Did Robert Moses “Head Fake” Brooklyn Heights?

The received wisdom is that Robert Moses was determined to route the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through Brooklyn Heights, following the route of Hicks Street, staying roughly on the course it had taken through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, but that heroic resistance by Heights residents convinced him to try the innovative plan (where have we heard that lately?) of building a cantilevered highway on the side of the bluff below the Heights, with a Promenade on top.

That’s all wrong, according to Thomas J. Campanella, in New York Magazine’s “Intelligencer”. Mr. Campanella, associate professor of city planning at Cornell University and historian-in-residence of the New York City Parks Department, contends that Moses never seriously intended for the BQE to follow the Hicks Street route, instead preferring a route paralleling Furman Street. Still, he was angry with the Heights because residents here enlisted the aid of Eleanor Roosevelt to oppose his plan for a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, which they regarded as a potential eyesore, and forced him to build a tunnel instead. To get revenge, he posted surveyors with theodolites along Hicks, prompting an alarmed headline in the Brooklyn Heights Press. His other intention was to get approval for his proposal to top his cantilevered highway with a promenade that would be part of the public park system. The idea of a public promenade there had been proposed several times before, but Columbia Heights residents had always opposed it.

So, should the story of the brave Heights resistance leading to Moses’ revising his highway plan join the lovely tale of Miss Middagh’s renaming of the Fruit Streets as fake history?

Photo: Teresa Genaro

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  • aarrrrrimapirate

    It seems that Furman always was the original plan, but I don’t actually see any evidence (and I look forward to reading more when the book comes out) that Moses “hoodwink” residents via the Hicks St. survey. All Campanella’s argument for the hookwink is

    “In all likelihood, Moses ordered the Hicks Street survey simply to provoke the Heights, fanning its worst-case fears so that almost any alternative would be embraced by relieved and grateful residents.”

    Call me crazy, but I think a survey of surrounding streets is well within the scope of a large scale engineering project that it was. I’m not defending the guy, but the “Moses Bad” trope is tiring.

  • CassieVonMontague

    I enjoyed the article. I look forward to buying the book.

    It reminded me of a story Pete on Willow St used to tell. She heard about this woman who was buying up property to keep Robert Moses from tearing it down. She asked her father who the woman was, and her dad told her it was Gladys James. Pete, in disbelief, asked her father how this woman had enough money to buy all this property, and her dad said, “because her maiden name is on that typewriter over there” and pointed to the Underwood typewriter in the room.

    I make no claims about the truth of the story, but it’s a good one. Pete also used to say that Gladys was “buried” in Pierrepont Playground. I assume she meant her ashes were deposited there.

  • Michael

    This is really more of an ends vs means discussion, no? Can Mr fancy pants historian say definitively that the influence of the Brooklyn heights folks played no part? Especially in light of forcing the tunnel?

  • Nomcebo Manzini

    Pretty flimsy i.m.h.o., too.

    For all that RM “held sway” for quite some time in quite a few areas, like many a bureaucrat before and since, sometimes he over-reached.

    Just as the current fracas – and the variety of choices that have been advanced – is colored by financial considerations (that is, imagine if everyone agreed what the best solution in terms of aesthetics, safety, environment, etc. was … but that it was 3-10x as expensive as the next best – seems to me it’d be an uphill battle), I find it easier to imagine that the tunnel was simpler and cheaper.

    What it lacked, obviously, was the kind of “signature” element that the Tappan Zee replacement with the name Cuomo on it has!

    I’m sure the Verrazano looks great to many who see it from their windows; I know I feel that way about the 3/4 of the Brooklyn Bridge I see from mine.

    But mostly – by the 1950’s, does one really believe that some kind of Columbia Heights “aristocracy” had that much power??

    (I refer to the bridge/tunnel decision.) As for the higher visibility question of the cantilevered “solution,” I believe that THEN – and now, too – when the likes of the BHA can effectively get 95% support from Brooklyn Heights – i.e., no ordinary thing – a clubby City Council or whatever often ducks a monster fight, if only because lawsuits look to turn such a proposal into a 10-year cliffhanger. Builders prefer building to litigating.