31 July 2007

Dispatch from Jones Beach

Still more on Robert Moses’ legacy

To get to Jones Beach via public transport, you have to do one of those dances whose fancy footwork is peculiar to New York: a train to a train to a bus. For a single passenger, this three-step mambo is crazy enough; and so imagine adding to it beach chairs, towels, coolers, blankets, umbrellas, swimmies, toys—to say nothing of children—for a party of caravan length that is something out of One Thousand and One Nights.

Why, one might ask, would anyone do such a thing? Especially when, at the end of the day, you have to turn around and do it all over again?

The short answer is because Jones Beach is as close as one can get to “making it” in three hours’ travel. Sure, the place is beautiful, its vistas the sort that would have been snapped up by private developers had the land not been placed in the public trust. But it is not only the beach’s beauty that distinguishes it. Unlike most public projects, the State of New York—thanks to the lobbying of Robert Moses—spared no expense building the 2,400-acre spread of beach. The result is intentionally grand: Art Deco bathhouses built from Ohio sandstone and Barbizon brick, pristine dunes hand-planted with beach grass to prevent erosion, and, most dramatically, the water tower, an Italianate obelisk that rises majestically from the beach’s infinite flatness, for an effect that, even from miles away, imparts upon visitors a sense of arrival.


When Robert Moses envisioned carving Jones Beach out of a swath of sandbar 80 years ago, he did so for the poor, huddled masses yearning to bathe free. Give them a public beach or give them death. Or so goes the popular mythology.

In fact, according to his biographer Robert Caro, Moses built the park so that buses could not fit beneath highway overpasses, making it nearly impossible for urbanites (read, blacks) to make it there. He also vetoed an LIRR proposal to construct a spur to the beach. So Jones Beach’s splendor was created, essentially, for the automobile class. At the time, that meant middle-class whites. But, with embellishments ranging from the nautical-themed pitch-and-putt golf course to reflecting pools, it was one hell of a beach.

Today, New Yorkers come in droves to Jones Beach: about 6 million visitors last year alone. Though Central and Prospect Parks fill similar roles, their scores of zealous sunbathers who sprawl in dark glasses and bikinis only highlight that there is no substitute for sand and surf. Washington Square Park scores points for quirkiness, but it covers a mere 9.75 acres. And Coney Island’s schlock and squalor disqualify it from true competition.

As for New York’s other public spaces, the majority are corporate-controlled (Time Warner Center); tightly hemmed in by business interests and advertisements (Union and Times Squares); frantic transportation hubs (Penn Station, Grand Central); or they exclude boisterous spontaneity by their very nature (public libraries). Note, too, that most of these spaces are indoors. In a city like New York, with all its attendant pressures, one can surely do with a bit more unregulated fresh air.

And so Jones Beach remains unique in its function as a grand destination intended for recreation and contemplation. The ocean spreads before you, glittering and vast, a flotilla of sailboats barely visible on the horizon. All around, people jog, speed-walk, cycle, eat ice cream, bicker, laugh. As one writer, quoted by Caro in The Power Broker, said: “There are no concessions, no booths, no bawling hot-dog vendors. . . . For almost the first time in the history of public beaches, the beach is conceived as a spot for recreation, not amusement stimulated by honky-tonk.”


Many aspects of the beach still hew closely to Moses’s original design: shuffleboard courts, trash cans hidden within boat ventilators, the million-wastebasket legacy of Moses’s fear of litter. New additions are incorporated in such a way so that they blend, with Art Deco-like lettering and ye olde spelling on storefronts (“ice cream shoppe,” “first aide”) which recall a quaint, fictitious era when all was well. Payphones are hidden in conical, sand-colored shelters which, on first blush, are unidentifiable and alien, yet somehow beachy.

Moses objected to private concessions and to signage—wrought-iron posts were ornamental and directional, pointing the way to the restrooms, say—which is why the beach has (mostly) resisted the march of advertisements. Perhaps the most corporate presence, a Friendly’s in the West Bathhouse in the original ice cream parlor, is denoted by a small sign that is not visible from the beach. In that sense, too, Jones Beach fills a special niche. Where else in New York can you escape from being told what to eat, wear, buy; that you are too fat, short, hairy, bald, brunette, undersexed? Where else can you go without the company of prescription creams, depilatories, gym memberships, and alcohol to erase, or at least cope with, your deficiencies and strangeness?

