2009-06-26 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

How Moses (Robert, Not The Bibilical Leader) Destroyed Rockaway
Commentary By Howard Schwach

I had to digress last week to talk about the clowns who populate our State Legislature, but now is the time to get back to more mundane matters - the people who destroyed Rockaway. Two weeks ago, I wrote about John Lindsay and his time as mayor. This week, it's Robert Moses' turn.

Moses was one of the most powerful men ever to lead a city or state agency. In fact, he led several at the same time, giving him an inordinate amount of power to act as he saw fit without any oversight.

Larry Kaplan and his wife, Carol, who wrote the definitive book on the decline of Rockaway, "Between Ocean and City," think that Moses was benign when it came to Rockaway, that he had the right view of what to do about the peninsula, but was not able to carve out his full vision before he fell from grace.

I don't exactly agree. As with most demigods, Moses believed that he was right and did whatever he could to ensure that his view was the only one allowed.

His view for Rockaway?

The Kaplans, on their New York Times blog, say, "Robert Moses, who exercised considerable control over Rockaway, had a sense of the public good and a commitment to environmental conservation that conflicted with the business-oriented Chamber of Commerce. Moses began with the assumption that parklands belonged to all the people, and he was committed to protecting those resources and developing them for the benefit of the masses.

"Commercial interests, some well-meaning, believed that they could combine public pleasure with private profit. They hoped to create luxury facilities that would attract a class of people who would pay for their recreation. Yet such strategy necessarily limited the number of those 'consumers of recreation' who would be able to benefit and could potentially affect the environment adversely.

"Moses did not encourage this approach. He would have been content with a Rockaway that had attractive, well-maintained beaches complemented by parks and play areas appealing to city dwellers on a day's outing, surrounded by solid, year-round housing."

The fact is, if you read some of the other books that detail Moses' life, you will find that the great man hated honky-tonk, and therefore thought little of the amenities that actually brought people to Rockaway.

For example, he thought little of Rockaway's Playland or the similar amenities in Coney Island. He thought they drew the wrong kind of crowd and should be upgraded so that more of the less-common people would be attracted to the playgrounds.

He wanted to demolish Rockaway's "Irishtown," the warren of bars and "cheap attractions," that attracted so many to the center of the Rockaway peninsula on summer weekends.

It didn't matter to him one way or another that the Irishtown bars and cheap amusements were widely popular and their owners made lots of money during the summer months at a time when there wasn't a lot of money around.

His morality was such that bars and honky-tonks, popular amusements and amusement parks were somehow wrong and must be wiped out.

For a time, he was convinced that if he couldn't stamp out the things he decried, he might do well to isolate them on some barrier island, away from the good common folk.

Where to put that abomination?

Broad Channel, of course.

Moses wanted to move all the residents and fishing shacks out of the island community to the north of Rockaway and turn it into a giant amusement park - the amusements to be of his choosing, of course. Luckily, his plan never got traction from business people or local politicians.

While Moses was not responsible for the public housing that helped to destabilize the peninsula, he was responsible for bringing people to the slums of Rockaway through his other slum project clearance programs in other parts of the city.

For example, his construction of Lincoln Center in Manhattan beginning in 1955 drove thousands of families from the area to other parts of the city, including Rockaway. They lived in the "converted" summer rooming houses and bungalows pushed by Rockaway Chamber of Commerce members. That housing was later chopped down to make way for city housing in such areas as Hammels, Redfern and Arverne.

The Kaplans say that Moses wanted to "transform Rockaway into a resort with a future."

What Moses, in his infinite wisdom, really wanted to do was to transform Rockaway into a resort that fit his vision of what a resort should be: small attractions, surrounded by lots of public beaches and solid, middle-class housing.

He elevated the Long Island Railroad tracks and built the Rockaway Freeway below them to allow for more east-west car travel.

He completely renovated Riis Park to mimic his most popular resort area - Jones Beach on Long Island.

He built Shore Front Parkway, which was designed to bring motorists from Brooklyn and take them through Rockaway all the way to the Atlantic Beach Bridge and then on to the Belt Parkway via Rockaway Turnpike (now Route 878).

If you look at Ocean Village on Beach 57 Street, you will note that the back buildings have Shore Front Parkway addresses (57-15 Shore Front Parkway, for example) even though Shore Front Parkway ends on Beach 73 Street. An extension of sorts was built last summer by Arverne By The Sea, but for some reason, it is called Beachfront Parkway, not Shore Front Parkway.

Moses would have loved it. It's got class and it's not honky-tonk.

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