Brooklyn Road Odysseys
by John Delach
Part One: The Moses Revolution
And Jehovah did command of Moses: “Speak to my people,” and Moses replied, “Shut up God! There’s a new builder in town and my will be done.”
And Robert Moses’ will was done throughout the state of New York from Buffalo to Montauk Point and from Lake Champlain to Totenville, Staten Island. My goal for these pieces is to provide some background to explain the utter frustration and insanity of having to drive from the town of Port Washington to various locations in Brooklyn and return. Over the last fifteen years, we have navigated RM’s creations to visit our daughter’s family in Park Slope, Sunset Park and currently, Clintonville.
Any story about traveling by automobile on Long Island or anywhere in New York State begins with the influence of Robert Moses (RM) on their design and routing. When it comes to highways, what exists and what could have existed all bear RM’s imprimatur. For over forty-five years, beginning in 1924 and ending in 1967, “almost anything RM wanted, RM got and whatever RM rejected was rejected.”
All of this is available in Robert Caro’s 1974 biography of RM, The Power Broke., But, if you are not up to reading 1162 pages of text, stay the course. RM knew how to get things done and politicians flocked to him because he let them shine as the prime movers of successful projects big and small. In return, these politicians allowed RM to accumulate vast power over all aspects of life in the Empire State especially NYC and Long Island. Parks, public housing projects and “so called” middle class houses like Peter Cooper Village, Stuyvesant Town, Riverton, Parkchester and Fresh Meadows. RM built public beaches like Orchard Beach in the Bronx, Jacob Reis in Queens, Jones Beach and its twin on Fire Island that bears his name together with hydroelectric power plants at Niagara, gigantic swimming pools in every borough and parks from Riverside to Sunken Meadow State Park on Long Island.
Armed with the title of chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, (TBTA), RM controlled the construction of six major bridges and two underwater tunnels. Separately, he built the Tappan Zee Bridge and the New York State Thruway.
RM touched every aspect of our lives. Along the way our grateful politicians named a beach, bridge, hydro-electric power plant and state park in his name.
RM’s hero was his mentor, Al Smith. RM never forgave FDR for not adequately supporting Smith’s run for president in 1928 and treated FDR like a rented mule when he succeeded Smith as New York’s governor. The historical reasoning is that RM’s slights prevented RM from becoming a bigger player in the development of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. To that I say: “Balderdash!” Everything the Federal engineers used to build this system, both good and bad was learned at the feet of RM.
RM’s first priorities were parks and he quickly realized that a sure way to create new parks was to create new roads to serve them. In the mid-1920s, Brooklyn and Queens had only five semi-highways, all with traffic lights. Brooklyn had Ocean Parkway running south from Prospect Park to Coney Island and Eastern Parkway heading east from Prospect Park before it faded out in Brownsville.
Queens had Northern Boulevard, little more than a four-lane street, Sunrise Highway no better, in the south, underdeveloped, Queens Blvd and Horace Harding Blvd. that began at Queens Blvd and headed east toward Nassau.
If you read “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald takes license when describing Northern Blvd. crossing the Carona coal cinder and slag dump where his hero met his fate. (Thanks to RM, that dump would become the sites of the Grand Central Parkway, 1939-40 and 1964-5 World Fairs.)
His first major divided highway project was a vast network of six different roads that connected into one endless loop that ran along the shorelines that cover most of Brooklyn and Queens and along the border between Queens and Nassau County. The original name described its routing: “The Circumferential Parkway.” Fortunately, this tongue twister was shortened to the name that stuck, “The Belt Parkway.”
RM learned early on to seek financing in incremental amounts but don’t use the money to complete a single structure or section. For example, when it came to constructing the substantial and beautiful bath houses in Jones Beach, RM proposed building two but used the money to build the foundations for all six. If you start it, they will fund the amount needed to complete all six.
Likewise, the first sections of the Belt Parkway were constructed where they ran right along the shore in uncontested, undeveloped areas. The first sections to open in Brooklyn were along Bay Ridge and Gravesend Bay that included a park that ran the length with a spectacular view of the Narrows and the Outer Bay.
Another section ran along Jamaica Bay including Canarsie Park and Pier with a third section that began at the site of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows then headed northeast to the newly finished Whitestone Bridge, where it turned easterly and headed through underdeveloped Whitestone to Fort Totten. Here it turned south along the side of Little Neck Bay, Alley Pond Park and Belmont Racetrack where it turned west and passed Idlewild, Aqueduct Raceway and Howard Beach where it joined the Brooklyn section at Jamaica Bay.
(To be continued.)