But that is set to change. Donald Trump recently joined forces with catering mogul Steven Carl to lease and build on the site of the former Boardwalk Restaurant. (Moses’s original structure burned down in the mid-sixties; a low-slung building by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, detested universally for its ugliness, went up in 1968; it was last occupied in 2004.) Bidding for development of the site was open to the public, but only one other proposal came in; the size of the space and the high potential for failure in a seasonal locale may have scared off other potential investors.

Carl and Trump’s effort, Trump on the Ocean, is billed as the “finest restaurant, catering facility/wedding hall anywhere in the world.” (Not to be confused with Trump Ocean Club in Panama, which is already under construction and which will “redefine the standard for luxury living for Latin America.”) Among Trump’s plans for the facility, slated to open in 2009, is an expanded parking lot and an enlargement of the Boardwalk Restaurant’s footprint by four times. The building will also eat up a portion of Moses’s mini pitch-and-putt golf course. Trump on the Ocean will derive 85% of its revenues from events like bar mitzvahs and weddings, with the remaining sales coming from the restaurant and a nightclub.

These plans reflect a revision of Trump’s original design, beginning with the facility’s name. Trump initially proposed Trump Palace on the Ocean. But then-parks commissioner Bernadette Castro objected to the word “Palace.” According to Newsday, Castro and other municipal officials felt that it did not fit the identity of Jones Beach as a destination for the working and middle classes. It does seem notable that it was the word “Palace,” and not “Trump,” which they found so objectionable. Perhaps that’s because Castro has long admired Trump’s work; in 2005, with the Foundation for Long Island State Parks, she presented Trump the Eighth Annual Master Builder Award in recognition of his “uncommon ability to get things done.” (Previous winners include Ted Turner, Martha Stewart, and Olympic gold medal figure skater Sarah Hughes.) The award gala was held at Bethpage State Park’s Carlyle on the Green—Steven Carl’s catering enterprise.

This past spring, Governor Spitzer and his newly appointed commissioner, Carol Ash, revisited the building designs approved in 2006 by Castro and then-governor Pataki. Spitzer and Ash asked Trump to revise his plans so that the restaurant part of the facility—which would, theoretically, be open and affordable to beachgoers—provide better ocean views. During this process, Trump also agreed to create a LEED-certified structure, which means the facility will incorporate green building materials and implement efficient practices. It will be the first building of its size and the first hospitality building in the region that meets these requirements, according to project manager Michael Russo. It will also be the first Trump facility equipped with low-flow toilets.

But the new plans do nothing about complaints voiced by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), among other civic groups, regarding the 10.5-by-7.5-foot monument which reads “Trump on the Ocean,” and will be visible from Ocean Highway. Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, SPLIA director of preservation services, points out that a (much smaller) Friendly’s sign beside the ice cream parlor was taken down in 2005 because of SPLIA’s objections. Russo, who describes the Trump monument as “demure, classy,” says it—like the building and its landscaping—will cohere with its surroundings. Russo also points out that Trump won’t be the first upscale facility in the space; Moses’s original restaurant, he says, had “white glove attendants and linen tablecloths.”

Members of the Wantagh Public School board have also voiced dissatisfaction with Trump’s plans. Although he’ll be operating a for-profit business, Trump won’t pay property taxes; that’s because Trump on the Ocean is located on state-owned land. (The theory is that profits that the concessionaire brings to the State make up for this shortfall; in Trump’s case, the parks department expects to make about $74 million over the course of the 40-year lease, about a quarter of Trump’s expected profits.). Naturally, the Donald is not the only real-estate developer to benefit from such tax-exempt status. But as the 74th richest person in the U.S., according to Forbes, one might argue that he has an obligation to the community that other concessionaires—the guy selling hot dogs on the beach, say—do not share.

To run the numbers: in an interview with the Wantagh-Seaford Citizen, Harvey Levinson, chairman of the Nassau County Board of Assessors, estimated that the Wantagh school district will lose out on $1.4 million in additional property taxes. School board representatives asked Trump if he would pay the taxes anyway; he refused, as is his right. His 40-year lease ensures that local schools stand to lose out for generations.

