Fact Check: History of Robert Moses's Parkways Shows Racist Intent of Bridge Height is Not CertainHistorians in the News
tags: racism, New York City, urban planning, Robert Moses, Pete Buttigieg, fact check
The New-York Historical Society, which is currently featuring an exhibition on Caro’s reportage, also weighed in. “Bridges spanning #RobertMoses’ Long Island parkways had a clearance too low for buses to pass under,” the organization said in a tweet. “This meant anyone who could not travel by car — including lower income families and people of color — to a long journey over local roads, effectively barring them from Moses’ parks.” A spokesperson said the tweets were based on exhibition labels.
But then we heard from Peter Shulman, an associate professor of history at Case Western University. He said that this story has been largely debunked. So we decided to look deeper. (Note: there is little dispute over the first part of Buttigieg’s comment regarding the building of highways, which is well-documented across the country.)
Few men have had as much impact on the design of a city than Robert Moses (1888-1981). He built the highways and bridges that crisscross New York City. He constructed hundreds of playgrounds, sports fields and urban pools. He built housing developments, such as Stuyvesant Town, Riverside Park, the United Nations headquarters and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. And he designed beautiful beaches and state parks on Long Island and across New York — and the parkways that led people to them.
At the peak of his influence, Moses was more powerful than any mayor or governor, even though he was not elected. Caro’s book, published in 1974, is mostly a study of power and how power corrupts, depicting the transformation of an idealist reformer into a tyrant who created slums and destroyed communities without remorse. The 1,200-page book, a feat of astonishing reporting and writing, is generally regarded as one of the 100 greatest works of nonfiction. It destroyed Moses’s reputation and shaped how people think about his legacy.
Caro also cast Moses as a racist who made it harder for people of color to visit his properties. Buttigieg referenced one of the book’s most famous anecdotes, which appears on pages 318 and 319.
This section of the book concerns the construction of one of Moses’s greatest achievements, Jones Beach State Park, which opened in 1929. Moses also constructed parkways, such as Southern State Parkway, in the 1920s that took people to the beach.
Bernward Joerges, a German professor of sociology, in 1999 carefully examined the saga of the bridges. In an essay, he acknowledged Moses was an “undemocratic scoundrel” and a “structural racist” but argues that all parkways at the time had low bridges.
“How, then, should one understand that Moses built some 200 overpasses so low?” he asked. “U.S. civil engineers with whom I have corresponded regularly produce two simple explanations for the rationality of the low-hanging bridges: that commercial traffic was excluded from the parkways anyway; and that the generally good transport situation on Long Island forbade the very considerable cost of raising the bridges … Moses did nothing different on Long Island from any parks commissioner in the country. … In sum: Moses could hardly have let buses on his parkways, even if he had wanted differently.”
He also believes Caro overstated the reasons Black Americans did not go to Jones Beach.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian who has said that generations of his students have failed to confirm episodes in Caro’s book, also says the overpass story is not true.
“Caro is wrong,” he wrote in an email. “Arnold Vollmer, the landscape architect who was in charge of design for the bridges, said the height was due to cost.” He added: “Also, you can still get to Jones Beach by train and bus, as you always could.”
But more recently, Thomas J. Campanella, a Cornell University historian of city planning, had a change of heart when he measured the height of the bridges on the Southern State Parkway. “I’ve always had doubts about the veracity of the Jim Crow bridge story. There is little question that Moses held patently bigoted views,” he wrote in an article for Bloomberg News in 2017. But then he recorded clearances for 20 bridges, viaducts and overpasses on other parkways built at the time and compared them to measures of the 20 original bridges and overpasses on the Southern State Parkway. It turned out clearances are substantially lower on the Moses parkway.
“The verdict? It appears that Sid Shapiro was right,” he wrote.
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