Remembering Fiorello LaGuardia
Many today are too young to remember that the name LaGuardia didn’t always just refer what is frequently called the worst airport in America. Rather, it also referred to a three-term New York City mayor often cited as New York City’s best mayor (and arguably both its first Italian-American and first Jewish mayor), who championed political reform and immigrant rights, and led New York City through the Great Depression and World War II. Standing at only 5 feet, two inches tall, Fiorello (Italian for ‘little flower’) LaGuardia was every bit a fighter for progressive causes and served the people of New York City in Congress and as Mayor. A fighter to the end, hs said: “It makes no difference if I burn my bridges behind me – I never retreat.”
Fiorello La Guardia was born on December 11, 1882 at 177 Sullivan Street (formerly 7 Varick Place), a building which has long since been demolished. His father, Achille La Guardia, was an Italian immigrant and non-practicing Catholic and his mother, Irene Coen, was a Jewish immigrant from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fiorello was raised Episcopalian, oddly enough, and continued that practice throughout his life.
LaGuardia first worked abroad in Italy and Hungary through the State Department and then came back to the United States to attend NYU Law, from which he graduated in 1910. During his time in law school, LaGuardia also worked as an interpreter on Ellis Island, since he was multi-lingual. His political career began in 1915 when he became Deputy Attorney General for New York. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, representing a district in East Harlem and developed a reputation as an outspoken reformer. He served in the US Army Air Service during World War I and rose to the rank of major. In 1919 he resigned his congressional seat and running on the Republican ticket, defeated Tammany Hall candidate Robert Moran for the office of the President of the New York City Board of Alderman.
In 1922 La Guardia returned to Congress running as a Republican and representing a section of East Harlem with a strong Italian presence. In Congress, he became a leading liberal reformer championing such causes as labor reform, reduction of immigration quotas, progressive income taxes, increased big business oversight by the government and national employment insurance for the unemployed.
He threw his hat into the ring for New York City Mayor in 1929 but was soundly beaten by incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Walker. Later in 1932, he lost his congressional seat. However, in 1933 Walker, part of the Tammany Hall machine, was forced out of office amid a corruption scandal. LaGuardia, ever the fighter, was determined to win the office this time around, and he did as a Republican on a reform platform.
His time as the Mayor of New York City spanned three terms between 1934 to 1945. During his tenure, he increased the efficiency and honesty of the City’s government. In 1938, a new city charter had been adopted and LaGuardia filled the board of magistrates and virtually every other long-term appointive office, effectively eradicating the power of Tammany Hall. A New Dealer and favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt, LaGuardia was able to secure large amounts of Federal money for public works in New York. He aided the drive for slum clearance and the construction of low-cost housing through the cooperation of the State and Federal Governments. Working with Robert Moses in his early days (before demolishing whole neighborhoods for “urban renewal” became the core of his methodology), he also made great strides in improving New York’s then-insufficient infrastructure.
LaGuardia was the first three-term New York City Mayor, but refused to seek a fourth term. Following his mayorship, in 1946 he was appointed Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In 1947 La Guardia died of pancreatic cancer.
In honor of our once Mayor, West Broadway north of Houston Street, near his birthplace, was renamed LaGuardia Place after his death. A statue of the ‘Little Flower’ was added in the 1990s by the Friends of LaGuardia Place to further commemorate the Mayor and his service to the City of New York.