jones, a Welsh privateer, then a settler on Long Island, up until his second career as a whaler in the 18th century. Jones established a whaling station on the edge of the Great South Bay in 1700, sending men out to trail passing pods of whales. Over time, the shoals and dunes rose and fell as water and wind molded the western neck of Fire Island and the area now known as Jones Beach became an island.

In the library stacks, Moses pored over maps of the city’s boroughs. After hundreds of visits, Moses had an epiphany while looking over maps of the city’s reticulated infrastructure. The water-supply properties of Nassau County led in a row toward Jones Beach, making it possible for a network of roads to connect the city to Jones Beach with a causeway over the bay. The idea became Moses’s first public-works project, an indicator of his career ahead.

Moses would survey outcrops along the Great South Bay, venturing onto the private estates alone with a legal pad, according to Caro. Moses sketched some drawings of the Taylor Estate and its promontories, and took note of similar thumbs along the coast, jotting down the names of the properties’ owners: Fisher, Hennessey, Phipps, and so forth. Soon enough Moses would set in on Jones Beach State Park, and he’d bring to Long Island’s pastoral plots parkways that spurred the rise of the automobile class and led to the contemporary parks system. Caro reported later that Moses remembered having “thought of it all in a moment.”

Before Moses could make Jones Beach accessible to the public, he had to acquire it via the recently established Long Island State Park Commission (LISPC). While the agency—established in 1924 with Moses as its president—could obtain nearby property from private landholders, Jones Beach posed a problem, as it was owned collectively by the townships of Hempstead, Oyster Bay, and Moses’ summer retreat, Babylon. In July 1924, Moses asked the Babylon Town Board to hold a referendum ceding Jones Beach to the LISPC.

The five board members were wary of the idea. They saw the proposal as threatening the resources from which so many bay men of the South Shore derived their livelihoods. Soon the Babylon Leader published editorials warning against the threat of Jones Beach development, urging its readers to “Never surrender one inch.”

Governing bodies of the South Shore rallied against the project, and so did residents. In Oyster Bay, a “Save Our Beaches” committee garnered thousands of members within days. Jones Beach made it onto the ballot in a 1925 election, and residents voted against the proposal 12,106 to 4,200.

The owner and editor of the Babylon Leader, Judge James B. Cooper, remarked that “the project at present has as much chance of carrying as a Great South Bay clam has of growing teeth.”

Caro reported that Moses later remembered “it looked absolutely hopeless.”

In private meetings, Moses courted Hempstead’s Republican leader, G. Wilbur Doughty, and eventually the Hempstead Town delegation agreed to review another proposal for the Meadowbrook causeway that would eventually run across the bay to Jones Beach. Moses also gained the trust of the state GOP, which allowed him to acquire swamp and meadowlands for parkways and development, fostering a reciprocal relationship between the state and private landowners.

As the rights of way and property rights to build both the Northern and Southern State Parkways fell into place, the LISPC—at the behest of Moses—started to develop properties such as the Taylor Estate across from Jones Beach. The litigation that followed nearly halted Moses’s career. Powerful landowners—wary of parks in the area and critical of the commission’s broad authority to appropriate property—tried to bottleneck the effort. In 1927, before it was officially a public park, the LISPC erected benches, portions of road, and amenities to bring thousands of visitors to the “public park.” By the time the court was able to parse this hoodwink in over 25 appellate court hearings and countless closed sessions, the fight to preserve the Taylor Estate—and, by proxy, countless other properties—had crumbled. The case became emblematic both of what the LISPC would achieve over the next 10 years and of the way it would be achieved, eating up properties through the conferred power of appropriations.

It helped that Moses had developed a close relationship with Gov. Alfred Smith. Moses had persuaded Smith to visit Jones Beach and argued for the project amidst the dunes. Smith clearly believed in Moses’s vision and went to bat for him. And bit by bit, Moses’s career, along with Jones Beach, took shape during Smith’s term from 1923 through 1928.

