Jones Beach is a place of contradiction. A barrier island just off Long Island, in the summer, it’s saturated with humanity at its sun-burnt, fake-coconut-smelling, sand-encrusted worst. But when the days get shorter and the world turns colder, it becomes a haven for wildlife; sandpipers and sparrows, diving ducks and falcons. Where the sea meets the land, it’s the last stop for terrestrial migrants bound eastward and the beginning of the world for birds of deep water, besides being a great place for those chronic edge-dwellers the shorebirds. It owes its existence to Robert Moses. Robert Moses is the reason I have never been there.
Let me drop a little history on you. Robert Moses, the subject of the highly-regarded biographical doorstop The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and the gonzo time-travel novel The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx, was one of the most influential urban planners of the 20th century. He had a deep and abiding love of roads and road-centric landscapes – big, skyline-altering expressways, bridges, and especially parkways.
Parkway wasn’t just a fancy word for highway with a grass shoulder to Moses, oh no. He saw them literally as parks for driving through – places where the newly-enautomobilulated middle class could enjoy wholesome recreation by getting out of the city and cruising around looking at greenery. Nowadays, in the throes of global warming, surrounded by air pollution and roadkill tragedies, this seems more than a bit stupid. But for Moses, formed in a world where cars were more toy than tool, it was a logical extension of taking the family coach-and-four out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon.
So, for all his venality, I give Moses credit for sincerely wanting his parkways to be beautiful. This meant preserving greenery (although with no understanding of edge effects and the impact of exhaust.) It meant taking landscape architecture principals at least semi-seriously. It meant setting aside places like Jones Beach for public use. It also, for Robert Moses, meant going to tremendous pains to ensure that the “public” using his marvelous works didn’t include the unsightly urban poor. So Moses starved, strangled, and blocked public transit wherever he could. He ran expressways through city neighborhoods without regard for either the homes demolished or pedestrian access to the surviving bits of community.
And, specifically, when the Long Island Railroad proposed running a service to Jones Beach, Moses fought them, and won.
So, today, more than a quarter-century after Moses’ death, if you want to go to Jones Beach, you must take a car. Or, if you are crazy and suicidal ambitious, you can try to bike, which the IT and I did, only to find out (after several hours of riding and very few birds, several of which, including a Glossy Ibis*, were dead along the roads) that the one and only bike path was closed for repairs just where it crossed the water. The only option for reaching Jones Beach, from that point, was the parkway, covered, as its creator intended, in speeding cars.
I wanted to see the Dunlin and the Clay-colored Sparrow and the American Golden Plover, all of which had been reported this week from the west end of Jones Beach, real bad. But not bad enough to die trying. We turned back**.
Oddly enough, Robert Moses and I have one thing in common. He never learned to drive, either.
*or for all I know it could have been a White-faced. Sort of hard to tell without the head.
**The IT, in a desperate attempt to salvage the day, tried to find a car rental place so we could partake of the parkway properly, but they were all closed.