A close-up of planner Robert Moses on Jan. 11, 1974.

A close-up of planner Robert Moses on Jan. 11, 1974. Credit: Newsday/Joe Dombroski

There are more important issues involving Robert Moses than a park that bears his name. 

The Moses legacy has come under scrutiny because Assemb. Daniel O’Donnell has introduced a bill to establish a commission to rename one of the iconic beaches of Long Island, Robert Moses State Park, in Suffolk County.

Moses was the midcentury master builder who reshaped New York, creating the region's systems of highways, bridges and parks from the Bronx to Babylon and beyond. He was rewarded with vast power and, eventually, his name on some of his domains. But his projects that relocated many minority and ethnic groups increasingly are seen as racist. In an atmosphere of historical revisionism, it was only a matter of time before a call arose for his name to be erased.

It shouldn’t be.

Certainly, Moses was bigoted. Evidence includes his reported complaints about people of color and the effect of “that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.” Moses swept away minority neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves for slum clearance. Intent is difficult to measure, and some of the much-cited stories about pools being kept cold to discourage blacks aren’t clear-cut. But he does appear, for whatever reason, to have built some  parkway bridges uncommonly low, making beach access harder by bus. 

These elements of racism or discrimination place Moses among an embarrassing group of prominent historical figures who don't live up to modern standards. It would be fruitless to erase all, an exercise in haphazardly interpreting history. A park named after Moses is not the same as a Confederate statue being defiantly built during Jim Crow. Keeping the name of a flawed but significant Moses is not the same as enduring a literal symbol of white supremacy.

More important, arguing about gradations of racism risks ignoring the real lesson of Moses: that a visionary planner who created so many improvements could become so blinded and make such far-reaching physical-world mistakes.

Moses gained renown for building mighty roads and cultural centers that pulled the region together. Access to Jones Beach and the state park now in question was granted for millions of beachgoers through the routes he envisioned. Previously, access was by boat.

But Moses’ certainty in his brilliance meant that New York became caged in the dominant automobile image. Highways took space and funding from rail and led to suburban sprawl. We’re still doing cleanup. The vital third-track project, only recently revived to increase capacity on the Long Island Rail Road’s Main Line, also included the elimination of dangerous grade-crossings. Moses even campaigned for a constitutional amendment in 1941 to divert money from the project to fund parkways.

These are the complicated consequences of his work, all too possible when citizens, elected officials and watchdogs neglect oversight of powerful figures. The worlds of transportation, construction, politics and culture suffer for it, then as now.

The important question worthy of energy and debate is rarely what name should be on a sign. It’s what are we failing to do today to meet our region's needs. 

— The editorial board