Fifty years ago this week, the New York World’s Fair opened—and by the end of the week I was fired for writing about demonstrations on its opening day protesting racism.
“Mr. Moses called and is very upset with you,” Wilson Stringer, vice president of the Sunrise Press newspapers, told me. “You’re fired.”
Robert Moses had been the public works czar of the New York area for decades. He ran to be the state’s governor in 1934, and suffered a then record two-to-one defeat. So he amassed power instead by creating state commissions and authorities which he ran.
He pushed the building of parks, a good thing, but also the unbridled construction of bridges, tunnels and highways—highways that shattered traditional neighborhoods and tied up the New York area with loops of roads like the Long Island Expressway, often dubbed the world’s longest parking lot, at the cost of a balanced system of mass transportation. Moses loved the automobile.
It was a road project that Moses announced in 1962 that first caused me to tangle with him. He unveiled a scheme to build a four-lane highway on Fire Island which would have paved over much of the nature and communities on the narrow 32-mile-long ribbon of sand east of New York City. He claimed the highway would “anchor” Fire Island and protect it from storms.
It was my first week on my first job as a reporter for the Babylon Town Leader, a newspaper in the village where Moses lived. He had just announced the Fire Island project.
The Leader for decades had challenged Moses and his projects—quite unlike most of the daily papers in New York City which Moses, as notes the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on him, The Power Broker by Robert Caro, long had in his pocket.
I began writing story after story in the Leader about the impacts of the proposed Moses highway on Fire Island. We pointed out, too, how the highway Moses built to the west, along Jones Beach, rather than anchoring the beach needed to be regularly bolstered with sand pushed along its edges by bulldozers working at night.
Moses had so much power in New York State he seemed unstoppable. So those endeavoring to save Fire Island turned to the federal government—a Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore was started. U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall visited Fire Island and embraced the seashore idea.
Also, conservation-oriented Laurance Rockefeller, brother of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, became chairman of the state Council of Parks in 1963 and liked the seashore concept.
Moses was furious. He confronted the governor insisting that the Fire Island highway must happen and that Rockefeller put a lid on his brother—or he would resign his commission and authority posts. Seemingly he thought New York State would fall apart without him. In this collision, Moses quit his various public positions.
A Fire Island National Seashore, happily, was established in 1964.
Moses, meanwhile, remained in charge of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.
In 1964, the Babylon Town Leader was bought by the Sunrise Press newspaper chain.
At the Leader I also covered the civil rights struggle then happening on Long Island. I went to the World’s Fair opening day to report on protests led by the then leading activist civil rights organization in the region, the Congress of Racial Equality, protesting racism in hiring by the Fair and racism in general in the New York area.
All the Sunrise Press newspapers ran as a front-page piece the article I wrote about the demonstrators and their being bludgeoned by the Fair’s Pinkerton officers. My photos on this accompanied the piece.
But no longer did I have the protection when it came to Moses which I had with the Leader under its former management. Moses complained and I was promptly fired.
I placed ads beginning: “Reporter fired because of Robert Moses.” I got another job, at the daily Long Island Press. Moses’ power over much of the area’s press was reconfirmed on my first day there. An editor told me: “Now you understand you’re never to write a story about Moses or any agency he headed.” I was hired to cover police and courts and asked what was to be done if there is a fatal auto accident on one of the highways managed by one of Moses’ former agencies. “Have another reporter write it,” he advised.
Moses is dead. Fire Island has been preserved. The New York World’s Fair is a memory—most of it quickly bulldozed down after it closed.