7 Ways Robert Moses Changed Brooklyn
Despite never holding elected office, Robert Moses dominated the city planning process in New York from the early '30s to the late '60s. Moses' impact on Brooklyn was wide-ranging; "The Power Broker" was responsible for major infrastructure projects like the BQE and establishing Brooklyn icons like the aquarium at Coney Island.
1. Brooklyn Heights Promenade
While Moses did not hesitate to build highways through existing neighborhoods elsewhere in the city, often ruffling feathers and displacing residents, he succumbed to intense local opposition numerous times. One of those times concerned a plan to route the Brooklyn Queens Expressway through the heart of Brooklyn Heights in the years during World War II, which residents fiercely opposed.
As a compromise, what resulted was a stretch of bi-level highway with the promenade serving both as a destination, offering views of Manhattan and New York Harbor, and as a way to muffle highway noise for what’s historically been Brooklyn’s wealthiest neighborhood.
The promenade opened to the public in 1950. These days, its clear Manhattan views and proximity to Brooklyn Bridge Park make it a value-booster not just for the landmarked brownstones along Columbia Heights, but also for commercial assets. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sold 124 Columbia Heights, a 152k SF residential building that adjoins the promenade, for $105M this past April.
2. Brooklyn's Parks
Robert Moses’ influence can be seen in nearly all of Brooklyn’s public parks, big and small. In 1934, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia consolidated all five borough Parks Departments and created a unified Department of Parks for New York City, headed, of course, by Moses.
In just the first few years of its existence, the new department built hundreds of playgrounds, three zoos, 10 golf courses and various recreational buildings. During his time at the department, Moses also tore down many of the beloved Olmstead and Vaux-designed buildings in older parks, especially Prospect Park, replacing them with drab, utilitarian concrete facilities.
When Moses stepped down as Park Commissioner in 1964, he’d overseen the construction of roughly 600 new playgrounds, the renovation of 17 miles of beaches and increased overall park acreage by roughly 20,000 acres, much of that in Brooklyn.
3. Cutting Off Brooklyn From Long Island
Most people these days tend to take Long Island’s relationship with Brooklyn, transportation-wise at least, for granted. You can take the LIRR out and catch a taxi to your final destination, or you can drive.
This is, in large part, another aspect of Robert Moses’ legacy. Moses was so convinced that cars were the wave of the future that he purposefully undermined any and all attempts to expand mass transit options in Long Island, even going so far as to engineer the footings of the LIE to be too light to build light rail alongside it in the future. It would’ve been easy, cost effective and given Brooklyn’s residents much easier access to Long Island’s beaches, but Moses “was determined not to allow mass transit,” Robert Caro, author of the Moses biography The Power Broker, recently told Gothamist.
Moses also purposefully built all of the overpass bridges that he oversaw in Long Island—nearly 200—too low to allow buses to pass under them. Moses, a virulent racist, saw the measure as an effective way to keep the poorer residents of Brooklyn and Queens out of Long Island beaches like his coveted Jones Beach project.
4. Public Housing
When Mayor William O’Dwyer was elected in 1946 after Mayor La Guardia’s retirement, Robert Moses was finally given full power over public housing in the city, something he’d sought but never attained under La Guardia.
By 1959, Moses had overseen the construction of 28,000 public housing units on hundreds of acres of land, many of which were in Brooklyn. The Albany Houses, Walt Whitman Houses, Gowanus Houses, Williamsburg Houses (pictured) and Red Hook Houses were all Moses projects, as were housing towers in Coney Island, Brownsville and elsewhere.
By building many of those projects along Brooklyn’s waterfronts, Moses also contributed to the concentration of the borough’s poor along the coastline, a state of affairs that’s only begun to change significantly in the last decade or so.
Moses also spearheaded the adoption of the “towers in the park” layout for public housing projects, which emphasized large grassy areas in between buildings, to give the completed project a more “open” feel.
5. Brooklyn's Expressways
Robert Moses was an outspoken advocate of cars his entire life, believing firmly that they—and not subways or other forms of mass transit—were the transportation system of the future.
Much of what he did throughout his time as New York’s chief city planner and master builder centered on making New York more easily driveable, and he was more than willing to displace residents and destroy entire neighborhoods to achieve that goal.
In Brooklyn, Moses was responsible for all the borough’s major highways: the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Belt Parkway, the Prospect Expressway and the Interborough Parkway, later renamed the Jackie Robinson Expressway. In response to Moses’ fierce insistence that the latter run through a large swath of what was then a graveyard, architect Robert A.M. Stern joked that “Moses wouldn’t even let the dead rest.”
While his goals may have been a bit skewed and his methods were often highly destructive, for better or for worse, Moses’ vision will shape the driving experience in Brooklyn for generations to come.
6. Brooklyn's Public Pools
Robert Moses was a bit of a swimming fanatic, and when he finally retired, it was swimming—at Manhattan’s Colonie Hill Health Club—that filled the void left by giving up city planning.
Given that, it should come as no surprise that Moses found a way to combine his love of swimming with his love of city planning, by opening 11 massive public pools throughout the city. Four of those, Betsy Head Pool (pictured), McCarren Pool, Red Hook Pool and Sunset Pool, were in Brooklyn and continue to provide the borough’s residents with relief from sweltering New York summers to this day.
7. The New York Aquarium At Coney Island
The New York Aquarium at Coney Island would’ve still been in Manhattan’s Castle Clinton neighborhood if it weren’t for Robert Moses.
The move came out of Moses’ proposal to build a bridge between Brooklyn and Battery Park, which would’ve decimated Battery Park. Despite being opposed by almost every interest group imaginable, including Wall Street players, La Guardia, Gov. Herbert Lehman and many others, Moses was almost able to ramrod the bridge into existence. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to order the War Department to declare the bridge a national security liability (saying if it were bombed, it would prevent access to the Navy Yard) in order to prevent its construction.
Thwarted, Moses retaliated by dismantling the New York Aquarium on Castle Clinton and moving it to Coney Island. He explained the move by arguing disingenuously that a tunnel, his only option for a trans-river crossing after the bridge proposal had been deep-sixed, would undermine Castle Clinton’s foundations. Today the aquarium continues to thrive in its new home, and recently underwent a $127M renovation.