The only thing I knew about Babylon NY, located about a third out on the South shore of Long Island, was that it had been the home of Robert Moses, scourge of American cities. If you don't know who Robert Moses is, I urge you to put aside a month, sometime in the near future, and read The Power Broker, Robert Caro's 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Moses. It's a fantastic biography, combining drama and painstaking detail with the rarest of ease, and in it you learn the dangers of concentrated power as Caro tells the saga of Moses's insane forty-year grip on New York infrastructure, building highways through neighborhoods and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, spearheading 'the projects', and singlehandedly yoking U.S. cities to the automobile for what will probably be an eternity. (On the other hand, the bridges he built haven't fallen down yet.)
So, needless to say, when I got to Babylon NY, the town where Moses parked his subsidized yacht, I was most filled with biblical trepidation... trepidation and a desire to somehow unearth the visible scars of Moses's mad genius. Would I find a Moses bust? Would it be the land of gated communities? Or hanging gardens? What I found, though, was a pastoral fishing village surrounded by well-manicured, sidewalk-free, and quite expensive real estate.
The other day walking along Raymond Avenue, I'd been struck by the neat way that the parking lot for Noll's Hardware was tucked neatly down an alleyway, behind the streetside storefront.
If these alleys marked University Avenue's industrial/St. Anthony Park seam, they were far more common in Babylon. Every street in the little downtown had a back alley parking lot. There were even whole houses tucked behind stores. (Here's one, pictured at right, for which the only access is this long dumpster-filled alley.) The little downtown is just a five minute walk from the Long Island Railroad commuter train, and features a host of old-school thrift-, paperback book-, antique-, and drapery-stores. It boasted a few grocery stores, and a number of Irish bar/restaurants that must have dated back to the South Shore of Long Island's economic fishing foundations. What struck me most, though, was the drive-through grocery store called The Dairy Barn, which uses a sort of nostalgic aura to entice people to buy milk and bread without leaving their driver's seats.
Babylon, despite its nice sidewalks, transit access, and walkable aura... despite its lamppost flower planters (hanging gardens?), its inlaid red brick trim, and the delicate arch of its maple trees that lend it a precious authenticity... despite all that, I didn't' find an urban spirit in Babylon NY. For one thing, the 'downtown' (or village center) is really sparsely populated. There was one building on a main corner that seemed to be undergoing condo-i-fication, but you'd be hard pressed to find an apartment to rent in that town. Similarly, Babylon seemed almost entirely dependent on cars to get around. The streets date back, I'm sure, a long way, but couldn't they put in some bike lanes or something? (Of course, the same could be said of recent Sidewalk of the Week winner, Carter Avenue, which could serve as a dead ringer for Babylon's village aesthetic.)
I went on a long walk from the downtown to the Babylon harbor, passing along a suburban-seeming sidewalk winding through the lawns of suburban houses. It seemed almost exactly like any of the nicer Twin Cities suburbs (e.g. Edina, Roseville), complete with two-car garages and the proverbial picket fence. most of these houses must have been built after Moses completed his Long Island highways (ever politically astute, he called them 'parkways'). (Indeed, it was Moses's highways which spearheaded the development of suburban Long Island, cultivating Levittowns at an astronomical rate.) I walked on the sidewalks of Babylon, and when the sidewalk disappeared I walked on the edges of roads, through yards, and around poles. I walked but didn't find any sign of public space... The best I could do was the entirely benchless municipal pier, where I sat on the pavement with a book and stared out at the sea.
Would Moses were here, I'd kick him in the balls.
[The view out Babylon Harbor, presumably looking at the Robert Moses causeway connecting Robert Moses State Park with the mainland, and probably Robert Moses's own personal favorite view.]