Thomas J. Campanella is director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at Cornell University and Historian-in-Residence of the New York City Parks Department. He is the author of The Mythical Dominion: A Secret History Of Brooklyn, forthcoming in 2019.
The story: Robert Moses ordered engineers to build the Southern State Parkway’s bridges extra-low, to prevent poor people in buses from using the highway. The truth? It’s a little more complex.
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.
And contrary to a claim in The Power Broker, Moses clearly meant buses to serve his “little Jones Beach” in the Rockaways—Jacob Riis Park. While oriented mainly toward motorists (the parking lot was once the largest in the world), it is simply not true that New Yorkers without cars were excluded. The original site plan included bus drop-off zones, and photographs from the era plainly show buses loading and unloading passengers. “Bus connections with the B.M.T. and I.R.T. in Brooklyn,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle when the vast seaside playground opened 80 years ago this summer, “make the park easily accessible to non-motorists.”
Further complicating the bridge story is the history of the American motor parkway. The Southern State, begun in the summer of 1926, was not as boldly inventive as Caro and others have claimed. It was, rather, copied whole-cloth from several prototypes in Westchester County. The Bronx, Hutchinson, and Saw Mill River parkways were all either completed or under construction when Moses began planning the Southern State. These were revolutionary roads—set in broad park-like reservations, with grade-separated intersections and access limited to interchanges. They were among the first modern highways in the world, emulated far and wide.
When Moses created the Long Island State Park Commission in 1924, he naturally turned to Westchester for guidance. He even tried to recruit the design genius behind its vast park and parkway system—Gilmore D. Clarke.
Clarke agreed to be a consultant, which is why the Southern State—the first Moses parkway on Long Island—is nearly identical to those Clarke laid out north of the city. Right down to the bridges.
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?
I decided to test this by comparing bridge clearances on the Southern State to those on the three earlier Westchester roads. Mengisteab Debessay, an engineer with New York State Department of Transportation, directed me to a database of bridge clearances statewide used for route planning—thus sparing me a time-consuming windshield survey. A measure of the minimum height between the pavement and the bottom of the overpass structure, clearances tend to change only modestly with road resurfacings. Unless a bridge is upgraded or replaced, clearances remain stable over time.
Limiting my search to only those arched stone or brick-clad structures in place or under construction when Moses began work on the Southern State, I recorded clearances for a total of 20 bridges, viaducts and overpasses: 7 on the Bronx River Parkway (completed in 1925); 6 on the initial portion of the Saw Mill River Parkway (1926) and 7 on the Hutchinson River Parkway (begun in 1924 and opened in 1927). I then took measure of the 20 original bridges and overpasses on the Southern State Parkway, from its start at the city line in Queens to the Wantagh Parkway, the first section to open (on November 7, 1927) and the portion used to reach Jones Beach. The verdict? It appears that Sid Shapiro was right.
Overall, clearances are substantially lower on the Moses parkway, averaging just 107.6 inches (eastbound), against 121.6 inches on the Hutchinson and 123.2 inches on the Saw Mill. Even on the Bronx River Parkway—a road championed by an infamous racist, Madison Grant, author of the 1916 best seller The Passing of the Great Race—clearances averaged 115.6 inches. There is just a single structure of under eight feet (96 inches) clearance on all three Westchester parkways; on the Southern State there are four.
There are today, of course, many routes to Jones Beach. The Southern State Parkway is still the swiftest and most scenic, for all its crazed drivers and constant commuter traffic. It is also a monument to a brilliant, misguided soul, a man whose works are part of every New Yorker’s life, who’s own life was dedicated to serving a public whose constituents he mostly loathed.