In 1922, when Moses began to work for the state, he crafted a State Park Plan to expand and replenish the parks and create a system of roads leading to them. Gov. Smith was initially skeptical of the $15 million bond for the plan, but “he finally became a park enthusiast,” as Cleveland Rogers noted in a 1939 Atlantic profile of Moses. The bond issue came to a vote in 1923, and Moses became chair of the Council of Parks in 1924.

With the appropriated funds from the New York state legislature, the LISPC had $1 million to spend in its first year. The initial amount was intended to pay for the entire Long Island parks project and parkways. Instead, Moses used the money to acquire more land. While he knew the amount would only cover a small fraction of these parks, he acquired the land for Montauk Point, Hither Hills, Wildwood, Sunken Meadow, Belmont Lake, Hempstead Lake, and Valley Stream state parks in that first year. And by the end of 1926, miles of coastline along Long Island previously reserved for the few who owned beachfront homes or held township residency opened to the public. Parking lots were graded and bathhouses erected in months.

In 1924, the state held one plot of public land as a state park: The Fire Island State park was a meager 200 acres. By the end of 1927, Moses had increased the state’s parks acreage to nearly 10,000 acres with 14 parks.

But this was only the dawn of Moses. In the LISPC’s first 10 years, they paved 13 parkways and ate up vast tracts of land along Long Island. Moses made a bid for governor on the Republican ticket in 1934, losing in a historic two-to-one loss to Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. In the same year, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia discontinued the distinct borough parks departments and created a single department of parks for New York City, appointing Moses as its commissioner. Moses retained his position with the state park offices and started to collect titles. At one point, he held a dozen concurrently, but he never won an election.

On site with architects and engineers at Jones Beach, Moses reached for an envelope from his back pocket. He marked two Xs for the park’s future bathhouses, Caro recounted in his biography, on an amorphous blob representing Jones Beach. Moses ran through parking, traffic patterns, and landscaping. He filled the envelope to the brim with details of what would go into making Jones Beach State Park—restaurants, bandstands, etc. There were so many Xs on the envelope that one of the architects asked if Moses was crazy.

No public recreation facility in America had been built on this scale, but in only a few years, all that Moses set out to build at Jones Beach would become real.

Since 1977, George Gorman, deputy regional director for the New York State Parks Department, has worked at Jones Beach. He told me, “I started out picking up papers and cleaning gum off the backs of seats at the Jones Beach Theatre.” He thought of Jones Beach as monumental in its success and design. Growing up in Wantagh, one of the self-appointed gateways to Jones Beach, he remembers, "I was like every other kid from the area. You got on the parkway and you looked for the pencil in the sky—the Jones Beach Water Tower."

The Italianate water tower serves as the park’s centerpiece. Moses wanted something out of the ordinary. He encouraged his architects and engineers to suggest ideas, and hearing Harvey Corbett’s idea of an Italian campanile, Moses again pulled out an envelope and drew the tower right there. Some of the men who had worked with Moses on the project said, “That’s the way ’most everything was done.” Even with the litany of architects and engineers involved, they told Caro they believed Moses was more responsible for Jones Beach than any one designer.

Moses chose Ohio sandstone and Barbizon brick for the bathhouses and water tower to reflect the tones of the sand and flora at Jones Beach. While impulsive in some ways, Moses was exacting in others and clearly committed. These materials hadn’t been used in public buildings due to their cost. With them, each bathhouse would cost more than the entire annual appropriation devoted to the Long Island parks system. But Moses pushed ahead. When questioned about the cost, Moses threatened that it was all or nothing: parks with expensive materials, or no parks at all.

When many suggested a more conventional water tower—a bulbous orb floating above narrow supports with the town’s name scrawled across it—Moses replied, “I’m never going to put up a tank on poles.”

