He has been called many things, from the mid 20th century's master builder to a power broker to a visionary idealist. Whatever you call him, Robert Moses was responsible for many of the things Long Island and New York are known for. Residents of West Islip do not have to travel far to be surrounded by his legacy.
To go to the beach named for him, you have to take the causeway named for him over the bridge named for him. You may not know every project Moses was involved with, but even without that knowledge it is hard to imagine a world without the things his vision helped create: the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (opened in 1964), the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (established in 1946), the Long Island parkways (opened between the late 1920's and the early 1930's), the West Side Highway (opened in 1931) or Jones Beach State Park (opened in 1929). There were many more playgrounds, parks, highways and bridges constructed during Moses' time and even a middle school in North Babylon is named for him.
Moses was born in New Haven, Connecticut on December 18, 1888. His father owned a department store which afforded him to move his family to Manhattan in 1897. Moses went to Yale from 1905 to 1909 before going to England to study at Oxford. He made his way back to New York to earn his Ph.D from Columbia University.
His first job was working for New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel in 1914. In 1918, New York State's new governor, Alfred E. Smith, hired Moses as his chief of staff to reorganize the way the state government was run. While none of Moses' reform plans were adopted, Smith brought Moses to Albany in 1922.
It was during the next few years that Moses was introduced to the world of highways, parks and construction. He was appointed president of the Long Island State Park Commission and by 1924, Moses became chairman of the State Council of Parks. It was this appointment that started Moses' reign as a master planner and builder in New York.
One of his most famous statements was a direct hit to those who put down his projects and his vision: “Those who can, build. Those who can't, criticize.” Criticize is exactly what many did when Moses proposed the Jones Beach project. At that time Long Island was a summer retreat for many city residents, and a lot of them were afraid the traffic to the beach would disrupt the quiet world they knew. Despite objections, Jones Beach opened in 1929 to enormous success.
The beach project led to the construction of both the Southern State and Northern State Parkways, which Moses saw as a way to bring people from the five boroughs to Jones Beach. It also led to the proposal of the Captree Parkway and Causeway, which was completed by 1954 and renamed for Moses in 1963. He was also Good Samaritan Hospital's chairperson for the annual ball for five years straight, from 1963 to 1967.
Some of the other positions Moses held during his lifetime included City Parks Commissioner, Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, City Construction Coordinator, World's Fair president (1964-65), a director of Lincoln Center and a member of the City Planning Commission. He was also the one who reportedly broke through the red tape so Frank Lloyd Wright's design would eventually become the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
There were, of course, things Moses could not get done. He did not get a bridge across the Long Island Sound to connect Oyster Bay to Rye, New York like he wanted. He was not able to get the United Nations headquarters in Flushing Meadows, Queens. He could not build the elevated highways he wanted over Broome Street and 30th Street.
Moses had a summer home on Gilgo Beach. He was vacationing there in 1981 when he became ill and was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital . He died there on July 30, 1981, at the age of 92.
This week's trivia question: The construction of the causeway was protested by a south shore citizens group which was led by a Bay Shore man who was, at the time, the chairman of his family's business. Who was that man? The answer in next week's column.