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Renaming Robert Moses park may prove a politically dicey proposition

An aerial view of Robert Moses State Park

An aerial view of Robert Moses State Park on Nov. 20, 2012. Credit: Doug Kuntz/Doug Kuntz

ALBANY — Legislators who will soon consider renaming the historic Robert Moses State Park face a dicey political proposal that pits powerful nostalgia and Long Island pride against a growing progressive movement in Albany aimed at righting wrongs of the past.

The bill was introduced in Albany last week by one of the 3.5 million annual visitors to the 875-acre park in Suffolk County, Assemb. Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan). The proposal would create a temporary state commission to explore new names to replace Moses.

Called New York’s master builder, Moses 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. The park built in 1908 as Fire Island State Park was named for him in 1964.

“Growing up in Commack meant long days at the beach at Robert Moses State Park in the summer, and I remember thinking Robert Moses must have been a hero,” O’Donnell said. “Living on the Upper West Side — and before that Brooklyn — taught me the reality was actually far more complicated. Over the years, evidence has shown that megaprojects like the Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lincoln Center were placed to divide and destroy African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods like San Juan Hill … Moses used his power to contribute toward racial segregation and the displacement of many underrepresented communities.”

“Our public institutions should honor those who work for all New Yorkers,” O’Donnell said.

But the issue may be a political third rail, with no easy path in the coming legislative election year when Long Island will again be a battleground for Senate control. The bill has no co-sponsor yet in the Senate.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has spoken glowingly of Moses’ legacy as a master builder, but wouldn’t comment on the bill. In 2016, Cuomo renamed the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls to the Niagara Scenic Parkway without serious objection as part of improvements to the highway.

Other politicians who wouldn’t comment on the bill included Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, State Sens. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Senate Republican leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

“Moses’ racial attitudes, as reflected in a number of his policy and design decisions, is certainly worthy of rebuke,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “But anybody who tries to erase his name from the public square, especially someone who doesn’t represent Long Island, is certain to face strong and divisive political pushback. Whether one agrees with them or not, a lot of Long Islanders view Moses as a visionary and hero who literally paved the way to their suburban dream.”

Moses amassed unparalleled power from 1919 to 1962 through six governors and five New York City mayors. He created and wielded public authorities with the power to borrow capital and greenlight projects, yet faced little accountability. He razed mostly ethnic, working-class neighborhoods that he labeled tenements and slums. He built highways that improved access for automobile owners to get into and out of the city with little improvement for mass transit within the city. 

His work became a pattern for urban renewal projects nationwide, which many officials have blamed for worsening problems in the inner cities today.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Power Broker,” historian Robert Caro highlighted some of the human toll of what was called social relocation. Moses displaced more than 5,000 people in a vibrant New York City neighborhood of Jewish refugees and other immigrants to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Moses designed a “bulge” to run the highway through the East Tremont neighborhood, which Caro said puzzled other planners at the time. Caro showed the highway could have easily been run three blocks to the south to avoid leveling 54 apartment buildings in the heart of the neighborhood.

Other designs attributed to Moses, although disputed by some historians, include creating low archways to keep city buses from Long Island beaches and keeping pool temperatures cool in East Harlem with the thought that would dissuade African American swimmers.

On Long Island, the bill to rename the Robert Moses State Park was met with quick and pointed scorn by some who have reveled in the park and its five miles of beaches.

“Ridiculous,” “a complete waste of taxpayer money,” “a disgrace,” and “revisionist history” were among the reactions of Long Islanders to the possible renaming of the park.

“Moses did a great job overall,” said Dick Cardoza of Westbury, who has visited the park many times. “Let's not waste time trying to rewrite history!”

Mary MacElveen of Sound Beach responded sharply to O'Donnell: “You don’t even represent any constituent here on Long Island … this bill is a complete waste of taxpayer money.”

“Why not eliminate George Washington on the dollar bill because of improper issues he practiced in the past?” Gregory Andreyev of West Babylon asked. “If you want to rename something, rename your cat or dog.”

Moses has become for some “the Snidely Whiplash of 20th Century New York’s regional history,” said Michele Bogart, an art history professor at Stony Brook University who has researched Moses’ legacy and whose books include “The Politics of Urban Beauty.” But the reality, she said, is more complex.

“Although he’s not necessarily the nicest of guys, he deserves a more nuanced and respectful treatment than most people these days are willing to give him. … gauged by today’s perspectives on racial injustice, some of Moses’ attitudes and actions can seem troubling, but the man is viewed through blinders … the judgment on Moses solely as a ‘racist’ also becomes troubling.”

“Analyze and debate Moses’ legacy,” Bogart said, “but don’t subject Moses to the zealotry of the #cancelculture.”

Even a critic of Moses cautions against renaming the park.

“Unlike the Confederate monuments in the South, I don't believe many people today interpret Robert Moses State Park as a monument to racism,” said Todd Fine, an author, historian and activist for preserving ethnic cultures in neighborhoods in New York City.

“I mourn Robert Moses' destruction of Little Syria in my work, but I don't agree with this approach to counter the negative aspects of his legacy,” Fine said. Little Syria was a lower Manhattan community from Battery Park to north of Rector Street from the 1880s to the 1940s. It was erased by work that included Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel ramps and other major public projects.

“It is arrogant for us to think that we should be able to erase people from history because of their faults,” Fine said. “We should best confront his legacy through telling stories and doing research. We may even need his continued presence as a warning.”

Robert Moses

Birthday and place: Dec. 18, 1888, in New Haven, Connecticut

Death: July 29, 1981, at age 92 in West Islip

Education: Graduated from Yale University in 1909; master's degree in political science from Oxford University in 1911 and doctorate from Columbia University in 1914, with a dissertation on the British civil service system.

Family: Married Mary Louise Sims, of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, on Aug. 15, 1915. They had two daughters, Barbara and Jane. After his first wife’s death in 1966, Moses married Mary Grady.

Professional life: Moses was a polarizing urban planner who helped reshape New York’s landscape. He was never elected to political office, but he held massive power in urban development in the mid-20th century.

Referred to as New York’s “master builder,” Moses created parks, highways and hydroelectric dams that often displaced racial and ethnic minorities in working-class neighborhoods.

He is credited with creating 2.5 million acres of state parks, 416 parkway miles, a dozen bridges, two dams, 568 playgrounds and other public projects.

Moses spent the equivalent of $27 billion and displaced at least 250,000 people.

In 1934, in his only bid for elected office, Moses unsuccessfully ran for governor of New York State.

— Tory N. Parrish

Sources: Britannica.com, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times

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