Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Modern Day Monsignor Sweeney!

Stop me, if you've heard this one....

The Pulitzer Prize winning The Power Broker describes how an idealistic young reformer evolved into a bitter, cantankerous manipulator. Robert Moses was an incredible figure in the history of New York City and New York State, as well as the federal government, who steamrolled his will into shaping New York's housing and transportation systems (He was also the shaper of both the 1939 & 1964/1965 World's Fairs). You can't turn around in New York, without seeing his influence.

Suffolk County, Long Island was where Moses made his own home. Though 120 miles long (& only 12 miles at its widest), Long Island can only be exited by highway or rail, via a relatively small # of bridges and tunnels in Brooklyn and Queens (Other than boating, flying or going through Brooklyn and/or Queens, there's NO WAY OUT of Nassau or Suffolk counties!). The term "bottle neck" must have been coined with Long Island traffic patterns in mind! The Long Island Expressway was destined to become - in the words of a long ago traffic reporter - "the world's longest parking lot."

With a current population of nearly 8 million people, Long Island's geography begs for public transportation. Yet, Long Island's rail system is vastly inferior to the system to the west of Manhattan. Seemingly because of his own personal preferances, Mose pushed for highway transportation over rail transportation. He also made sure that all the "parkways" in NYS contain overpasses with very low clearance. In that way, he made it impossible for them to be used by commercial traffice, including buses. Unlike the Jersey Shore, there are few ways to access the Long Island Shore by public transportation.

Moses also liked grand bridges over tunnels, and this is where the story gets personal. I quote from a particularly insightful (smile) Amazon review of Gay Telese's "The Bridge":

  • "In his Pulitzer prize winning 'The Power Broker,' Robert Caro (1974) inferred that mover/shaker Robert Moses needlessly destroyed homes to build highways. With all but the rich and powerful, Moses was able to easily bulldoze opposing positions and properties. Simultaneously, metropolitan NYC's mass transit infrastructure was seriously neglected.

    "Suggesting that he saw them as monuments to himself, Caro also maintained that Moses coveted bridges, while detesting tunnels. He detailed how Moses was able to politically sabotage the car/train tunnel between Brooklyn and Staten Island, which had been started before World War II....

    "Gay Talese appears to share Moses' insensitivity toward working class victims. Looking back in the mid 1960s, he noted that although 'the eight hundred buildings that stood in the path of the bridge's approachways had now all disappeared, many people had long memories and they still hated the bridge. Monsignor Edward J. Sweeney, whose parish at St. Ephrem's had lost two thousand of its twelve thousand parishioners, thus diminishing the Sunday collection considerably, still became enraged at the mere mention of the bridge' (p. 116). My aunt, uncle & cousins constituted 8 of Msgr. Sweeney's 2000 displaced parishioners. In that era, 2000 displaced parishioners meant 250 displaced single income families. With a free parish school that was still unable to accommodate all its children, Msgr. Sweeney's advocacy for his parishioners was absolutely not based on financial self-interest.

    "While Moses may have bulldozed opposition and homes, Talese's specialty seems to be bulldozing reputations.

    "In the interest of disclosure, I was one of the altar boys at Msgr. Sweeney's funeral, somewhere around 1970."
My mom & her siblings had grown up in the same parish in which I grew up. Though both of my parents (particularly my dad) were faith-filled Catholics, being deferential to the priests and sisters did not come naturally to them (particularly NOT to my mom! ) When I would express any interest along those lines for myself, she'd assure me that I would make a good priest because I had absolutely no idea of the value of money!

Despite my mother's caustic tongue, no one would be fool enough to utter even a hint of criticsm about Monsignor Sweeney in my mom's presence. She was NOT alone. Monsignor Sweeney was absolutely beloved by his people, because people knew that he was more than willing to take up his cross and walk with - lead - his people. Though rebuffed by the "power brokers," Monsignor Sweeney fought desperately to save the homes of his parishioners.

Fast forwarding this story to 2012 & moving the locale about 60 miles southwest of the Verrazano, I hope you won't mind if we take to calling you, "Monsignor Sweeney." While our modern story has a happy ending, all of us know that you were more than willing to take up your cross and join in our suffering. I don't know what to say, but thank you.

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