Ruff, Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses (Review)

Reviews

Joshua Ruff on Christopher Verga, Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses: The Fight for a National Seashore (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2019), 126 pp., Notes, Bibliography, Soft Cover $21.99.

Soon after Robert Caro’s The Power Broker was published in 1974, 86-year-old Robert Moses wrote an extraordinary 23-page rebuttal to the Pulitzer Prize winning biography that had indicted him. “Critics are ex-post facto prophets who can tell how everything should have been done at a time when they were in diapers, in rompers or invisible,” he wrote. For a man who seemed to anticipate so much, Moses may not have envisioned that his prolific implementation of parks, parkways, and public housing, would continue to be the source of handwringing debate nearly 50 years after Caro’s masterpiece. In December of 2019, New York State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell introduced a bill to change the name of Robert Moses State Park, gesturing to the master builder’s many controversies (the bill failed to gain legislative support).

Many historians have explored episodes in which regional communities fought back against Moses’ proposed construction projects. Works such as Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson’s Robert Moses and the Modern City (2007) and Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses (2009) have examined the challenges to the builder’s power in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, culminating with his losing battles with Jane Jacobs, grassroots community activists, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses, Christopher Verga has turned eastward to examine the battle that Moses engaged in to extend Ocean Parkway through the center of Fire Island and the successful coalition of residents, area politicians, and the Department of the Interior, that blocked his project, preserved beachfront communities, and created a new national seashore.

The first half of Verga’s book repeats the familiar story of Moses’s rise to power as a reformer in the early 1920s and his successes at wielding the levers of power through the late 1950s. The book also neatly examines the history of the 17 developing Fire Island communities, each with their own unique identities, and the fragile and wonderful environmental ecosystem that surrounds them. Verga points out that even as Moses succeeded in building his parkway system on the mainland, he encountered opposition to his plans for Ocean Parkway with barrier island residents in the 1920s. Eventually using the devastation of Fire Island from the Hurricane of 1938 as a rationale for his “dune-preserving” parkway, Moses lost this early episode primarily due to concerns of cost to taxpayers.

However, Verga writes that the proposal for the Fire Island Ocean Parkway extension was never really completely out of Moses’s mind, and another hurricane in 1962 brought it back to the fore. The author is at his best detailing the organization of the grassroots movement, looking at the crucial summer of 1962, which “Fire Island vacationers and homeowners feared…would be their last season on an unspoiled island.” Two talented activist residents, Maurice Barbash, a homebuilder, and Irving Like, a lawyer, “sketched…(their) ideas on a napkin,” much the way that Moses had once his initial scrawled plans for Jones Beach. Barbash led community town hall meetings to promote the national seashore and argue against the extension of Ocean Parkway. Pins, stickers, and hand-painted signs were made, door-to-door canvassing was executed, and prewritten letters of support for Fire Island National Seashore, intended to be sent to state and federal politicians, were distributed. At the first public hearing for the proposed road, on July 10, 1962, at the Jones Beach West Bathhouse, more than 1,000 protesters showed up, carrying signs reading “Ban the Beep” and singing Pete Seeger-influenced songs like “I isn’t a-gonna study roads no more.” Moses and his engineers adjourned the meeting after just 20 minutes. Verga indicates that this and other episodes gradually led to Moses beginning to lose his grip over positive media and newspaper coverage, leading to the establishment of the national park, dedicated in 1964.

The book’s epilogue closes with discussions of current threats to Fire Island’s habitat and communities – climate change, potential offshore drilling in the Atlantic – tempered by area efforts to promote both environmental and historic preservation. In 2013, the Cherry Grove Community House and Cherry Grove Theater were each listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A push to gain UNESCO World Heritage site status for Fire Island is also described. Verga clearly believes that today’s advocacy has been inspired – and will hopefully continue to be – by those who stood strong more than 50 years ago to protect a culturally and environmentally unique place against Moses’s blueprints and bulldozers.

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