Fiorello LaGuardia

His Life and Legacy

Not many mayors last beyond one or two terms. In fact, only four in the history of New York served more than three years.

Michael Bloomberg from 2002 — 2013; Edward Koch from 1978 — 1989, Robert Wagner, Jr. from 1954 — 1965 and Fiorello La Guardia during the Great Depression from 1934 to 1945.

LaGuardia, only five feet tall, is considered to be one of the greatest mayors in American history. As the short but mighty La Guardia, the 99th mayor of New York, he carried the nickname “Little Flower.”

He was loved and hated at the same time. He was criticized and polarized, but his honest conduct of politics served the city well.

As a son of immigrant parents, LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village in New York City. He spent most of his boyhood, however, in Arizona when his father was active in the military.

La Guardia worked as an interpreter in the US Consulate in Trieste, Italy in his younger years. Later he would move to Fiume, part of Austria-Hungary at the time.

As a result of his work as an interpreter, and his diverse background he was fluent in Yiddish, English, French, German and Italian.

When he returned to New York, he would enroll at NYU. In 1907, he worked for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration at Ellis Island. Three years later he took the bar exam and began to practice law.

Passionate about the law, he became Deputy Attorney General for the state of New York in 1915. In 1916, he was elected to the House of Representatives.

He promoted woman suffrage and fought for improved conditions in child labor. After a short hiatus as a pilot during World War I, he returned to Congress.

In 1929, he was beaten in the mayoral election by James Walker. In 1932, he did not win the re-election to the House of Representatives. He did not give up. Two years later in 1934 he was the mayoral election and began his legacy as one of the great mayors of American history.

He won his first term by running against the corrupt and poisoned politics of Tammany Hall. He allied himself with reform-minded Democrats, Republicans, Independents and the American Labor Party.

When La Guardia began his term, the city and the country were in the midst of the Great Depression. A year earlier, the stock market had collapsed. Unemployment was at a record high. The budget was severely depressed.

La Guardia was disciplined enough to follow with his agenda. He built a close relationship with US President Frank D. Roosevelt. As a result, a good portion of federal money flowed into the city’s annual budget.

His public programs were wide reaching. He built bridges, health clinics, and playgrounds. He cleared out slums and provided cheaper housing opportunities to the poor. He frequently held radio programs to maintain a good relationship with the people.

He was able to work with people, even the ones he did not like. In collaboration with Robert Moses, whom he did not like much, he created some of the most beautiful parks in the city. Initially in building them they created jobs, and provided New Yorkers with an opportunity to retreat from city life.

His popularity as mayor stemmed from directly appealing to issued New Yorkers cared about. Although short in statute and high in voice, he spoke eloquently to appeal to his people. He was a showman and a man of the people.

Under his leadership the police and fire department became more efficient. He arrested mob boss Lucky Luciano. He fought against gambling bottle neck gangster that collected bribes at the port of New York City. He was an outspoken critic of Hitler, long before the war had started.

After his tenure as mayor he worked at the UN and did broadcasting radio on local affairs. At the age of 64, he died of cancer in the Bronx. He did not even feel that he was particularly successful. In one of his last speeches he said that “his generation has failed miserably. We’ve failed because of lack of courage and vision. It requires more courage to keep the peace than to go to war.”