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  • Teach NYThree Case Studies for Reassessing New York’s Power Broker
  • Katie Uva (bio) and Kara Murphy Schlichting (bio)

This essay is the second in a two-part series on teaching the history of Robert Moses and midcentury urbanism in New York. In the first installment, we discussed the pervasive influence of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974) on public and scholarly understandings of New York City and urban renewal and we offered a way to reframe Caro’s interpretation in the classroom.

In this installment of Teach NY, we explore Robert Moses’s work and impact through a series of case studies. The first case highlights Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County on Long Island and captures how Moses emerged in the 1920s as a leading and influential advocate for large public parks. The second case, on the Triborough Bridge, epitomizes the height of Moses’s public works power in the 1930s. The final case, on Lincoln Center, typifies Moses’s postwar work as head of the city’s Committee on Slum Clearance, the nation’s largest Title I urban renewal program, and provides insight into the criticism his postwar projects generated.

For each case study, we offer a selection of primary and secondary sources and point to some ways to use these materials in the classroom. Ultimately, we hope that broadening the range of sources and examples studied will encourage urban history students to see Moses’s work as something that shifted over time, as something that was shaped by external forces as well as by Moses’s own strong beliefs about public works as a shaper of “the public,” and as something with continuing relevance to our struggles over urban development today.

Case 1: Regional Recreation at Jones Beach State Park

As real estate development boomed on Long Island’s south shore in the 1920s, Robert Moses made a name for himself as a champion of public beaches. As head of the Long [End Page 168]

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Figure 1.

Jones Beach, 1936. The centerpiece of Jones Beach State Park, the 231-foot tall water tower was modeled on the Campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. The 2,413-acre park includes six miles of Long Island’s south shore twenty miles east of the city. courtesy of the national archives and record administration, 68145529.

Island State Park Commission (LISPC) from its formation in 1924, Moses believed that state and local parks departments, not private homeowners or beach clubs, should protect New York’s shorefront property as a public resource.1 Universally lauded, Jones Beach set national standards for recreation, planning, architecture, and landscape architecture when it opened in August 1929.2 The allegation that Moses discouraged bus access, and thus minority access, to the beach remains a persistent critique. The 2021 Washington Post “Fact Checker” feature on this charge is an accessible and balanced overview that can be used [End Page 169] for classroom discussion of current historiographic debates centering on this claim and its resonance in the popular understanding, and condemnation, of Moses.3

Source 1: Robert Moses, “Hordes from the City,” Saturday Evening Post (October 1931): 14–15, 90, 92–94.

This 1931 Saturday Evening Post article introduces Moses’s infamous bravado and temperament—he boasts with confidence about park work in greater New York.4 Moses also summarizes his rise to power as head of the LISPC and his infamous fight with estate owners who fought his park and parkway plans. Instructors can ask students: How does Moses come across as a person and as a park builder? Do they agree with any/all of his statements about recreation? For example, Moses makes clear his dislike of beachfront commercial amusements; he found them garish, cheap, and degrading to the waterfront.5 Who parks are for and who feels welcome in them is a question relevant to both the 1920s and the 2020s. Students can discuss who would have felt welcome or unwelcome at Jones Beach in the 1930s and what they think of Moses’s claim that the public could be taught “good” behavior...