Robert Moses deserves his statue in Babylon because he made our New York. The metropolitan area primarily is built upon infrastructure that Moses created. Highways, parkways, bridges, tunnels, parks, housing complexes and iconic Manhattan institutions are his legacy. These projects stand today, and New York thrives in part because of them.
About 100 years ago, Moses began amassing power through legislation giving him control over state agencies and authorities. Living in Babylon and frequently working from the state parks regional office in North Babylon, Moses for 40 years presided, often ruthlessly, over a non-military exertion of government power that was unparalleled and transformative.
Some of his projects: 658 New York City playgrounds and 17 city swimming pools; Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Whitestone Bridge, all Long Island parkways, and the Long Island Expressway; 2.5 million acres of parks such as Flushing Meadows, Bethpage, Sunken Meadow, and Jones Beach; and the UN, Lincoln Center, and Central Park Zoo.
He built big and he built to make change. Long Island opened up to the middle class, and New York City’s suffocating slums were given parks or were cleared and replaced with what was then considered better modern housing. His highways and housing accelerated New York’s transitions. All U.S. urban areas declined in the 1960s and ‘70s, but New York came out the other side stronger. New York’s infrastructure contributed to its enduring success, and it is part of Moses’ legacy.
His faults, excesses and biases are legion. They filled up the 1,300-page indictment that is Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker.” Moses’ views, however, are outweighed by the significance of his legacy to our lives. If he did want low bridges to keep city folk from busing in to his oceanfront parks, then it was a shameful and flaccid action. Buses flow daily to Jones Beach, which is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people of color every year.
And maybe we should give some passing consideration to the notion that it might not be true. The low bridges are on parkways, roads that by definition take automobiles to parks and exclude commercial traffic. That definition of a parkway was dominant in the 1930s, when Long Island’s were built. Also, news releases for Moses’ Jacob Riis Park built in the same decade as Jones Beach touted public transportation accessibility. The thinking then was that Long Island parks were for the middle class and city parks for the poor. Considering that Moses built dozens of parks in low-income communities, his racism, however ugly, reflected the ignorance of its time not a desire to oppress.
Moses’ legacy is testimony to what can be accomplished when governmental power is harnessed for public good. Private capital has not and will not speculate on infrastructure projects that house the poor and connect the remote. Of course, today we wouldn’t want to replicate the slum clearance and housing projects of post-war New York. That was an excess that helped swing the pendulum against thinking big. But small thinking can’t give us world-class airports or unclogged roads and rails.
I understand the desire to remove monuments to aspects of America we reject. Confederate generals fought to enslave black people and left no positive legacy. Statues to those figures were erected to glorify an immoral and illegal system and to inspire continued oppression. They need to come down.
When historical figures leave positive legacies, as Moses did, they should be celebrated and their faults contextualized. This way, we can use the past to inspire us to a better future. Moses’ statue in Babylon remind us that we can think big and build the New York we want.
David Bishop is a former Suffolk County legislator (1992-2005) and secured county funding for the Robert Moses statue.