On January 1st, New York City got a new mayor – Democrat Bill de Blasio. Mayor de Blasio ran on a platform of social and economic change. However, he’s certainly not the first progressive in Gracie Mansion!
Mayor de Blasio and his family celebrate his election in November 2013. Photo courtesy the New York Daily News.
Mayor de Blasio has some big shoes to fill, but some of the most famous shoes might not fit him… de Blasio is the city’s tallest mayor, standing at ‘6 “5, and he has to live up to political giant Fiorella LaGuardia, who was just over five feet tall.
New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia
LaGuardia, a Republican, was elected to three terms as mayor from 1934 to 1945, and is perhaps the most famous mayor in New York’s history; his policies changed the face of the Lower East Side forever.
Born in Greenwich Village to an Italian father and Jewish mother, LaGuardia was raised in Arizona and Trieste (a northeastern Italian city and his mother’s birthplace) before returning to New York City in 1906 to study law at New York University. Elected to Congress in 1916, LaGuardia represented a notoriously poor section of East Harlem and developed a reputation as a fiery defender of progressive causes. He resigned his seat in 1919 to serve as a pilot in the First World War. He regained the seat in 1922 and held it until 1933, when he lost his seat in a Democratic landslide.
Despite being a Republican, LaGuardia appealed to voters in both parties, and he successfully ran for mayor in 1933 on a “Fusion” ticket (one that consisted of Democrats and Republicans who were against the corruption of Tammany Hall). Instead of participating in the traditional New Year’s Day Mayoral inauguration ceremony, LaGuardia made numerous appearances across the city, promising voters to change the corrupt municipal government and change their lives for the better.
While a law student at NYU, LaGuardia worked for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children and served as a translator at Ellis Island, helping new immigrants navigate the frightening new land, and seeing first-hand how New York’s newest inhabitants lived. After he graduated from law school, he began a firm that represented immigrants, factory and sweatshop workers, and street peddlers of the Lower East Side, often free of charge.
His dedication to helping the people of the Lower East Side did not stop once he became mayor; LaGuardia favored strong unions, public welfare programs for the poor, expanding public works programs for the unemployed which included rebuilding or new construction of roads, parks, and other structures (including an airport that would be named after him), immigration reform, and housing issues like slum-clearance and low-cost housing; the tradition of which has led to the Fiorella LaGuardia Houses on today’s Lower East Side.
LaGuardia fought to curb gambling in New York City, as it was often controlled by the mafia. Here he is smashing confiscated slot machines that will then be dumped into Long Island Sound.
In order to ease the street congestion of the Lower East Side, in 1940 LaGuardia created the Essex Street Market to give street vendors a safe and steady place to sell their goods, thereby changing the look and character of the neighborhood.
Despite his short stature, Fiorella LaGuardia is a huge figure in our city’s history. At the start of this new year and new political era, we’re excited and hopeful about New York City’s future.