Fallen Idols of Fire Island (Part I)

The statue of Robert Moses as depicted by sculptor Jose Ismael Fernandez, commissioned by Babylon Village Public Arts Commission and unveiled in 2003. (Photo by Shoshanna McCollum)

ONLINE PETITIONS HAVE reignited community debate on the legacy of Long Island’s historical titans – as well as the region’s lingering racist roots in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests – individuals with strong ties to Fire Island. One such example being Robert Moses, who remains a controversial figure decades after his passing in 1981.

While the petitions themselves may be fairly recent, the debate is not.

Early last December, New York State Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell (D, 69th District Manhat- tan) sponsored a bill to create a committee to explore possible new names to replace that of Robert Moses’ namesake state park located on the western end of Fire Island. The search to find “a new name be chosen that reflects the history of Long Island,” according to the verbiage of the bill.

The bill proposal justification further reads that Moses “repeatedly abused his power to entrench racial and economic segregation, inhibit communities of color from sharing in New York’s postwar pros- perity and ensure that many of the great public amenities he helped build stayed inaccessible to poor people and people of color.”

While O’Donnell did not respond to our calls for comment, one of several articles published on the subject by Newsday at the end of 2019, quotes O’Donnell saying that as a young Commack resi- dent, he grew up on making the voyage to Robert Moses, under the impression that Moses was a hero. He went on to share with Newsday that he feels “our public institutions should honor those who work for all New Yorkers.”

Moses is credited with construction of 416 miles of highway, 13 bridges, 658 playgrounds and housing for 150,000 people. Among these accomplishments are Shea Stadium, the United Nations and Lincoln Center. Significant as these achievements are, clearing the way for his projects displaced hundreds of thousands of minority Americans under the guise of urban renewal, while further segregating New York City and Long Island. A journal entry posted in the Fordham Political Review in December of 2018, estimates that 250,000 people were displaced by Moses’ projects. Yet ironically the Cross-Bronx Express- way also paved the way to create new public housing projects for many of the same low-income individuals that faced systematic displacement on his behalf.

In a 2012 essay published by The New York Times, Jonathan Mahler asserts that “it is impossible to talk about the landscape of modern New York without talking about Moses.”

Many of Moses’ principal achievements that once warranted his widespread recognition were exposed to have racist motivations in Robert A. Caro’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning biography about Moses, “The Power Broker.” In one of the book’s most notable portions, Caro accuses Moses of ordering his engineers to build low-bearing bridges over the parkway to keep New York City buses from reaching Jones Beach because of the low-income clientele that mass transportation attracts.

Caro claims to have obtained this information from Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses associate and former chief engineer and general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission. He makes many other claims in his 1,300-page biography that accuses Moses of engaging in behavior that led Caro to name Moses “the most racist human being I had ever really encountered.”

While evidence exists to support the claim that Moses built low-bearing overpasses fueled by his racist motivations, Village of Babylon Historical and Preservation Society recently came to Moses’ defense by sharing a 1930 postcard image on Facebook. The postcard depicts a painted rendition of the Jones Beach pencil paraded by buses. Another post shares a newspaper clip from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1931 describing the “bee line” bus route from Brooklyn to Jones Beach.

According to an article published last month by Newsday, almost 100 protesters gathered to chant

“Robert Moses was a racist” in front of the Babylon Village Hall where Moses’ statue was erected in 2003. Protesters aimed to express their desire that Moses be dethroned as New York’s master builder and rather recognized for his racist tendencies.

The Babylon Village Public Arts Commission utilized $190,000 from a Suffolk County grant to erect the 7-foot bronze statue. The group was unable to be reached for comment in time for publication. Cre- ated by sculptor Jose Ismael Fernandez, the statue stands tall above a plaque that honors Moses as “responsible for more buildings than any single person since the pharaohs ruled Egypt.” The plaque does recognize Moses as an often “controversial force.”

Once a Village of Babylon resident, the statue depicts Moses with a firm stance, gripping blueprints in his left hand. In a 2003 article by The New York Times, Babylon’s County Legislator David Bishop said he was aware of Moses’ reputation as a “petty tyrant…but you come back to Babylon and people have the opposite perception. He had flaws. But he was what New York needed.’’ The statue stands to honor his contributions to New York State.

It is debatable as to whether or not Moses’ cata- loged bigotry warrants the renaming of Robert Mo- ses State Park. In fact, a Newsday article shared on Facebook by the Fire Island News last December attracted controversy between more than 150 commenters.

“As polarizing and conflicted as Robert Moses was as a man, there is no part of New York or Long Island that wasn’t made accessible by Robert Mo- ses,” said Craig Sherman, who lives in Manhattan and summers in Ocean Beach. “As stubborn and awful as he could be, the man should still be recognized for the unprecedented contributions he made to Long Island south shore beaches and the parks system. There are too many monuments of his works to name that we all use every day. For being a creator, he should be recognized in my opinion. As a man, he should never be forgiven for his behaviors that were corrupted by power and abuse of power.”

Stephen Tepper, on the other hand, who has friends in Cherry Grove commented, “Well, if Robert Moses had his way, all your cute towns on Fire Island would have been paved over for a highway, so maybe he’s not the best person to be honored with a park.”

Indeed Robert Moses is one written explicitly in Fire Island’s history, as his decades long obsession to transform our barrier island into a parkway persisted up until he met with legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson to establish it as a national seashore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. In the book “Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses,” Christopher Verga tells the extensive tale of how grassroots activism spread throughout Fire Island to protect the unique identities of each community.

Meanwhile O’Donnell’s bill still lingers in the New York State Assembly, and the Robert Moses statue still stands tall in downtown Babylon Village.

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About the Author
Emma Boskovski

Emma Boskovski

Emma is entering her junior year of college at SUNY Geneseo where she studies communication. At Geneseo, she is the news editor for their University paper, The Lamron. Emma lives in Bay Shore where she manages distribution. This is her second year writing for The Fire Island News.

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