Sunday, December 1, 2013

102. The Dynamo Mayor: La Guardia

The Little Flower

     In the 1920s New Yorkers were surprised to encounter, at election time, a short, pudgy man in rumpled clothes and topped by an outsized hat, a black wide-brimmed Stetson, who, sometimes from the top of an abandoned car, shouted and spieled in a loud, high-pitched voice, while flailing his arms and jabbing a finger to emphasize a point.  He was almost comical, but something about him always drew a crowd.  Maybe it was his nervous energy, or his passionate conviction, or his ability to communicate with them in Italian, German, Hungarian, Croatian, and Yiddish.  But whatever it was, he got and held their attention, and often their vote as well.

     This was Fiorello La Guardia, a peppery firebrand campaigning for a seat in the House, where he served seven terms as a Progressive Republican, his antics provoking both laughter and indignation but always getting him attention, as he fought for the “little people” against “the Interests,” on the side of the Forces of Light against the Forces of Darkness.  (Nuances were alien to him; he was always crusading for the Good, against enemies who were blatantly corrupt, reactionary, selfish, and evil.)  Then, in 1929, he was the Republican candidate for mayor against Jimmy Walker, who was running for a second term.  But the mayor was too popular, and the times too lighthearted and frothy, for an impetuous little reform-minded crusader; he got only 26% of the vote, the lowest figure on record since 1898.  But nothing could stop him; he bounced back to campaign for mayor in 1933.

     Fiorello La Guardia, a son of Italian immigrants, had not grown up in New York.  His father was a bandmaster with the U.S. Army who was stationed at various posts in Arizona, so his dynamo of a son grew up in the wastelands of the West, far removed from the city where he would make his career.  As a young man his knowledge of Italian got him jobs in U.S. consulates in Europe, where he picked up his other foreign languages, but he returned to America and plunked down in New York.  There he worked as an interpreter on Ellis Island and then in Night Court, studied law and passed the bar, and began representing impoverished immigrants in court.  In the course of these occupations he witnessed firsthand the corruption and incompetence of Tammany and went into politics to work for reform, becoming a Progressive Republican.  (Yes, miracle of miracles, in those days there was such a thing as a Progressive Republican, the most famous example being Teddy Roosevelt.) 

     From 1916 to 1932 he was in the House of Representatives for the 14th Congressional District, which extended from 14th Street south to 3rd Street, and from the East River west to the Hudson: a hodgepodge of ethnic groups that included slum-dwelling Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs, and Romanians, and a contingent of well-scrubbed WASPS in mansions around Washington Square and just north of it.  That a Republican could win repeatedly in this district impressed the party leaders; they marked him as a comer, but soon realized that this explosive little guy simply could not be controlled.

File:Fiorello LaGuardia.jpg
The first New York City mayor to make ample use
of the radio.
     By 1933 the times and the city had changed.  The stock market had crashed, the Roaring Twenties had died with a whimper, Mayor Jimmy had resigned under suspicion of corruption and decamped for Europe, and the city and nation were in the depths of the Depression.  With a sixth of the population on some form of relief, New York City was devastated by the economic crisis, but also by years of Tammany corruption and incompetence.  Clearly, voters were in a mood for change, for someone who could lead them out of this morass, and Fiorello La Guardia never doubted for a minute that he was the man.  Overcoming much resistance, he became the candidate of the City Fusion Party, comprising anti-Tammany Democrats, Old Guard Republicans, and various other segments of the electorate.  He campaigned frenetically, waving his arm, stomping his foot, and trading insults with hecklers, while proclaiming that the city was dying of “Tammanyitis.”  To all of which Tammany did not take kindly.  On election day, November 7, shots were fired, fist fights erupted, skulls were cracked, and the police made numerous arrests.  No matter; the little man with the big mouth was swept decisively into office.  New York would never be the same again.

     On his first day in office the new mayor dashed about the city in his official limousine swearing in commissioners, whom he warned to get results or get out.  By afternoon he was in his office tossing letters at his secretary: “Say yes! … Say no! … Throw it away! … Tell him to go to hell!”  At the same time, he was dictating letters to three stenographers: “Nuts! … Regrets! … Thanks!”  This was a frenzied workaholic the like of which the city had never seen.

     The days that followed only intensified his image.  En route to city hall in the morning, he would have his driver change course so he could check the progress at a housing construction site, supervise traffic flow or snow removal, or query a patrolman about his beat.  No city worker or garbage collector was spared.  On any given day New Yorkers swore that they had seen him on whirlwind visits to dozens of sites in all five boroughs – simultaneously! 