And with that, Jones Beach’s water tower became the focal point in the park. The Ocean Parkway and the Wantagh Parkway meet here in a wide roundabout that skirts the lawn at the base of the tower. Looming over the park and the nearby South Shore, the tower stands at 188 feet, but it extends more than 1,000 feet underground as it stores the water supply for the entire park. The four-sided tower stretches up from a base of Ohio sandstone, with Art Deco details adorning the edge where the sandstone meets Barbizon brick. The tower returns to sandstone before it reaches the pyramid spire, which was restored in 2010. Sets of thin slit windows climb up the four sides of the tower like narrow veins and terminate just below a copper relief. No details were superfluous at Jones Beach, and the modern motifs are a thread throughout the entire park—nautical themes, ornate iron signs, stylized fonts, mosaics, and meticulous carpentry and metalwork. Jones Beach reflected Moses’s audacity.

One of Moses’s harshest critics, Lewis Mumford, wrote, “The great merit, indeed, of all of Mr. Moses’ park developments from the magnificent seaside park at Jones Beach to his smallest municipal playground, is that every spot that his architects and planners touched bears the mark of highly rational purpose, intelligible design, and esthetic from. No spot is too mean, no function too humble to exist without the benefit of art.”

Above the entrance to the tower, a frieze of the New York state seal watches over the Wantagh Parkway’s final stretch. About 1,500 feet from the base of the seal, the figures of Liberty and Justice look out toward a low stone bridge at the terminus of the Wantagh Parkway. The low-lying bridge is one of hundreds that dot the parkways along the island. Those low bridges might have been Moses’ most maligned misdeed, one that superseded legislation, authorities, or commissions, and the thing that has kept public transportation from Jones Beach since its opening on August 4, 1929.

Over a number of drives out to Jones Beach, I jotted down the clearance of bridges on parkways. Along the Northern State Parkway, clearances ranged from 8 to 10 feet. On the Meadowbrook, one bridge sat only 7 feet and 8 inches above the right lane. Passing through these low arches, it was easy to find them charming: the stone patterns, the dark earthy tones, and the generous landscaping bordering the parkways. To design them, Moses worked with the landscape architect Gilmore Clarke, who had designed the bridges along the Bronx River Parkway (the first true highway in America), and he pushed Clarke to set a new standard. Each bridge would be different, all 100 of them, and each one would be too low to allow buses (or commercial vehicles) to pass.

As Moses’s close colleague Sidney Shapiro told Caro, “Mr. Moses did this because he knew that something might happen after he was dead and gone. He wrote legislation, but he knew that you could change the legislation. You can’t change a bridge after it’s up.” Caro described an off-putting smile that appeared on Shapiro’s face as he reminisced about buses mistakenly making it onto the parkway: Some of them met grim fates tearing through the low bridges.

Today, the “parkway code” still prevents commercial vehicles over 94 inches from traveling along the parkways (with some exceptions). Most New York City buses stand at 130 inches. The limit has wider implications.

“Many of Robert Moses’ most admired creations have racist overtones. The beautiful Jones Beach State Park has more than 23,000 parking spaces and still no easy access by Public Transportation,” wrote Martha Biondi in her essay “Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of an Activist State.” She continued, “Robert Caro’s view that Moses intended to discourage nonwhite attendance, although based on anecdotal evidence, gains credence from the very well-documented history of racial discrimination and exclusion that surrounded so many of Moses’ undertakings.”

Jones Beach “was a beach for everyone,” Charlotte Oppenheim, a German-Jewish emigre who came to New York in 1938, told writer Marta Gutman. By “everyone,” Oppenheim meant women, Jews, and immigrants, but not African Americans. As she put it, “They had their own beach.”

Mumford called Moses’s projects “civic vandalism.” And the parkways’ low bridges might have been one of Moses’s longest-lasting forms of civic vandalism.

In a 2013 cultural-use study conducted by the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York, researchers parsed how Jones Beach is used today. The study noted that “Those who tend to view social diversity at the park as a problem are often local, white visitors who fear that the park is being taken over by ‘city folk.’” “City folk” is just one of the terms the locals studied used as “code for people of color,” along with uncivilized, uneducated, riffraff, animals, lazy, and dirty.

