Breaking free from summer heat in New York City is a main concern of its inhabitants. Many New Yorkers know that Jones Beach is one option, but what they may not know is that the story of its creation by Robert Moses is filled with grandiose, unfeasible ideas seen to fruition through deceit and bullying.
Throughout his career, Moses started projects with false budgets and spent money how he saw fit. He often ran out of cash, but was always able to obtain more funding by appealing to politicians' desire to avoid accusations of public money wasted on an incomplete project. Jones Beach was one of the first projects wherein he employed this tactic, which he called "driving the stake."
His control over the development of New York City is part of the allure Robert Moses holds for historians, writers and filmmakers. The subject of Jones Beach's history, along with that of Coney Island, is part of a new exhibition at the Long Island Museum of Art, History, and Carriages. Additionally, Moses is the latest subject to fall under the eye of provocative director Oliver Stone, who is working on a biopic for HBO.
Photo courtesy of MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archives.
Hopefully, Stone concentrates on Moses’ construction of Jones Beach, which could be considered one of his highest achievements. Nature itself seemed to stand in the way of Jones Beach being realized as Moses conceived it.
August 6, 1934 shot of Commissioner Robert Moses and officials at Jones Beach, Long Island. Credit: Alajos L Schusler, New York City Parks Photo Archive, neg. 36501-1.
One of the primary natural obstacles Moses faced is that Jones Beach is built on a barrier island. The engineers that surveyed the beach discovered that the mean level of the beach was two feet above ocean level. This meant that in order to construct buildings and roads on Jones Beach, large sections of land would have to be raised to 14 feet above sea level. While this task was technically possible, the amount of hydraulic fill needed to accomplish it was immense as well as expensive.
However, Moses gave the go-ahead and soon dredges were working the bay, pumping as much hydraulic fill into the spit of sand as possible. Unfortunately, the sand from the bottom of the bay proved to be incredibly fine, blowing away at the slightest breeze.
Moses' team realized that beach grasses were needed to secure the sand. The beach grass needed to be planted by hand, in large quantities, and the cost of this process should have been prohibitive. Once again, Moses pressed forward, not allowing cost to sway his plans. However, after the beach was expanded and the grass was planted, Moses found he had spent all the money allocated to the entire Long Island park system on Jones Beach. This is when his method of "driving the stake" proved to be useful.
The most brazen example of "driving the stake" occurred during the construction of the Jones Beach bathhouses. The plans Moses had drawn up were amazing in their detail, but included very expensive material—Moses wanted to use Ohio sandstone and Barbizon brick for all the stonework. The engineers and architects associated with the project gave an estimate for the bathhouses at one million dollars a piece. Moses only had $150,000 for both.
Instead of changing the plans to match the reality of his budget, Moses spent the entire allocation on the foundation for just one of the bathhouses. He then invited the senators in charge of funding for the project to view the progress; they were greeted with a stark landscape and a foundation. However, such a vast sum had already been spent on the project that they had no choice but to give Moses the cash he needed to finish. No politician wanted to go to the tax-paying public with nothing but a pile of sand to show.
The case of the bathhouses is only one illustration of Moses' manipulation, but his tactics can be found in the plans for every aspect of the project. Another example was his plan to lower all bridge overpasses to keep out buses and, therefore, those not able to afford cars; yet another was his insistence that the water tower resemble not a can on four sticks but the St. Mark's Campanile in Venice.
PHOTO BYDan Mccoy/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
These days many beachgoers in the New York metro area have no idea who Robert Moses was or the power he exercised over New York, and it will likely be surprising to learn that many bucolic features of their lives, such as beaches and parks, were built by a master manipulator who wasn’t afraid to gather and use power any way he could. Hopefully, the new film project by Oliver Stone and the exhibition at the Long Island Museum of Art, History and Carriages will shed some needed light on Robert Moses.