Robert Moses' Low Parkway Bridges
During the summer New Yorkers flock to the beaches on Long Island using the network of parkways and highways designed by Master Planner Robert Moses. Occasionally there are reports of accidents when trucks or buses hit one of the low overpasses. Two years ago a bus full of high school students plowed into a low bridge on the Southern State Parkway. The Parkway was planned in 1925 by Moses to improve access for motorists to his newly constructed Jones Beach. Sid Shapiro, one of Moses’ closest associates, speaks to the construction of the bridges in the iconic 1974 Moses biography The Power Broker, ”too low for buses to pass. Bus trips, therefore had to be made on local roads, making the trips discouragingly long and arduous. For Negroes, whom he considered inherently "dirty," there were further measures. Buses needed permits to enter state parks; buses chartered by Negro groups found it very difficult to obtain permits, particularly to Moses' beloved Jones Beach." (p318) This anecdote has been widely repeated, but what is its validity?
Last year Cornell professor Thomas Campanella evaluated this claim, going as far as to compare measurements of bridge heights with other parkways from the period. Campanella notes the bridges were copied from earlier Westchester County parkways which also had low bridges. Further, Campanella points out the intention of these parkways, "as leisure and recreation infrastructure—park before way—commercial traffic was excluded on all the early American parkways. This meant not only trucks but buses. Banning big, noisy commercial vehicles was essential to the aesthetics of the parkway, and had nothing to do with racial discrimination." Campanella tested Shapiro's claims by comparing bridge heights on the Southern State to the earlier parkways that proceeded and influenced their design. He found that the Southern State bridges were substantially lower averaging just 107.6 inches (eastbound) with four under 8 feet tall.
While there may not be definitive proof, the verification that the Southern State bridges are substantially lower, Caro's anecdotal evidence from Sid Shapiro and Moses' successful attempt to prevent the Long Island Railroad from constructing a line to Jones Beach all make it clear that Moses likely ordered the bridge heights lowered to keep lower-income and minority New Yorkers from accessing Jones Beach. The example is one of many built environment strategies used by planners to racially discriminate.