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What La Guardia Gave New York

Kim Phillips-Fein

March 18, 2024

Why do contemporary mayors fail to measure up to the Little Flower?

Why do contemporary mayors fail to measure up to the Little Flower?

Ever since Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia left City Hall in 1945, he has been the mayor to whom all other mayors of New York have been compared. La Guardia spoke five languages, defended immigrants passionately, won vast sums of federal money for the city and put forward a vision of New York that placed it at the forefront of the politics of his day. As he once put it, describing what he wanted for the city: “First and foremost, I want justice on the broadest scale. By this I do not mean the justice that is handed out in police courts. I mean the justice that gives to everyone some chance for the beauty and the better things of life.”

“I Never Did Much Like Politics,” veteran journalist Terry Golway’s breezy account of La Guardia’s life and mayoralty, makes a case for the relevance this history has for the contemporary city. La Guardia governed during the New Deal and World War II, a political moment profoundly different from our own, both within the city and nationally. Within this context, La Guardia was able to advance a distinctive vision of New York as the New Deal in microcosm: the city, for him, embodied a polyglot, multicultural democracy, whose flourishing could be best measured in terms of the life it offered to its ordinary citizens. That La Guardia was able to capitalize on his political moment to put forward this image of the city was due in part to his remarkable assets as a leader and a politician — but his influence on the city and the nation, so much greater than that of the mayors who have followed him, owes as much to those times as to his character. 

La Guardia’s biography tells much of the story of his political appeal. He was born in New York City, the child of immigrant Italian parents who were of higher social status than most who came to labor in the city’s factories. His mother’s parents were Jewish, his father’s roots were Catholic, and they came to America primarily to make a life free from the religious constraints of the old world. (La Guardia himself was raised Episcopalian; his mother never practiced Judaism and his father was an anticlerical atheist.) His father, a gifted musician, joined the Army as a bandleader when La Guardia was a young child, and Fiorello grew up far from New York City, spending much of his childhood in Arizona. This complex background made him at once an insider and an outsider: linked to New York’s vast immigrant working class by ethnicity (and he lived in East Harlem for most of his mayoralty) but never fully immersed in the narrow alleys of Little Italy.

He returned to New York as a young man and worked as a translator at Ellis Island while going to law school at night, meeting his first wife (a garment worker who died of tuberculosis) on a picket line. There was no place for him within the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall of the 1910s and 1920s; when he entered politics it was through the Republican Party. Capitalizing on the unusual constellation of the city’s politics in the early 20th Century, in which left-wing reformers and upper-class patricians were joined by their common hatred of the machine, La Guardia spoke for a patrician opposition to Tammany Hall, linked to a deep belief that city government could be turned to the interests of the poor and working-class. 

That La Guardia was able to capitalize on his political moment to put forward this image of the city was due in part to his remarkable assets as a leader and a politician — but his influence on the city and the nation owes as much to those times as to his character.

La Guardia was first elected to Congress to represent the East Side of Manhattan in 1916 (although he interrupted his time in Washington with a stint as a fighter pilot during World War I). There, he opposed Prohibition, backed child-labor laws, sponsored some of the earliest pro-labor federal legislation and argued against federal giveaways to Detroit auto manufacturer Henry Ford because of his fervent antisemitism. He protested the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which drastically restricted immigration, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, saying that its supporters were driven by “narrowmindedness and bigotry,” a “fixed obsession on Anglo-Saxon superiority,” and warning that “the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan must not be permitted to become the policy of the American government.” 

In the “tax the rich” moment of his day, he pushed for steeply progressive income taxes, saying, “I do not want to destroy wealth, but I do want to abolish poverty.” La Guardia’s acute, personal sense of the moral injustice of poverty, and his ability to link the problems of cities to the largest issues of national concern set him apart from the New York City mayors that preceded him — while his willingness to take on the rich made him quite different from the city’s more recent leaders, who see the health of New York as closely tied to attracting and retaining business. At one point, when Herbert Hoover proposed a national sales tax to raise revenue during the early years of the Depression, La Guardia countered with a call for a tax on luxury goods: “I am simply going to say soak the rich.” 

As mayor of New York, the 5-foot-2-inch La Guardia seemed to personify the city itself: energy and passion compressed into a small, portly frame. Rumpled, expressive, always rushing to the center of activity, La Guardia’s total lack of interest in conventional respectability made him the perfect standard-bearer for his city. When he became mayor in 1933, winning a plurality with 40% of the vote, he inherited an impoverished city that had recently been compelled to accept a bankers’ bailout to stave off default. It was a desperate time for New York: Evictions were rising, unemployment stood at about 25% and tent cities (“Hoovervilles”) sprawled through Red Hook and Central Park. 

