When my family goes to Jones Beach, we really just go to enjoy the sun and the water. We’ve learned to make sure we park at Field Six, one of the smallest parking lots in the park and the most popular, the first one to be filled, because it has the shortest walk to the surf. We vaguely recognize that there are other things to do there – we see bike paths along Ocean Parkway, we see people lining up to enter the West Bathhouse, mothers in my daughter’s school have told me excitedly of concerts at the theater featuring Aerosmith and, most recently, Hall and Oates (they’re in their sixties and they look it, according to my friend).
The park itself has 2,400 acres, with more than six miles of shoreline. Besides swimming at the beach, other activities include fishing, miniature golf, and windsurfing. It has a boardwalk that’s blissfully devoid of commercial activities, a nature center about the ecology of the area, and an open-air theater with the stage floating on the water. Prince, when he was still Prince anyway, held a concert there in which he entered the stage by boat.
The beach has a dramatic history. Opened in 1929, it was conceived as a public park to provide the population of New York, burgeoning at the time, with fresh air and access to water. The beaches of Long Island were tantalizingly near to New Yorkers sweltering in the hot summers, but were, at the time, almost completely inaccessible. Roads were rough and incomplete. Public beach fronts were guarded jealously by fishermen or deemed for exclusive use by suspicious town groups. Miles of beaches were private, owned by the wealthy and powerful who erected towering fences to intimidate and prevent trespassers. The mythical West Egg and East Egg of The Great Gatsby, with its images of glittering wealth and of the hedonistic recklessness of the elite, were based on actual Long Island communities in the 1920s.
What was called Jones Island at the time was a mere sand bar and one of a group of tiny islands on the south shore of the county of Nassau. These islands and sand bars appeared and disappeared according to tides, seasons, and various vagaries of the weather. In 1926, after many years of political battles, bill drafting, compromising and negotiating, construction began on what was to become the Jones Beach State Park. Sand had to be dredged from the seafloor in order to raise the beachfront to fourteen feet above sea level, the height necessary for the beach to withstand storms and strong high tides. A specific kind of seagrass had to be planted, by hand, on miles of sandy shore in order to keep the sand stable and impervious to the strong winds of the Atlantic Ocean. More than that, miles of highways and bridges had to be built to allow access to the new park.
The park was immediately popular and successful. It opened in August in 1929 and 325,000 people visited in that one month left of the summer season. In 1930, the next year, operating for the whole season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the park had 1.75 million visitors. As the population of New York continued to grow through the years, so did the popularity of and attendance in the park. In 1977, in what is considered its apex, 13.5 million people visited the park. At that point, there were two parkways and more than twenty lanes of roads going to the beach as well as parking for 30,000 cars.
What’s fascinating about all this is not just the magnitude of the place but also the enormity of the task to create it, to carve it out of hundreds of private properties and acres of wilderness, the imagination that conceived of it in the first place. And the story of Jones Beach is also the story of Robert Moses, a visionary who, as his biographer Robert Caro wrote in his classic and Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, was “America’s greatest builder,” one who conceived of and built the highways, bridges, the very shape and structure of New York.
Originally posted in Letters to Narcissus.