Reaching the Beach

Jones Beach, 1937 (

There’s a long winter ahead but let’s jump forward, past the winter break and spring semester, to the summer time. Jones Beach State Park has been a popular getaway for New Yorkers since it’s opening in 1929, drawing 6 million of sunbathers, surfers and boaters every year. But for the vast majority of 1930s New Yorkers without cars, gaining access to this beach could be a challenge. A set of infrastructural impediments discouraged lower income and African American beach goers from reaching the Jones Beach.

Builders introduced grasses to hold beach sand together (flikr)

Jones Beach was the first major project completed by the young Park Commission President Robert Moses. When he first began setting plans for the park in motion, the 10-mile strip at the south coast of Nassau County was literally a swamp. The sand stood just 2-feet above sea level and would submerge completely during storms. Strong winds made the loose sand bite skin and eyes. As the beach was developed, designers added height to the beach and introduced grasses with strong root systems to hold the sand in place.
But when the park opened it became clear that not everyone was welcome. According to Sidney M. Shapiro, an engineer working closely with Moses, he was ordered to build low bridges across the Wantagh and Meadowbrook Sate Parkways, blocking access to the beach by bus.

According to the mandates of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a Long Island bus needs a minimum of 14’6’’ of clearance to pass underneath. The stone bridges that choke the Parkways give a clearance of only 7’9’’ and 12’1’’ at their highest points. When it was proposed that the Long Island Railroad add a branch to Jones Beach allowing visitors to come by train, Moses vetoed.

One of the many bridges hanging 3 feet too low to allow bus travel (screen capture from google streetview, Meadowbrook State Parkway, Nassau County)

By limiting access by public transportation and by adding fees to parking (unusual for state parks at the time), Moses was able to discourage beach visitors along class lines. To limit access for African Americans who Moses regarded as “dirty” (according to Shapiro), Moses employed only white lifeguards in the most popular areas and assigned all black lifeguards to the least developed areas. This tactic imposed an unofficial but powerful segregating force on the beach itself.

Today, Long Island Bus service to Jones Beach is available from June through September along the same routes that still run under the same low bridges. It’s difficult to understand how a bus could fit under such a short bridge but it’s also difficult to get any information about the bus service so far before the summer service begins. It’s possible that the Jones Beach service uses special smaller shuttles to reach the beach.

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