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Monday, May 5, 2014

Robert Moses and Buses at the Beach

The Orchard Beach Criterium
The blue columns of the bus terminal are visible in the background
Last weekend, my family stopped by Orchard Beach after brunch out on City Island. We spent a little time watching the Orchard Beach Criterium bike races, and then my son and I walked over to look at the bus terminal. The Orchard Beach bus terminal is a place I like to visit from time to time, because it isn't supposed to exist. Anybody who has ever heard of Robert Moses knows that he banned buses from his beaches to discriminate against the poor, right?
What most people know about Robert Moses are the stories Robert Caro wrote. Caro referred to Orchard Beach throughout The Powerbroker, his sprawling book about Moses, including nearly three pages describing the beach's development. He never mentions the bus terminal. Instead, he wrote:
During the 1930’s, Robert Moses reshaped the face of the greatest city in the New World… He laid great swaths of concrete across it. He made it grayer, not only with his highways but with parking fields, like the one on Randall’s Island that held 4,000 cars, the one at Orchard Beach that held 8,000 and the one at Jacob Riis Park that held 9,000, that together covered with asphalt a full square mile of the 319 in the city. (p. 508)
That’s true enough. Orchard Beach has a huge parking lot. It's a vast expanse of asphalt (not concrete…) that is unbroken by any form of landscaping. Caro's allegations are quite clear, though; Moses built beaches for affluent residents with cars while prohibiting transit to discourage the poor from going. This story comes back over and over again throughout the book. A couple of examples:
…he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low-too low for buses to pass. (p. 318) 
…enough of his Henry Hudson Parkway bridges were going to have a maximum headroom of thirteen feet and a headroom at the curb of eleven feet so that usage of the parkway by buses-which were exactly thirteen feet high-would be impractical. (p. 546)
His allegations about Jones Beach and the connecting parkways are famous. Yet none of it is really true. What is surprising is how prevalent these tall tales have remained with so many glaring problems. For example, buses are not "exactly thirteen feet high," and nobody with even a passing familiarity with vertical clearances for buses could take this writing seriously. The clearance at the Holland Tunnel, to cite one example, is 11'6". Buses have used the Holland Tunnel continuously for many decades.

Observing real life, rather than Caro's tales, it is alway fascinating to look at the transit facilities Moses actually created at his beaches. The bus terminal at Orchard Beach was visibly deteriorating from decades of weather and insufficient maintenance, yet the design was still clear. The facility was laid out to create a sense of arrival and departure while efficiently and economically moving throngs of beach goers. The little terminal was under renovation, finally getting some attention to extend its useful life to greet future generations to the drama of Orchard Beach.




   

Orchard Beach is not Moses's only beachside bus facilities. Jones Beach has a similar terminal. Some of my favorite bus stops are those installed in Rockaway Park in Queens by Moses. Unfortunately, those shelters are no longer served by buses.

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