[THIS ESSAY APPEARED IN THE ATLANTIC’S CITYLAB ON 9 JULY, 2017]
This summer, as New Yorkers head out to Long Island’s beach towns and parks on the Southern State Parkway, they’ll pass beneath a series of overpass bridges made infamous in Robert A. Caro’s monumental 1974 biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.
In one of the book’s most memorable passages, Caro reveals that Moses ordered his engineers to build the bridges low over the parkway to keep buses from the city away from Jones Beach—buses presumably filled with the poor blacks and Puerto Ricans Moses despised. The story was told to Caro by Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses associate and former chief engineer and general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission.
Caro’s 1,300-page, Pulitzer-winning book is still the definitive account of how Moses, who never held elected office (and never learned to drive), modernized Gotham for the motor age. No figure in U.S. history wielded more power over a city; none better exemplifies the famous epitaph on Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb at St. Paul’s: si monumentum requiris, circumspice (“if you seek his monument, look about you”). Fifty years after Moses left the stage, millions daily still use his parks, playgrounds, bridges, tunnels, and expressways. It is simply not possible to spend more than a few hours in New York without being exposed to the vast legacy of this latter-day Trajan.
Lives of such titanic scale and complexity require equally mammoth biographies. They also demand pithy takeaways—kernels so densely representative that they can stand for the whole. The low-bridge story is a microbiography of Moses, a tragic hero who built for the ages, but for a narrowly construed public. It also shows how something as inert as a stone-faced bridge can be alive with politics and meaning.
But I’ve always had doubts about the veracity of the Jim Crow bridge story. There is little question that Moses held patently bigoted views. But to what extent were those prejudices embedded in his public works? Very much so, according to Caro, who described Moses as “the most racist human being I had ever really encountered.” The evidence is legion: minority neighborhoods bulldozed for urban renewal projects; simian-themed details in a Harlem playground; elaborate attempts to discourage non-whites from certain parks and pools. He complained of his works sullied by “that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.”
But Moses was complex. He gave Harlem a glorious pool and play center—now Jackie Robinson Park—one of the best public works of the New Deal era anywhere in the United States. A crowd of 25,000 attended the opening ceremony in August, 1936, the 369th Regiment Band playing “When the Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round” before Parks Commissioner Moses was introduced—to great applause—by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Low-slung and clad in ashlar stone, the bridges were essential to parkway stagecraft—part of a suite of details meant to create a sense of romantic rusticity. The parkway was just that—a way through a park. It was designed to both literally and figuratively remove you from the city, a Central Park for the motorist. Berms and lush plantings screened off-site views disruptive of the reverie, creating an almost cinematic impression of driving through a vast pastoral landscape.
As leisure and recreation infrastructure—park before way—commercial traffic was excluded on all the early American parkways. This meant not only trucks, but buses. Banning big, noisy commercial vehicles was essential to the aesthetics of the parkway, and had nothing to do with racial discrimination. There would have been no need to use the bridges on the Southern State as barricades of a sort; buses were not allowed on this or any other state parkway in the first place.
But Moses was no fool. “Legislation can always be changed,” Shapiro told Caro; “It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So did Moses use cement and stone to effectively backstop the vehicular exclusion policy, insuring that the Southern State could never be used to schlep busloads of poor folk to Jones Beach?