     It wasn’t easy working for such a boss; he was demanding, even a bully.  He expected city employees at all levels to arrive on time and put in a full day’s work; if they didn’t, they were fired.  And no one, under any circumstances, was to take a bribe.  Scrupulously honest, he expected others to be the same.  Gone were the days of Tammany slackness, of cronyism and corruption.  When angry, he was quite capable of knocking an employee’s hat off – “Be respectful when talking to a citizen!” – and of dashing a cigarette from a worker’s lips.  Those who couldn’t take it quit or got fired, but those who could stuck it out, came to respect him and even, in time, to love him.  He gave them pride in their work: they were serving the people in the greatest city in the world.  He really believed that, and they came to believe it, too.  Morale among city workers soared.

     And he got results.  In the first six months of his tenure bankers reduced the interest rates on the city’s borrowing; 1700 recreational renovation projects were completed by Robert Moses, his Parks Commissioner, who completed transformed the city’s parks; free street shows were staged by hired musicians and dancers; and dancing was encouraged on the Central Park Mall.  And this was just the beginning.  The new mayor was praised by the press, cheered by residents; in the very depths of the Depression, there was hope after all for the city.

     Determined to get federal money for further projects and reforms, the indefatigable mayor went to Washington, developed contacts there, and presented the Department of the Interior with specific plans that Moses had worked out in detail.  Other cities went to the same source of funding with vague, well-meaning plans, but La Guardia could show in detail what the federal money would do for New York.  Result: he got more for his city than any other mayor, and New York became a testing ground and showcase for the New Deal.  While publicly professing neutrality, President Roosevelt had secretly worked against La Guardia’s election, hoping to keep the city Democratic, but he came to like the new mayor, however irksome he might at times be; they both believed in Big Government and what it could do for the cities. 

File:Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia in Hyde Park - NARA - 196764.jpg
With the foxy President, who came to like him.  La Guardia's suit is less rumpled than usual.

     Less tranquil was the mayor’s relationship with his Parks Commissioner.   Two strong-willed men used to getting their own way, they argued and shouted and almost came to blows, but for all that worked together successfully.  The fiercely demanding mayor could not do without a commissioner who turned mud pits and slums into parks, and run-down tenements into housing projects, while creating a network of highways and bridges that gave the sprawling city a cohesion it had never had before.  (For more on Moses, see post #78.)

     Over the years that followed Fiorello La Guardia broke the grip of Tammany to create a nonpolitical Civil Service Commission; expanded relief and social service programs; cleared slums and created parks and public housing; unified and updated the city’s mass transit system; expanded education; developed public health programs; reformed the police; opened the city bureaucracy to Jews, Italians, and blacks; appointed more women to important positions than any previous mayor; and sponsored a 1939 World’s Fair. 

     Not one for subtlety and tact, he denounced anyone and anything he deemed corrupt, unjust, or injurious: taxi owners unfairly exploiting the drivers, the New York Bar Association, profit-hungry doctors, drunk drivers, high city insurance rates, inefficient sanitation disposal, racketeers and crooked politicians, urban noise.  Which should have made him a host of powerful enemies, but always he had the people with him; in 1937 he was easily reelected on the Fusion ticket.

     Amazingly, he still found time – a little time – for his wife Marie (yes, he had a wife), who preferred to keep out of the spotlight while she looked after the house and their adopted son and daughter.  His former secretary, Marie knew what she was getting into when she married him and approved of his demanding career.  Amazingly too, he liked to cook and was good with the children.

On a police boat, smashing slot machines.

     A hands-on mayor, the Little Flower loved to swing into action, usually with the press on hand to record it.  In 1934 he went at mobster Frank Costello’s slot machines, smashing them with a sledge hammer and dumping them from a police boat into Long Island Sound while reporters looked on.  If a tenement roof collapsed, a train wreck occurred, or a fire broke out, he would pop up out of nowhere to scream advice and lend a helping hand.  Once, settling into his seat for a performance at Radio City Music Hall, he was informed of a fire nearby, rushed out of the theater, hurried to where smoke was pouring out of a restaurant, and disappeared into the building.  Hours later the firemen, having extinguished the blaze, came out.  “Will someone get the mayor out of there!” yelled a fireman.  With the mayor nowhere in sight, consternation spread.  Finally he appeared, soot-covered, and explained that he had been inspecting the refrigerator system to see if the building code had been violated.

     On a more tranquil occasion, during a lengthy newspaper strike he read the funnies over the radio, so the “kiddies” could keep up with their favorite comic strip characters.  He was said to be charmingly expressive, with appropriate intonation, a careful building of suspense, and an emphasis on the moral lessons to be derived. 

