“Saving Fire Island From Robert Moses, The Fight For A National Seashore” is the title of a just-published book by Christopher Verga. It’s about the historic battle to prevent public works czar Moses from building a four-lane highway the length of that ribbon of sand, paving paradise just off Long Island’s southern coast.
Reading the book by Professor Verga, who teaches Long Island history at Suffolk County Community College, brought back memories of a long time ago.
I’m a part of the book, but it’s a story that goes far beyond me — a tale of environmental success that has since served as a model for other environmental battles. To stop the would-be Moses highway, the National Seashore was created and Fire Island was saved. It’s a story, too, of how three relatively small newspapers that challenged the Moses highway had an essential part in this success.
Professor Verga writes: “When local politicians tried to block his projects, Moses used the media … Moses would silence any dissent that stemmed from rogue reporting, which could have threatened his power or overall vision.”
An example of Moses’ style of retribution, the author writes, “was his retaliation against reporter Karl Grossman. In 1964, Grossman wrote an article in the Babylon Leader comparing Moses’ treatment of civil rights protesters at his World’s Fair to Bull Connors, and in response, Moses got Grossman fired from his job.”
Central to Moses’ concerns were ever more highways and cars, although he didn’t drive, but was chauffeured. For years he sought a road on Fire Island, although he kept his plans secret. Then came a big storm in 1962 and Moses had his rationale; a highway would “anchor” Fire Island, he claimed. Media, including “Newsday, The New York Times … and all other popular newspapers were under the influence of Moses and advocated support for his projects. The only local paper that had been strongly critical of Robert Moses was the Babylon Leader,” the author writes.
For decades the Leader had been taking on Mr. Moses, a resident of Babylon. In 1962, at the age of 20, I showed up at the Leader for my first job as a reporter and was assigned to go to Fire Island that weekend and write an article about the just-announced highway.
This front-page piece was to be the first of many articles. Professor Verga writes how I “became the first to report on the resistance” to the road and stayed on the story. He notes how the Leader was joined by Joseph Jahn’s Suffolk County News in Sayville and Paul Townsend’s Long Island Commercial Review. At times, we published the same article together.
Professor Verga: “These allies in the press soon began to make a difference. Babylon Leader’s Karl Grossman reported the story that made one of the biggest impacts by not just swaying mainlanders’ perspectives on the road through Fire Island but also challenging their trust in Moses. Grossman reported that during the twilight hours, Moses would routinely secretly replace sand that eroded along the Ocean Parkway [on the Jones Beach stretch to the west of Fire Island] after coastal storms. This story debunked Moses’ original claim that a parkway could anchor shifting and eroding dunes. The only problem was that Grossman’s story gained the attention of only the three papers that supported the cause.”
But then, Professor Verga goes on, attorney Irving Like who, with his brother-in-law Maurice Barbash, were leaders of the Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore, brought a lawsuit to uncover how much money was being spent to keep Ocean Parkway in place.
He describes how U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall embraced the idea of a Fire Island National Seashore — and was Mr. Moses mad at him! Also, Laurance Rockefeller, founder of the American Conservation Association and chairman of the State Council of Parks, began speaking out about how a Fire Island highway “would conflict with conservation” — and was Mr. Moses mad at him!
“Moses demanded that Governor [Nelson] Rockefeller silence [his brother] Laurance’s criticism,” notes Dr. Verga. The governor would not. “Moses, the most powerful person in New York, had met his match.” He reacted by quitting state positions, although holding on to running the 1964-1965 World’s Fair.
My article and photos taken on the World’s Fair opening day of its private guards brutally attacking Long Island civil rights activists protesting racism in hiring at the World’s Fair ran in the Babylon Leader, which months before had been bought out by a chain, and also appeared in the chain’s other newspapers.
But I was no longer protected by the Leader’s former editor and its publisher. Mr. Moses complained to the chain’s New York City-based management and I got fired. I’ve nicely survived and, most importantly, Fire Island remains a beautiful, special, magical place.