‘Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses’
SUFFOLK COUNTY—Local historian Chris Verga visited the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library on Saturday, March 23, to discuss his new book, “Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses: The Fight for a National Seashore.”
Verga, a professor at Suffolk County Community College, spoke about Robert Moses, his larger-than-life persona and decades-long plan to build a highway across Fire Island. Verga noted the strong support for the parkway among special-interest groups. The president of Long Island’s real estate board supported the roadway and encouraged real estate owners to sell their stocks of land to the state. For reference, Moses held over a dozen appointed state positions.
The local chamber of commerce also published editorials saying that construction of a parkway and accessibility to the oceanfront would raise property values across the South Shore. Some landowners, however, held out and promised a lengthy court battle.
In the 1950s, Fire Island attracted artists, writers and other creative types. But it also attracted the growing middle class that developed environmental consciousness when it came to Fire Island.
Verga spoke about late local figures like Maurice Barbash and Irving Like, who were “inspired by landscapes and individualistic communities not dependent on cars.” Verga noted that Barbash became “emotionally and financially engaged” when he purchased Dunewood, 100 homes clustered together to maximize community green space.
Barbash contacted every local group that would benefit from the preservation of Fire Island, communicated the urgency of what would be lost to a roadway and used everyone’s skill sets to fight the project, according to Verga.
Barbash and Like realized, from the beginning, that the only way to protect Fire Island would be to acquire national park status, which would “democratize the natural beauty of the island for everyone.”
The efforts eventually led to President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Fire Island National Seashore bill on Sept. 11, 1964, making 33 miles of Fire Island a national park.
Moses also succumbed to public pressure and resigned from five state posts, including chairman of the state Power Authority, chairman of the state Park Council, and president of the Long Island State Parks Commission.
Verga went on to say that the fight for Fire Island continues. He has personally written in support of Fire Island becoming a World Heritage site. The designation doesn’t impose regulations, but rather promotes the preservation of a given area that the world can appreciate and further understand.
There are 10 criteria to be named a World Heritage site, but only one is needed. Verga believes Fire Island’s natural beauty and championing of human rights, particularly amongst the LGBTQ community, are two examples.
Like, who was also instrumental in preventing the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, was also trying to drum up support for the designation right up until his death last year.
Many U.S. national parks, like the Grand Canyon, are designated sites due to their natural resources. The Statue of Liberty, on the other hand, is designated as a cultural unit. Some of the world’s most famous cities, from Berlin and Venice, to Damascus and Mexico City, are also designated sites.
Towards the end of the lecture, the conversation between Verga and the crowd shifted to Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” which was published in 1974 and is considered one of the most famous works on Moses.
Verga praised Caro’s writing, not just on Moses, but his ongoing biographical series on President Johnson. “The Power Broker” runs about 1,300 pages and sheds a critical light on the New York metropolitan area’s “master builder,” but also leaves absent the battle for Fire Island. The omission is possibly a result of the book’s editor, who called for the final manuscript to be shortened. Verga joked that with his new book, he was trying to “fill in the holes.”
Verga previously spoke at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library about his book, “Civil Rights on Long Island.” This publication reported on that event in the article, “Local historian discusses civil rights on Long Island,” published on Nov. 23, 2017.
Chris Verga’s “Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses: The Fight for a National Seashore,” is currently available on Amazon and store shelves.
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