Karl Grossman, a veteran Long Island reporter, covered some of Moses’s most maligned projects, like the forlorn Fire Island Highway. In the 1960s, Grossman worked for the Babylon Leader—the same paper which fought Moses’s plans for Jones Beach in the 1920s. In 1964, Grossman covered civil rights demonstrations taking place at the World’s Fair. After publishing a piece about the way protestors were treated by the Pinkerton security officers, who were hired by Moses, the publisher told Grossman that Moses called the Leader to complain about Grossman’s article. The publisher fired Grossman following the phone call.

Fifty-three years later, Grossman remembered that story as his first “big one.” It set the course for the rest of his career reporting on crime, development, and politics. “I can make a list of all the horrible things Moses was responsible for,” he laughed. He believed that the most concerning might be that “he left a legacy of undemocratic governmental form.” The “brutal” battle for Jones Beach “didn’t serve and doesn’t serve as a model for how recreational areas should be created.”

His biggest gripe was the congested roads of Long Island. All across the island, parkways paved nearly 100 years ago haven’t grown to accommodate an uptick in use. In 1940, the Southern State Parkway saw 4 million cars. By 1955, it carried 30 million, making it one of the most congested and heavily trafficked roads in the world at the time. In 2016, the Meadowbrook Parkway that leads down to Jones Beach carried 31.71 million vehicles, or 86,890 vehicles per day, according to data provided by the New York State Department of Transportation.

In his 1961 book The City in History, Mumford wrote: “With the increase of private motor cars, the streets and avenues become parking lots, and to move traffic at all, vast expressways gouge through the city and increase the demand for further parking lots and garages. In the act of making the core of the metropolis accessible, the planners of congestion have already almost made it uninhabitable.”

But not everybody agreed with Mumford, Caro, or Moses’s famous antagonist Jane Jacobs. Urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson holds a much more positive view of Moses’s legacy. Jackson believes that without Moses’s leadership, New York City “would have lacked the wherewithal to adjust to the demands of the modern world.”

Today, the route to Jones Beach via public transportation is arduous and time-consuming. From Manhattan or the boroughs, make your way out to Babylon via the Long Island Rail Road. During the summer, buses run from there to Jones Beach supposedly every 30 minutes, but most visitors without cars hop cabs to the beach from the South Shore at $25 to $30. Long Island has been shaped by Moses’s obsession with the automobile, even though Moses himself didn’t drive. “Decades later,” Grossman told me, “we’re stuck with an auto-based area.”

Regardless, Jones Beach’s “future is very bright,” Gorman told me. With a $65 million commitment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to improve the state’s parks, Jones Beach will receive $36 million of those capital funds this year. The improvements will support restoration of the west bathhouse and the east and central malls, along with a whole host of programs like the Memorial Day Weekend Air Show, the park’s Fourth of July Fireworks, and even a mobile app to help visitors find parking. "The rebirth of Jones Beach is helping to grow our tourism industry while bringing jobs to Long Island communities,” Cuomo said in May of last year, “and I encourage everyone to visit one of the most beautiful and celebrated sea sides in New York State."

With over 6 million visitors annually, Gorman told me, "It's getting ready for the next 88 years.”

In late April, I wandered along the boardwalk between the bathhouses on a warm, sun-drenched Saturday. The place was already humming with visitors as the Parks Department readied everything for Memorial Day.

The concessions, shops, and recreational venues, along with the stream of people, amounted to something wholesome, something heartening. Long Island twang mixed with Caribbean dialects. It was far from the quiet, empty beach culture I knew growing up in Florida. Yet I found some quiet here, and the weight of quotidian rhythms back home fell away. Maybe Moses deserved a sliver of credit for that.

Out on the quieter, more remote western end of Jones Beach, I parked in the furthest spot—only a few cars dotted the field of concrete. A fisherman walked toward the dunes, and we started talking about what was biting. We exchanged a story, shared a laugh, and he set off into the dunes with a hearty “Enjoy.” As I watched him disappear, his olive tan and dark eyes reminded me of Moses. In the distance, Moses’s tower watched over the South Shore. I could see why some thought of the park as a place where time stopped. I thought of returning, and I imagined Moses out here alone, finding some things and missing others.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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