The Little Flower’s Iron Fist and Soft Heart

New York City has long been seen as a paradoxical mecca…a dirty, gritty and overpopulated city rife with decadence and crime…an artistic, cultured community where stars are born and where there is money to be made…the financial hub of the country. Managing this city was more than challenging in the 1930’s, but one man accomplished it with aplomb. Fiorello LaGuardia.

LaGuardia (often referred to as ‘Little Flower’) was born in lower Manhattan, December 22, 1882 and raised in Arizona where his father was stationed as a bandmaster in the Air Force. At 5’2″ tall, with a high-pitched voice,  this son of an Austrian Jewish mother and Italian agnostic father learned to fend for himself and accept no other identity than that of an American. Fiorello formed his personal credo while living in the West…do not complain about pain, do not give in to fear, carry on like a man. That philosophy served him well throughout his career.

In his early twenties, he returned to New York to study law at New York University and set up a practice. Before long, politics called to him. He ran and was elected to a seat in United States House of Representatives in 1916, which launched his political career.

 Fiorello had voted in favor of entering WWI. A few months after taking hisFiorello LaGuardia seat in the House, we absented himself to enlist in the Signal Corps of the Air Force. He had promised his constituents that if he voted for the war, he would serve in the war.

The House kept his seat vacant out of respect. He returned with a valiant war record and was re-elected to his seat in Congress. In 1919, he left Congress to serve as president of the NewYork Board of Alderman, the lawmaking body of the City of New York. 

He was once again elected to Congress in 1923 and served until 1933. DuringFiorello LaGuardia, Congress those years, LaGuardia was an outspoken, independent and influential politician which gained him national acclaim. He authored the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, which outlawed contracts denying workers the right to become members of labor unions. It allowed workers to peacefully picket and strike, except in industries which were essential for public safety.

The 1930’s saw a dramatic swing toward the Democratic party. Fiorello was defeated in his vie for Congress in the 1932 elections in  a landslide win for the Democrats. He turned to municipal politics.

LaGuardia loved his City of New York, but was heartbroken at the state it was in…corruption, crime, slums, graft. Divided into political fiefdoms, it was haphazardly administered, with miniscule social and health services, decaying parks, and rusting bridges.

In 1934 he became a candidate for Mayor, standing on behalf of a coalitionFiorello LaGuardia, President Franklin Roosevelt of reformist groups and parties, and won. “He served until 1945, being elected three times in all. This was remarkable in a Democratic state and at a time of Democratic electoral ascendency. He was a vigorous supporter of President F. D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In turn, Roosevelt intervened to help him by splitting the Democratic vote in the 1934 elections. La Guardia saw many of the policies which he favoured come to fruition in the New Deal.”

La Guardia was known as the father of modern New York and had been dubbed a fiery and effective leader, establishing his independence from the major parties. This allowed him to improve all the services of the City. Before him, the city was in the thrall of graft. Having garnered massive funding from a friendly administration in Washington, La Guardia constructed bridges over the waters and dug tunnels under them, and built reservoirs, sewer systems, parks, highways, schools, hospitals, health centers, swimming pools, and airports. “For the first time, New York offered its poor public housing, its working class a unified transit system, and its artists and musicians training and subsidies.”

Previous mayors had dealt with aldermen and state politicians; La Guardia took up local needs with the White House. He understood that the modern city could no longer be self-sufficient, and as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors for close to a decade, he led a national coalition that fought for a generous federal urban policy.

La Guardia felt New Yorkers should enjoy a sense of ease and security, to live in a decent home and raise healthy children. A good and colorful man,Fiorello LaGuardia La Guardia, one Sunday during a newspaper strike, asked radio listeners to bring the kiddies around and then proceeded to give a dramatic reading of the Dick Tracy comic strip that would have run that day. It was one of his most remembered mayoral acts.

LaGuardia wasn’t without his shortcomings and failures. He undermined his reputation as a civil libertarian with his campaigns against smut and gambling. He instructed his police to “muss up” racketeers and “chiselers” with chilling abandon. He failed to consider the long-term effects of his progressive policies. 

“By the time he left office, the colossal metropolis he helped build wasMayor Fiorello LaGuardia saddled with debt, an infrastructure too expensive to maintain, dangerously expanding citizen expectations, and a snowballing bureaucracy.” And yet, LaGuardia was a dynamic politician, a visionary with a gift for practical application, and is known as one of the country’s great non-partisan reforming mayors.

Mayor LaGuardia retired in 1945, but he didn’t stop working. He became the Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, fighting world famine.

On September 20, 1947, he died after suffering with pancreatic cancer.

New York is the great metropolis it is today largely due to the foresight, courage and love of the city and its people bestowed upon it by Fiorello “Little Flower” LaGuardia. He has been memorialized in many and varied ways:

Per Wikipedia:

  • LaGuardia Airport, the smallest of New York’s three major currently operating airports, bears his name; the airport was voted the “greatest airport in the world” by the worldwide aviation community in 1960.
  • The United States Postal Service honored him with a 14¢ postage stamp.
  • LaGuardia Place, a street in Greenwich Village which runs from Houston Street to Washington Square, is named for La Guardia; there is also a statue of the mayor on that street.
  • La Guardia loved music, and was famous for spontaneously conducting professional and student orchestras. He once said that the “most hopeful accomplishment” of his administration as mayor was the creation of the High School of Music & Art in 1936, now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.[35]
  • In addition to LaGuardia High School, a number of other institutions are also named for him, including LaGuardia Community College.
  • He was the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Fiorello!. Actor Tom Bosley portrayed Fiorello LaGuardia.
  • La Guardia Bridge in Prescott, Arizona on North Montezuma Avenue.
  • In 1940, La Guardia received The Hundred Year Association of New York‘s Gold Medal Award “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York”.
  • Rehov LaGuardia (LaGuardia Street) is a major road and the name of a highway interchange on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, Israel.
  • “Ulica Fiorella La Guardije” (Fiorello La Guardia Street) is the name of a street in Rijeka, Croatia. La Guardia served in the U.S. consulate in Rijeka during the period before World War I when the city was under Austro-Hungarian rule and was known under its Italian name Fiume.

Considering the era, do you think LaGuardia was justified in using harsh means to clean up the criminal element in his City?

Do you think he used his power well?

You know I love hearing from you and anxiously await your comments!

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6 thoughts on “The Little Flower’s Iron Fist and Soft Heart

  1. Wonderful post. It really brought him to life again. I am with Patricia, I think his long list of accomplishments deserves a huge Bravo! 🙂 His heart was obviously in the right place.

    • Thanks, Natalie! When I saw a documentary on him and watched him reading the comics to the kids over the radio, I just fell for him. it hink he was a good, tough man, doing what he thought was best. NY’ers loved him!

  2. I love history posts too. I believe we often rush to criticize people in public service and sometimes it is warranted. When you stop to consider all of LaGuardia’s positive accomplishments though I think we have to say “Bravo!”. I can’t imagine the demands of running NYC.

    • NYC was a terrible place back then…overrun with crime and filth. He did all he could do. No politician is pristine or perfect, so I think NYC wouldn’t be what it is today without him and others like Mayor Juliani. Thanks Patricia!

  3. Marcia I love these history posts. While I tend to not want to judge history, I would say it is sad to ever overstep your authority. It appears he did from time to time but feeling it was well meaning. Just wanted you to know I gave you a well deserved shout out in my current blog post!!

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