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WaPo walks back fact check that Buttigieg was right on 'racist infrastructure'

"I'm still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that" if a highway "was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices," said Buttigieg.

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Hannah Nightingale Washington DC
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On Wednesday, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler dove into claims made by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that a Long Island parkway overpasses were constructed at their lower height for the sole reason of keeping lower-income people and families of color out of beaches and parks on Long Island.

"I'm still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a black neighborhood or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach — or that would've been — in New York was — was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices," said Buttigieg in a November 8 press conference.

Buttigieg's comments, which reflect a statement he gave earlier in 2021 claiming that "there is racism physically built into some of our highways," reportedly pull from the Robert Caro biography of Robert Moses "The Power Broker."

Moses was an architect in the 19th century that designed highways, bridges, playgrounds, sports fields, urban pools, housing developments, and more in the New York City area.

"At the peak of his influence, Moses was more powerful than any mayor or governor, even though he was not elected. Caro's book, published in 1974, is mostly a study of power and how power corrupts, depicting the transformation of an idealist reformer into a tyrant who created slums and destroyed communities without remorse," wrote Kessler, who added that the book "destroyed Moses's reputation and shaped how people think about his legacy."

In the book, Caro described Moses as a racist who purposefully built parkways to deter people of color from visiting the properties he designed.

Buttigieg referred to a specific section of the book, on pages 318 and 319, that refers to the construction of Jones Beach State Park and the parkway in the 1920s.

"Moses 'began to limit access by buses; he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low — too low for buses to pass. Bus trips, therefore,  had to be made on local roads, making the trips discouraging long and arduous,'" the book states, according to Kessler.

"For Negroes, who he considered inherently 'dirty,' there were further measures. Buses needed permits to enter state parks; buses chartered by Negro groups found it very difficult to obtain permits, especially to Moses's beloved Jones Beach; most were shunted off to parks many miles further on Long Island," it continued, adding that further actions were taken against black people like stationing black lifeguards at distant beaches, and keeping pool temperatures colder because "Moses was convinced that Negroes did not like cold water."

Kessler noted that Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses associate and former chief engineer and general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission, was the sole source for the order to keep the bridges of the parkways low.

"Shapiro, along with Paul Kern, a law secretary at City Hall under Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, are listed as sources for Moses believing Black Americans were 'dirty.' Kern and Paul Windels, LaGuardia's corporation counsel, are the sources for the details on the bus permits and pool temperature," wrote Kessler.

Caro's research included a tally sheet made by him and his wife in 167, showing that few black people went to the park.

In 1999, a German professor of sociology named Bernward Joerges argued that all parkways at the time were built with low bridges.

"How, then, should one understand that Moses built some 200 overpasses so low?" he asked. "US civil engineers with whom I have corresponded regularly produce two simple explanations for the rationality of the low-hanging bridges: that commercial traffic was excluded from the parkways anyway; and that the generally good transport situation on Long Island forbade the very considerable cost of raising the bridges … Moses did nothing different on Long Island from any parks commissioner in the country. … In sum: Moses could hardly have let buses on his parkways, even if he had wanted differently.”

Joerges also wrote that Caro may have overstated why Black people did not go to Jones Beach.

"The fact remains that Blacks could gain physical access to Long Island beaches via many routes. And yet Jones Beach remained a white strand," he observed. "Even today, when many more Blacks drive cars, and when no politician tries to exclude them from the beaches, not many poor Blacks seem to gather on Jones Beach. There existed then, and there exist today, many reasons for Black families to go elsewhere."

A Columbia university historian, Kenneth T. Jackson, "said that generations of his students have failed to confirm episodes in Caro's book, also says the overpass story is not true," according to Kessler.

"Caro is wrong," he wrote in an email. "Arnold Vollmer, the landscape architect who was in charge of design for the bridges, said the height was due to cost. Also, you can still get to Jones Beach by train and bus, as you always could."

Despite these sources though, Thomas j. Campanella, a Cornell University historian of city planning, told Kessler that "it appears that Sid Shapiro was right," after doing research comparing the height of the bridges on the Southern State Parkway to 20 bridges, viaducts, and overpasses constructed on other parkways at the time.

"I do believe it is true," Campanella said in an email to Kessler. "The parkways I looked at were built in roughly the same era as the Southern State — especially Sawmill and Hutch. In fact, the Westchester parkways set most of the standards for parkway design for years in the United States. The lower overpasses on the Southern State parkway are a substantial deviation from precedent."

Joerges gives a suggestion as to the reasoning behind the lower constructed bridges on Moses' parkway: "True the bridges were low, but each had to be low differently. Moses took great care that each and every bridge was individually fitted into its natural context: standardized unicity, as it were, was part of an artfully laid out nature. One can show more generally that, when it came to parkway building, bridge-building culture was connected to a specific politics of nature."

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