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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The “Little Flower” of ‘The Big Apple’

By Tom Morrow

Fiorello Henry La Guardia, born Dec. 11, 1882, was an American politician who was a New York Republican Congressman, but was best known as the mayor who cleaned up New York City’s graft and corruption during the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s

He was the 99th Mayor of New York City serving three terms from 1934 to 1945. Previously, he had been elected to Congress in 1916 and 1918, and again from 1922 through 1930. Irascible, energetic, and charismatic, he craved publicity and is acclaimed as one of the greatest mayors in American history. Only five feet, two inches tall, he was called “the Little Flower.

La Guardia, a Republican, who appealed across party lines, went across party lines, worked with Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “New Deal.” In turn, FDR heavily funded the city and cut off the city’s Democrat-controlled Tammany Hall headquarters.

La Guardia revitalized New York City and restored public faith in City Hall. He unified the transit system, directed the building of low-cost public housing, public playgrounds, and parks, constructed airports, reorganized the police force, defeated the powerful Tammany Hall political machine, and reestablished employment on merit in place of patronage jobs. La Guardia also is remembered for his WNYC radio program “Talk to the People,” which aired from December 1941 till December 1945.

La Guardia was seen as a domineering leader, who verged on authoritarian but whose reform politics were carefully tailored to address the sentiments of his diverse constituency. He won elections against the historically corrupt Tammany Hall political system, presided during the Great Depression and World War II, implemented New Deal welfare and public works programs in the city, and gave political support to immigrants and ethnic minorities.

La Guardia was known as a reform mayor who helped clean out corruption, brought in experts, and made the city responsible for its own citizens. His administration engaged new groups that had been kept out of the political system, gave New York its modern infrastructure, and raised expectations of new levels of urban possibility.

La Guardia’s predecessor, “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker and his Irish-run Tammany Hall were forced out of office by scandal and corruption. As one city official described Walker: “Jimmy could get more things done in five minutes than it would take the average politician five months to accomplish – all the same, he was a crook.

In the 1933 election, La Guardia was determined to replace Walker. First, he had to win the nomination of both the Republican party and also the “Fusion” group of independents. He was not the first choice of either, for they distrusted Italians. On the other hand, La Guardia had enormous determination, high visibility, the support of reformer Samuel Seabury and the ability to ruin the prospects of any rival by a divisive primary contest.

La Guardia made corruption his main issue. The campaign saw mud thrown all ways. Guardia’s win was based on a complex coalition of regular Republicans (mostly middle class German-Americans in the boroughs outside Manhattan), a minority of reform-minded Democrats, some Socialists, a large proportion of middle-class Jews, and the great majority of Italians. The Italians had been loyal to Tammany; but their switch proved decisive.

When La Guardia addressed the various ethnic neighborhoods where he spoke the predominant language. He was fluent or close enough to rally residents speaking in Italian, German, Yiddish, and Hungarian neighborhoods. La Guardia was a Freemason and a member of Garibaldi Lodge #542, in New York City.

La Guardia died at the age of 64, of pancreatic cancer Sept. 20, 1947, in the The Bronx. He was ranked first among the nation’s mayors in a 1993 poll of historians and social scientists. His close collaboration with Roosevelt’s New Deal proved a striking success in linking national money and local needs. La Guardia enabled the political recognition of new groups that had been largely excluded from the political system, such as Jews and Italians. His administration gave New York its modern infrastructure.] His far-sighted goals raised ambitions for new levels of urban possibility.

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