Posted signs and the power broker

Living in the Capital District is heaven if you’re a motorcyclist (except for when they salt the roads). There’s nothing like cruising on the many curvy back roads and enjoying the wondrous scenery to make your senses come alive.

Often when I’m riding I'll pass what seems like acres and acres of treed lots, with not a structure in view, where the only thing spoiling the pristine glory of nature is the myriad red or yellow “Posted” signs nailed into some poor random tree like a stab in the heart. I know what “posted” signs mean —  private property so keep out — but a recent confluence of events caused me to look at them in a different light.

The first thing that happened was a visit to Newport, Rhode Island to tour the Gilded Age mansions. These are the huge, no-expense-spared palaces built, right on the ocean, by the railroad, oil, and precious-metal tycoons before the government even had an income tax.

Think of families like the Vanderbilts and the Morgans. These icons of industry and ruthless business dealings had so much money they literally couldn't spend it fast enough. Many of the mansions that resulted, complete with full butler, maid, and groundskeeping staff and adorned with lustrous gardens and landscaping, are still standing and available to tour so you can see how opulently the rich and famous lived.

When I tour these mansions, I do it simply to enjoy and marvel at the amazing architecture, the often exquisite building materials, and the engineering and construction details. I have absolutely zero interest in how the rich people that lived there spent their days.

For example, the well-heeled ladies of Newport society changed their outfits up to seven times a day, and, if you were seen in the same outfit more than twice in a season, you were considered low rent if not outright insulting.

Who wants to live like that? I'm just glad that there is a preservation society working hard to preserve these grand, beautiful structures so we can marvel at what our most talented architects and designers can do when money is no object.

The most extravagant of these mansions are right on the ocean, with unobstructed views of majestic rolling blue waves as far as the eye can see. However, between the mansions and the ocean is a public walkway that anyone can use both to enjoy the ocean view and see the mansions.

This is surely a great thing. Why? So that normal folks like us can enjoy the ocean views that otherwise would be locked behind some private property or “keep out” signs; there are no “posted” signs behind the mansions, thank goodness.

What a great way to allow both the rich and regular folks to share the wealth (the views, in this case). There are beautiful public beaches in Newport and the surrounding areas as well. You have to love that. Ocean access should be a public right for all of us, not just the super rich.

“The Power Broker”

The second thing that happened was my finally taking the huge, Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Power Broker” by noted author Robert Caro out of the library. This massive tome, which Caro almost went broke writing during during the seven years it took to research it, is the story of Robert Moses.

You may have heard that name before, especially if you are from or have visited Long Island, but if you are a New Yorker you certainly have been directly affected by him every time you visit a park, a beach, or drive over a bridge or on a parkway in this great state.

Robert Moses, while never having been elected to any public office (and never even learning how to drive), did more to influence the physical reality of New York State than anyone. Jones Beach, Robert Moses State Park (of course), Sunken Meadow State Park, the Northern State Parkway, the Southern State Parkway, and so much more infrastructure including many bridges and tunnels and even Lincoln Center, all directly exist because of Robert Moses (and in our area, securing the land for Thacher Park and much of the state land around Lake George were Moses projects).

While he has his critics — he favored the automobile over public transportation way too much, most notably — every time you visit a public park or beach anywhere in New York chances are you have Robert Moses to thank for it. What he did in New York was so innovative and transformative it was copied by virtually every other state in the nation, for better or worse.

A lifelong New Yorker, Robert Moses grew up in the city in a family with money. After a fine education at Oxford he dedicated himself to public service and trying to clean up corruption in government (think Tammany Hall).

Soon he realized that it was one thing to have dreams of public parks shared by all, but quite another to actually have the power to make those dreams happen. He gradually learned how to play the system — you could even say he invented the system — and that's why now we can go to someplace wonderful like Jones beach, which otherwise would most certainly have become a bunch of rich guys’ private backyards.

Those same billionaires who owned the mansions in Newport also owned all the prime property on the north shore of Long Island. Even with the power of Robert Moses, his plan for the Northern State Parkway had to be greatly altered due to the pushback from the lords of the manor, bypassing their estates, golf courses, and even entire towns.

Caro points out in the book that, because of the rerouting of the parkway, endless more commuting hours, additional fuel use, and more pollution are in place in perpetuity. That’s what the power of rich guys with money can do, and what Robert Moses devoted his early life to rail against.

He did much better with the Southern State Parkway and the south shore of Long Island. When you drive to the beach, you don’t think too much about where the roads came from, but landowners never want to give up land without a good payoff.

Moses was able figure out how to do it, “by hook or by crook,” as the saying goes. You may not agree with his methods, which often included back-door deals in smoke-filled rooms and all that, but he knew his way around a bill in Albany, and he knew how to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s so that he (and really us, when you think about it) got his way in the end.

I mean, somebody had to stop the super-rich people from keeping the best of everything for themselves. If Robert Moses didn’t do it, who would have?

Moses’s legacy is far from perfect: The myriad roadways and bridges he built destroyed many old, existing neighborhoods (just like the Empire State Plaza forever changed downtown Albany by razing it’s poor Italian neighborhoods). His car-first priority resulted in eyesores like I-787, where prime downtown scenic city river access is covered or blocked.

He favored his “friends” over others like so many politicians do. He let his brother, a talented engineer in his own right, live in relative squalor, even preventing him from getting gainful employment. He was used to being treated royally, including being driven around in a limo all the time.

Basically, it got to the point where he was so used to getting his own way that he forgot or ignored what his decisions and policies did to others. His endless bridge-building phase destroyed entire, thriving neighborhoods, helping to create the blight-filled ghettos that are unfortunately so commonplace in urban areas.

Some even say he was racist: It’s said that he kept bridge overpasses on the parkways going to Long Island low so that buses from the city couldn’t pass, and that he kept the water in his city-based public pools intentionally cool so that black people wouldn’t use them.

I don't know about all that, but I've been going to Jones Beach all my life and I’ve always seen the same thing: Right before the entrance to Jones Beach, which costs $10 to park, is the entrance to Captree State Park, which is free to park.

So most if not all of the minorities go to Captree and most if not all of the white people go to Jones. As I said, I’ve been going there for decades and it’s always been like this. Did Moses do this intentionally? Only he knows and he’s not around anymore to tell us.

The complete life story of Robert Moses is much too big to recount here. If you;re not enamored enough to tackle the 1,200 pages of “The Power Broker,” I’d urge you at a minimum to look him up on Wikipedia.

In fact, his effect on the lives of all New Yorker is so important, even to this day, that I really believe his story should be taught in all the schools in this state. Remember, he started out as a reformer, and only after accumulating great power (more than even the mayors and governors he reported to had) did he become so full of himself that it became “his way or the highway,” so to speak and no pun intended.

It’s the classic tale of absolute power corrupts absolutely, truly a lesson that never gets old.

Moon for sale

Did you know there is a company that accepts money for lots on the moon? Apparently, some guy believes that he found a legal loophole allowing him to “claim” the moon as his, and he has been “selling” lots there for decades.

This is totally true — many famous people have “purchased” huge tracts of the moon already. So someday, when our great-great-great grandkids get ready to build their dream house next to a big crater on the moon, there may be many “Posted” signs already there and waiting for them. Sigh.

“Posted” signs have a purpose — to keep people off of private property. But when I’m riding my motorcycle through richly forested areas on a bright, sunny day and see animals roaming freely where I’m not even allowed to tread, it somehow makes me feel sad. I’m sure Robert Moses would have felt the exact same way.