The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert Moses and the saga of the racist parkway bridges

(Susan Walsh/AP)

“I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach — or that would’ve been — in New York was — was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices.”

— Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, remarks at the White House, Nov. 8

When Buttigieg made these comments at the White House, some right-leaning Twitter users immediately cried foul.

Well, our knee jerked. This was obviously a reference to one of the most famous anecdotes in Robert Caro’s majestic biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” (A Transportation Department official confirmed that Buttigieg was referring to Caro’s Pulitzer-Prize winning work.)

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 Reserve 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.)

The Facts

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.

Moses “began to limit access by buses; he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low — too low for buses to pass. Bus trips therefore had to be made on local roads, making the trips discouraging long and arduous. For Negroes, who he considered inherently ‘dirty,’ there were further measures. Buses needed permits to enter state parks; buses chartered by Negro groups found it very difficult to obtain permits, especially to Moses’s beloved Jones Beach; most were shunted off to parks many miles further on Long Island. And even in those parks, buses carrying Negro groups were discouraged from using ‘white’ beach areas — the best beaches — by a system Shapiro calls ‘flagging’; the handful of Negro lifeguards (there were only a handful of Negro employees among the thousands employed by the Long Island State Park Commission) were all stationed at distant, least developed beaches. Moses was convinced that Negroes did not like cold water; the temperature at the pool at Jones Beach was deliberately icy to keep Negroes out.”

(When then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt “gingerly raised the matter” of the treatment of Black Americans with Moses, Caro writes that Moses put him off and FDR never raised it again.)

“Shapiro” was Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses associate and former chief engineer and general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission. He was a major source for Caro. The source notes say that Shapiro granted 100 hours of interviews with Caro, with the understanding that nothing could be used unless he died — and he passed away in 1972, two years before publication.

In the endnotes, Shapiro is listed as the only source for the order to keep the bridges of the parkways low. Shapiro, along with Paul Kern, a law secretary at City Hall under Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, are listed as sources for Moses believing Black Americans were “dirty.” Kern and Paul Windels, LaGuardia’s corporation counsel, are the sources for the details on the bus permits and pool temperature.

As an example of Caro’s research, the New-York Historical Society exhibition displayed tally sheets made by Caro and his wife in 1967 showing how, decades later, few Blacks went to the park.

But since “The Power Broker” was published, as always in history, there has been some revisionism and Moses’s achievements are now viewed in a better light. In particular, the anecdote about the parkway bridges has been increasingly questioned, along with other details in Caro’s book.

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.

“The fact remains that Blacks could gain physical access to Long Island beaches via many routes. And yet Jones Beach remained a white strand,” he observed. “Even today, when many more Blacks drive cars, and when no politician tries to exclude them from the beaches, not many poor Blacks seem to gather on Jones Beach. There existed then, and there exist today, many reasons for Black families to go elsewhere.”

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.”

(Here are images of a 1937 bus schedule to Jones Beach and a state promotional photo showing buses parked in front of the famed water tower.)

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.

“I do believe it is true,” Campanella said in an email to The Fact Checker. “The parkways I looked at were built in roughly the same era as the Southern State — especially Sawmill and Hutch. In fact, the Westchester parkways set most of the standards for parkway design for years in the United States. The lower overpasses on the Southern State parkway are a substantial deviation from precedent.”

Joerges suggested there was a reason for this. “True the bridges were low, but each had to be low differently,” he wrote. “Moses took great care that each and every bridge was individually fitted into its natural context: standardized unicity, as it were, was part of an artfully laid out nature. One can show more generally that, when it came to parkway building, bridge-building culture was connected to a specific politics of nature.”

Shulman, the professor who brought this debate to our attention, said Campanella’s measurements do not confirm the story. “I don’t know what average bus heights were in the 1920s, but today they appear to be about 118″ (9′ 10″), so I’m not sure how meaningful these different heights even would be in practice,” he said in an email. “Vehicles have to have a clearance of less than 7′ 10″ to travel on NY parkways at all. The Saw Mill, the one with the greatest height cited by Campanella, is over 10′ (123.2″), but the safe clearance is obviously lower, and surely lower than 118”.”

The Bottom Line

Obviously this cannot be easily resolved. Caro quotes one of Moses’s top aides as saying the height of the bridges was done for racist reasons, but increasingly that story has been questioned as not credible. Buttigieg should tailor his remarks to reflect what is historically unimpeachable — and we should be more careful to double-check on the latest views of historians. Even a Pulitzer Prize-winning book is not always the last word on a subject.

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