     Alas, he had a puritanical streak in him, as became apparent in 1937, when he refused to renew the theater licenses of the famous Minsky brothers’ burlesque houses, which featured such stellar performers as the comedians Abbott and Costello and the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee.  Burlesque then left the city but flourished just across the river in Union City, imposing on its New York devotees an irksome trans-Hudson expedition to the nearer wilds of New Jersey.

     In 1941 he ran for a third term, again as the Fusion candidate, and won, becoming the first New York mayor in modern times to serve three consecutive terms.  When war came he hoped to get a leave of absence as mayor so he could serve in the Army, but, to his great disappointment, the Army wasn’t interested.  He became increasingly irritable, arbitrary in his actions, and arrogant; he was tired, and the voters sensed it.  Criticism of his policies multiplied, and it was evident that, with federal money now going to the war effort and not to the cities, he was much less successful as mayor and losing touch with the people. 

     In 1945 La Guardia chose not to run for a fourth term and left office at the end of the year.  In 1946 he directed UNRRA, a U.N. organization fighting famine in postwar Europe, but resigned when the U.S. and Great Britain declined to support the organization further.  The question of what this most dynamic little man would do next in retirement was tragically cut short when, having long suffered from ill health, he succumbed to cancer and died in 1947.  Fire houses sounded a signal honoring the death of a fireman, City Hall and other city buildings were draped in black, and Mayor William O’Dwyer, his successor, proclaimed a day of mourning; all public buildings flew flags at half mast for thirty days.  More significant still, some 45,000 citizens of all ages and ethnic groups and all walks of life stood patiently in line to pay their last respects to the Little Flower, as he lay in state in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  It is hard to imagine someone so fiercely dynamic stilled at last.  One wonders too if his frenetic life style contributed in some way to his demise.

File:Fiorella LaGuardia statue.jpg
  Now hailed as New York’s best and greatest mayor, he has had a high school, a community college, an airport, and a stretch of West Broadway in Greenwich Village named for him; a statue of him, rumpled suit and all, now adorns this last, La Guardia Place.  He also achieved the ultimate in commemoration when he inspired the hit Broadway musical Fiorello, which ran from 1959 to 1961.  But whether the city would want another mayor so domineering and possessed of such ruthless energy is doubtful.  Who would want to experience a whirlwind twice?  But he will always be remembered and, at a safe distance, fondly.

Bloomberg and de Blasio

    And what of our outgoing and incoming mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio?  Bloomberg, our 108th mayor (2002-13), is not easily classified.  A lifelong Democrat, in 2001 he chose to run as a Republican and got elected, then in 2007 became an Independent.  As the founder of Bloomberg L.P., a vastly successful financial news service, he is certainly the richest mayor New York City has ever had, being appraised by Forbes magazine in September 2013 as the 13th richest person in the world, with $31 billion in wealth.  That he longed for more than wealth and success in business explains his entrance into the murky and often perilous world of politics.  There are those who decry the participation of the rich in politics, feeling that their money gives them an unfair advantage, but it can also be argued that their wealth renders them less susceptible to greed; if you already have, say, $31 billion, why would you need to get more?

Michael R Bloomberg.jpg
To my eye he looks benign. 
 And, yes, tastefully elegant.
    As mayor, Bloomberg has supported abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and legalization for illegal immigrants; opposed the death penalty; expanded the city’s ban on smoking; and attempted to restrict soft drink sales – policies that many liberals would endorse.  Yet he calls himself a fiscal conservative and is proud of having turned the city’s $6 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus.  New Yorkers have applauded many of his initiatives, but not his support of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which targets minorities, or his getting the City Council to amend the city’s term limits law to allow him to serve a third consecutive term. 

     As for de Blasio, now that he’s won, the honeymoon is over.  Recently, right after he praised our 106th mayor David Dinkins, Dinkins, who was present, suggested that the new mayor’s plan to finance prekindergarten programs by a tax on the rich, which would require approval by the State Legislature, was a mistake; he would do better to tax suburban commuters.  This surprised de Blasio, who in any case will now have to find ways to implement his campaign promises.  Yes, the honeymoon is over.

     Source note:  In addition to the usual online sources, I have drawn on Alyn Brodsky’s excellent biography, The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York (2003).  It is meticulously researched and documented, and very readable.  Not for someone who wants a quick take on the subject, however, since it treats its subject in depth.

     Coming soon:  Lighting the City: Pushing Back the Night (from candles and hearthside fires to gaslight, arc lights, and the miracles wrought by Thomas A. Edison, as New Yorkers fought to conquer darkness).  In the works: The Ladder of Thieves (from lowly hog snatchers to the most sophisticated bank robbers, circa 1870).  And other possibilities.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder