Robert Moses was well known as a bigot during his lifetime. But there has always been some question about a story Robert Caro told in his 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker. In his book, Caro said that Moses deliberately designed the bridges along Long Island's Southern State Parkway too low for buses to keep "those people" out of Jones Beach.
Well, Cornell historian Thomas J. Campanella has analyzed data from the era and concluded...Caro was probably right:
There is little question that Moses held patently bigoted views. But to what extent were those prejudices embedded in his public works? Very much so, according to Caro, who described Moses as “the most racist human being I had ever really encountered.” The evidence is legion: minority neighborhoods bulldozed for urban renewal projects; simian-themed details in a Harlem playground; elaborate attempts to discourage non-whites from certain parks and pools. He complained of his works sullied by “that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.”
But Moses was complex. He gave Harlem a glorious pool and play center—now Jackie Robinson Park—one of the best public works of the New Deal era anywhere in the United States.
And contrary to a claim in The Power Broker, Moses clearly meant buses to serve his “little Jones Beach” in the Rockaways—Jacob Riis Park. While oriented mainly toward motorists (the parking lot was once the largest in the world), it is simply not true that New Yorkers without cars were excluded. The original site plan included bus drop-off zones, and photographs from the era plainly show buses loading and unloading passengers.
Limiting my search to only those arched stone or brick-clad structures in place or under construction when Moses began work on the Southern State, I recorded clearances for a total of 20 bridges, viaducts and overpasses: 7 on the Bronx River Parkway (completed in 1925); 6 on the initial portion of the Saw Mill River Parkway (1926) and 7 on the Hutchinson River Parkway (begun in 1924 and opened in 1927). I then took measure of the 20 original bridges and overpasses on the Southern State Parkway, from its start at the city line in Queens to the Wantagh Parkway, the first section to open (on November 7, 1927) and the portion used to reach Jones Beach. The verdict? It appears that Sid Shapiro was right.
Overall, clearances are substantially lower on the Moses parkway, averaging just 2.73 m (eastbound), against 3.08 m on the Hutchinson and 3.13 m on the Saw Mill. Even on the Bronx River Parkway—a road championed by an infamous racist, Madison Grant, author of the 1916 best seller The Passing of the Great Race—clearances averaged 2.94 m.
It's a very pretty road. But clearly, Moses didn't intend it for the masses.