A treasure trove of records from Robert Moses, Long Island's most influential and controversial developer, will soon be available for public viewing, courtesy of time-consuming archival work from Long Island University employees and students.
The three-year "Robert Moses Collection Project," which will be unveiled at LIU on Wednesday, involved scanning and digitizing an estimated 1.7 million pages of records — amounting to 500 feet of material.
The searchable collection, which will be available on the New York State Archives website Wednesday, focuses on Moses' work on Long Island parks and roadways, said Gregory Hunter, a professor at the LIU Palmer School of Library and Information Science and the project organizer.
"It's primarily the records of the shaping of modern Long Island and how it went from the 1930s to the 1970s to the infrastructure that we know today," Hunter said.
The project was funded with a $700,000 grant from the Riverhead-based Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, which promotes the advancement of Long Island's history.
"We heard about the Moses collection being basically derelict all these years and thought that it would be a terrific gift to researchers to be able to make this collection available," said Kathryn Curran, executive director of the Foundation.
A team of three full-time employees and several LIU graduate students, who earned college credits, dug through records maintained in the basement of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which owns the documents.
"We're going to make thousands and thousands of documents available online that nobody's ever seen before," said Rudie Hurwitz, a then-LIU student who worked on the project. " … I think it's going to be it's going to be a trove for historians."
George Gorman Jr., regional director of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said the public would be able to explore blueprints, land acquisition records, letters and photographs from New York's 'Master Builder.'
The records also will be available for in-person viewing at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay.
"They're going to see an amazing historic collection readily available that tells the story, not only of Long Island state parks and parkways but in some cases of Long Island itself," Gorman said. "There are photographs where you can see the Hempstead Plains before the Southern State Parkway and before the Meadowbrook State Parkway were built. Robert Moses … and his architects, engineers saw the vast open space of what can be developed or built for the enjoyment of the public, such as Jones Beach."
But experts concede Moses' legacy is complicated.
Moses, who died in 1981, created massive public works, including parks, highways and hydroelectric dams, that often displaced, leveled or disadvantaged working-class neighborhoods that were homes for generations of ethnic and racial minority families. His work became a pattern for urban renewal projects nationwide, which many have blamed for worsening problems in the inner cities today.
Moses, who amassed unparalleled power from 1919 to 1962 through six governors and five New York City mayors, is credited with creating 2.5 million acres of state parks, 416 parkway miles, a dozen bridges, two dams and 568 playgrounds but also displacing at least 250,000 people.
"Moses legacy is complex," said Hunter, adding that his team also found letters in which the developer rejected efforts to keep Jones Beach segregated. "As an archivist, my job is not to try to come to conclusions about Robert Moses … We want to make the good and the bad available. And people can come to their own conclusions."
The Foundation grant expired in January but the state, which also is hiring its own archivist, provided LIU with another $100,000 to continue with the work.