But despite the fear and deprivation of New York in the early 1930s, this was also a moment of insurgent politics, in the city and nationally. Locally, radical activists (from both the Socialist and Communist Parties) were organizing the unemployed to press for public works and relief. Franklin Delano Roosevelt — a New Yorker who came to Washington from Albany — was in the White House. 

In writing what amounts to a well-deserved celebration of his leadership, Golway glosses over some of the more negative aspects of La Guardia’s mayoralty.

La Guardia turned both grassroots activism and Washington liberalism to the interests of the city, arguing that New York could embody the agenda of the national Democratic Party at the time. He came to power right as the New Deal was getting started, at a moment when Washington, D.C. believed in the power of government spending. One out of every seven dollars spent by the Works Progress Administration (founded in 1935) was spent in New York City. The massive federal aid that came from Washington was invested in bridges, highways and tunnels throughout the city. Federal funds helped to build the Midwood campus of Brooklyn College and to renovate the Central Park Zoo. Money from Washington revitalized the arts, paying the salaries of out-of-work actors and directors, even subsidizing artists to paint in their studios. In response to the housing crisis of the time, La Guardia built First Houses on the Lower East Side, the first public housing in the United States — intended as a model of what social support and public intervention in the housing market for working-class people might make possible. 

Within the city, La Guardia was able to work with the vibrant, lively world of the grassroots left — its newspapers and local political clubs, arguments and debates and political demonstrations. New York’s left in these years was fiercely engaged in electoral politics. It built the American Labor Party, a third political party, which sent Vito Marcantonio to Congress representing East Harlem; Marcantonio had gotten his start in politics working for La Guardia in the 1920s and learned from La Guardia how to build an organization that would represent the city’s poor.  

In writing what amounts to a well-deserved celebration of his leadership, Golway glosses over some of the more negative aspects of La Guardia’s mayoralty. When people in Harlem rioted in 1935, following rumors of an incident of police brutality at a department store known for refusing to hire Black workers, La Guardia did take remarkable action and form a commission of Black and white local leaders to analyze why this had happened. But when the report that resulted detailed the city’s extensive racial inequalities, he deemed it too inflammatory to be publicly released. Nor does Golway mention La Guardia’s animosity toward New York’s Japanese population during the Second World War, when Ellis Island was turned into a detention center. 

New York no longer holds the might it once did in Congress. Washington is not interested in a massive transfer of federal resources to cities.

There is also a larger problem with holding him up as a model: La Guardia governed New York at a moment when the federal government was unusually committed to spending on cities. After this ended, the city was left with an exceptionally large, ambitious public sector, whose costs it had difficulty meeting with local sources alone — especially once New Yorkers started moving to the suburbs, while the city began to lose the industry that had powered it during the 1930s and 1940s. During that earlier era, Roosevelt in Washington acted as though New York might be a beacon for the country as a whole, of the power of government and the potential of collective institutions; in the late 20th century and more recently, Washington has treated New York City as a foil more often than a friend.

And so today, Eric Adams — like Bill de Blasio, Mike Bloomberg and even Rudy Giuliani before him — must govern in a context profoundly different from La Guardia’s. New York no longer holds the might it once did in Congress. Washington is not interested in a massive transfer of federal resources to cities (as recent cuts to the social safety net that had expanded during COVID show). Locally, our city’s economy seems to revolve around finance, services and tourism, rather than the working-class people La Guardia saw as the heart of the city. 

But the difference is larger still. Adams’ January State of the City speech at Hostos Community College was more upbeat than the mayor often has been about New York, as when he warned that migrants will “destroy” the city. Even there, though, when the mayor reached for stirring rhetoric, he described New York as a place of individual mobility and aspiration: a place “where anyone can make it.” By contrast, as Golway’s book makes clear, La Guardia was part of a generation that saw New York (and all cities) in the most deeply idealistic terms, as high experiments in modernity, the distillations of collective possibility and the fulfillment of the promise of democratic life. 

As the Little Flower said in one of his early campaign speeches, outlining what he might do as mayor: “I would provide more music and beauty for the people, more parks and more light and air and all the things the framers of the constitution meant when they put in that phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Or, as he put it elsewhere, however difficult life in New York might be at times, it always held out the promise of “a great, thrilling, living adventure.”