When I asked several parks department guards at the beach what they thought about Trump’s project, each told me that he would “love to comment, but it’s against my contract.” At the boardwalk information booth, one woman said, “It’s better than the spot being empty.” But she also brought up the property taxes, and mentioned that even though the restaurant will be open “not just to well-to-do people, you won’t be able to go in there in a bathing suit and flip-flops.” When I asked for her name she told me, then added, “But don’t quote me in any newspaper. I’ll lose my job.”

As of this writing, there is no presence of Trump at the site and none of the hotly contested signage, not even a portrait of Tara Conner, Miss USA, whom Trump engaged in February to be the face of Trump on the Ocean. Nevertheless, demolition of the former restaurant is nearly complete. The facility expects to begin accepting reservations for events in August.


The appearance of the Trump empire at Jones Beach should be considered in light of the increase, in recent years, of branded concessions elsewhere in the park. So far, a corporate presence has been limited to the 15,000-seat amphitheater across from the beach on the other side of Ocean Highway. That’s due mostly to Castro, who opened the theater to corporate sponsorship in 2001 to make up for years of economic shortfalls.

The theater, part of Moses’s original plan, went up in 1929. During the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Schaefer Beer and Abraham & Straus sponsored events there. Until 2001, when Clear Channel paid $2 million to stage concerts there, the theater served generic concessions: nachos, hot dogs, ice cream. Branded concessions began appearing only in 2002, when Clear Channel brought in Tommy Hilfiger, which paid $350,000 to sponsor the theater. For the duration of its sponsorship, the retailer supplied lifeguards with red, white, and blue jackets bearing the Hilfiger logo. Outfitting the lifeguards saved the state about $40,000 per year. Sadly (or not), this fashion-forward, subliminal advertising is no longer; in 2005 Hilfiger did not renew its sponsorship, and in its place, Nikon, the camera company, stepped in. As of this writing, lifeguards have not received free cameras.

Clear Channel and Tommy Hilfiger also ushered in the era of the uppercase snack: Nathan’s Famous, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, among others. Each season, visitors to Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, as it is now known, are presented with a rotating selection of branded crap; even, in a nod to multiculturalism, churros.

There remains, however, one item that visitors to the theater cannot buy, and that’s alcohol. The theater is dry and has been since 1985 or ’88, depending on whom you ask. The reason for the ban is a mystery. George Gorman, regional director of New York State Parks, told me by telephone: “I don’t recall the details of the incident—whether drinking at the theater or an accident. All the people involved at the time are no longer with state parks.” Where are they? “Retired,” says Gorman, “or passed away.”

So what does one do without booze?

Starbucks!

The coffee chain has a significant stake in the theater’s concessions. And security is tight, making it nearly impossible to sneak in your own spirits. So on summer nights, concertgoers stream through the ampitheater bearing ice coffees, lattes and hot chocolate. The effect is bizarre and peculiarly American—as if a PowerPoint presentation might break out at any time. Why has coffee, the drink of productivity, the workplace, the all-nighter, become so embedded in the realm of public play?

There is, however, one way to enjoy a drink at the Jones Beach amphitheater: Be very rich. VIP tickets, which sell for between $4,000 and $10,000 a seat, entitle their holders access to beer and wine. The implication is that the elite, Paris Hilton notwithstanding, can behave themselves and are better equipped and deserving of leisure (drunkenness) . This caffeinated class divide flies against Moses’ s intent: to create a grand space for recreation and contemplation, not work, work, work.

Starbucks, Trump and other concessionaires are also symptomatic of a greater problem having to do with the parks system, which in New York is budgeted such that private moneys complement state funding by a ratio of nearly one to one. Some concessions enhance public space—think hot dog vendors at Yankee Stadium or Central Park’s Wollman Rink. But depending so heavily upon them for operating costs leaves us, the people, at the mercy of whomever is willing to invest, particularly in potentially risky locations like Jones Beach.

New York is a very different city than it was in 1929—one which would not spend the kind of money that Moses did on a playspace for the public. But surely there must be an alternative to an increasing reliance on commercial money, which by its very nature requires concessions that are not necessarily in the public’s best interest. In this sense, the problem lies with us, the people: we have become accustomed to seeking out private investors with deep pockets; we have accepted the conflation of private and public. When they hit us where we live, we rise up, and so protest, for instance, the sale of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. But as Stuy Town, so public space: in the end we roll over and mewl.

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