Jones Beach, the Expressway and More: Robert Moses’ Historical Stamp of Early Institutional Racism (Op-Ed)

By: Lola Rivera
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Built by Long Island State Park Commissioner Robert Moses, Jones Beach State Park represents some of the earliest forms of institutional racism here on Long Island. While many locals are familiar with his name, many are unaware of his contributions to the systemic racism within the island. 

Memorialized by his many state park and statues, the racist and bigoted history of Robert Moses is often gone unknown by most Long Islanders. Robert Caro, the author of “Power Broker,” referred to Moses as “the most racist human being he had ever encountered”. 

Known as “the Master Builder,” Moses is responsible for many large and famous infrastructures throughout New York. While never holding an elected office position, he was able to gain and exercise more power than any other figure in the history of New York State. He held up to 12 official titles simultaneously, including New York State Council of Parks Chairman and New York City Department of Parks Commissioner. 

Spending an equivalent of $150 billion in today’s currency, Moses built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds and 150,000 housing units. In order to create and build this infrastructure into New York, Moses often displaced many New Yorkers while simultaneously destroying neighborhoods. 

Wanting to create one of the country’s most pristine beaches, he set forth in creating Jones Beach State Park. 

📸: The New York Times

As the 1920s and ’30s were the early beginnings of the popularization of automobiles, the only groups of New Yorkers who had access to automobiles were affluent white middle class families

With Jones Beach’s location requiring passing through Long Island highways, many New Yorkers, specifically minority or poor families, would have needed access to public transportation to get to the beach. 

Having planned some of the parkways in 1925, to improve access to Jones Beach, he made sure to design Long Island’s famously short overpasses. Standing at just a few feet short of the necessary 14 foot-clearance a bus would need to pass through. The short overpasses in combination with the anti-public transportation legislation that Robert Moses supported, continues to suggest his racial bias’ that contributed to some of Long Island’s deeply rooted systematic racism.  

Although prevalent on Long Island, his discriminatory infrastructure is not limited to the Island. Expanding across almost all of his work throughout the State of New York, his racial bias and disdain for poor or minority families were apparent.   

In the late 1940s, he set out in hopes of creating the Cross Bronx Expressway. 

📸: Pinterest

As the chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee, Moses attempted to use scare tactics to push people out of their homes. Sending out 90 day move-out notices, in an attempt to clear out the neighborhoods. 

Creating a neighborhood association, locals proposed an alternate route for the Expressway, in which fewer people would be relocated. These South Bronx locals gained the support of their local Assemblyman, Congressman, Bronx Borough President and even the Manhattan Borough President, Robert Wagner. 

Later, when the issue was voted on, it managed to pass unanimously. Forcing thousands of families out of their neighborhoods. 

In a 1977 interview with Robert Caro, Moses expressed his lack of empathy for those that were ever displaced by his works.

“There will always be people… so there are a few people that don’t want anything disturbed,” said Moses.

Unfortunately, Robert Moses is just one of many that contributed to this systemic racism that has been built within our state. As Long Islanders continue to recognize and fight against the various forms of racial inequality on Long Island, it is necessary to identify the built-in and deeply rooted institutional racism on the Island. 

Lola Rivera

Lola Rivera

Senior at New York Institute of Technology in Manhattan. Reporter Intern for Shades of Long Island. Managing Editor of the Manhattan Globe. Instagram: @lola.nicole

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