During the Great Depression, a pair of larger-than-life politicians found common cause in the New Deal. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed a big city to showcase the benefits of federal recovery spending, while New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia needed New Deal dollars to build infrastructure that would boost his city’s economic prospects.
A new book by historian Mason B. Williams ’06 — City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (W.W. Norton) — explores this partnership. Roosevelt’s federal dollars, from such programs as the Works Progress Administration, combined with La Guardia’s technocratic leadership to put tens of thousands of New Yorkers to work — building parks, schools, arts centers, and transportation icons such as the Lincoln Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge, which continue to define the city today.
For Williams, who came of age during the partisan warfare of the past 20 years, the pairing caught his attention because Roosevelt was a Democrat and La Guardia a Republican. Under the tutelage of Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz and others, Williams discovered that partisan boundaries were much more fluid in the 1930s and 1940s, especially in ethnically and racially diverse New York.
While FDR remains a cultural icon, La Guardia — who died in 1947, two years after a decade as mayor — offered Williams more of a blank slate, he says. The 5-foot-2 La Guardia was “outgoing and gregarious, and once he was in power, he knew he was the center of attention and reveled in it,” Williams says. “He could be irascible, demanding, and vibrantly funny with a vulgar streak.”
He embodied the diversity of his city, helping him become a successful mayor. Born to a lapsed-Catholic father and a Jewish mother, La Guardia became an Episcopalian. He was raised far from the teeming wards of New York in Prescott, Ariz., and as a young man he worked for U.S. embassies in Eastern Europe before settling in New York in the 1920s. His background allowed him to “relate to different communities and build relationships with different groups,” Williams says.
While Williams believes that the federal government has eclipsed local government in the public mind, the response to Hurricane Sandy reminds him that when the going gets tough, both are needed. “I hope people will read the book and realize how valuable local governments are in solving problems, and how partnerships with the federal government can be part of that,” Williams says.
WHAT HE’S READING: The Making of an Historian by J.H. Plumb
What he likes about it: “He has interesting things to say about the role of serious, scholarly history in the public sphere.”