The recent meeting about the space under the BQE bridge got me thinking about the history of the BQE itself. The BQE was developed by Robert Moses, one of the most active – and controversial – urban planners in New York City history. Moses never was elected to any office, but still had tremendous influence on construction and urban development not just in New York City, but throughout Westchester and Long Island. Parts of the city we recognize today simply would not exist without him. However, his critics complained that a lot his proposed changes were simply too broad, and that he had little regard for whether he disrupted any neighborhoods – or people – in laying out his plans.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Moses’ family moved to New York when he was only nine. After studying in Yale and then Oxford, Moses returned to New York for a PhD in political science from Columbia. After he graduated, he quickly got involved in the New York political scene, specifically in political reform movements. The city had just shaken loose from decades of political corruption, and Moses first tried his hand at writing reform laws that would eliminate the abuses of the old corrupt system. None of his ideas went far, but governor Al Smith saw a good deal of intelligence in Moses, and took him on as an occasional advisor.
In 1923 he was assigned his first major urban planning project – a state park on Long Island. At the time, what we know as Jones Beach was Jones Island, a tiny island which was often completely underwater. Moses’ crew spent five years dredging up sand from the ocean floor and planting beach grass to anchor the new beach against strong winds. Moses oversaw everything from the design of the locker rooms to the bricks used in all the buildings. He also forbade any kind of boardwalk-style rides or games, which was unusual enough that the New York Times mentioned it in the headline of its 1929 article about the park’s opening day. Jones Beach was such a rousing success that a few years later, during the Depression, governor Al Smith turned to Moses when New York State received grants for urban planning as part of FDR’s New Deal program.
Over his twenty-year career, Moses developed over a hundred civil projects, including ten public pools (including McCarren Pool in Williamsburg), four zoos (including the Prospect Park Zoo), 24 state parks, and two World’s Fairs. He built the Triboro Bridge, Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and created Tavern On The Green restaurant as part of a 1934 renovation of Central Park. He relocated the New York Aquarium from Battery Park in Manhattan to its current Coney Island location. He also helmed the 1960 development of Lincoln Center and a number of middle-income housing projects, like Bronx’s Co-Op City and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan.
But Moses had a habit of creating as many problems as he solved. Some argued his housing projects destroyed as many homes as they created. Others whispered about possible racism –how he seemed to locate nearly all of his projects in affluent areas of the city, and almost none in Harlem; or how he seemed to design all his overpasses so they were too low for buses to pass underneath, cutting off entire neighborhoods from public transit. He also blocked a plan to extend the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach Park, cutting it off from countless New Yorkers too poor to own a car.
Moses was fascinated by cars. He blocked bills that would have promoted public transportation, preferring to develop freeway and highway systems – “Cities are for traffic,” he once said. Many of his plans involved bridges, expressways, or freeways to speed traffic through the city. However, even here he ruffled feathers, often routing his highways and freeways around wealthy neighborhoods but plowing them right through poor ones.
In the late 1950’s, he blocked efforts to replace Ebbets Field Stadium, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Walter O’Malley, then owner of the team, wanted to build a new stadium at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush (ironically, next to the site of the recently proposed New York Nets Stadium). But Moses blocked the project – he had plans for a parking garage on the site instead. Moses suggested a new stadium in Queens, but O’Malley refused, and moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles. Some old Brooklyn Dodgers fans still bear a grudge against Moses. He did build that stadium in Queens, however – Shea Stadium was also a Moses project.
Through the 1960’s, Moses’ popularity waned as ideas for urban planning changed. But he refused to adapt, and proposed a number of unpopular ideas – such as trying to raze a playground in Central Park to expand a parking lot for Tavern On The Green. The public finally decided it had had enough when he oversaw the destruction of the old Penn Station, regarded by many as an architectural jewel. When he next tried to establish one more expressway through Manhattan, which would have leveled nearly 15 blocks in Soho and would have displaced 800 businesses, the public blocked the project. Moses’ power dissolved soon thereafter.
At the time he built the BQE, though, Moses’ power was still strong. We’ll look at that specific project in the next post.