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Mayors and Mores in the
Ungovernable City
who’ve become characters to conjure with in the national
political imagination. Governing a center of money,
media, and social movements gives Gotham’s chief exec-
utives a disproportionate role in defining the country’s assumptions
about big cities.
The modern era in New York politics is usually associated with
such theatrical figures as the dapper songwriter and Broadway
Boulevardier, “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker, who symbolized the Jazz
Age of the 1920s until he was driven from office by a corruption
scandal. Subsequent mayors included the five-foot-two-inch titan
Fiorello La Guardia, “the little Franklin Roosevelt,” a raging
reformer who could campaign (and curse) in five languages. Later
there was 1960s matinee idol John Lindsay who made liberal hearts
go atwitter even as his local version of the Great Society sent the city
onto greased skids. In the 1980s there was Ed Koch, a Borscht-belt
comedian who rescued the city from bankruptcy while playing the
role of mayor. And of course there’s America’s mayor, 9/11 hero
Rudy Giuliani, who saved the city from crime by playing the role of
a Republican playing a Democrat playing a Republican.
▲ ▲ ▲
As a state senator in the 1920s, Jimmy Walker’s approach to the
city’s tensions was to bring people together by legalizing Sunday
baseball, boxing and movies. Walker, put in office by Tammany Hall,
the city’s legendary Irish Catholic political machine, would have
liked to legalize Sunday drinking too, but in the Prohibition era it
ew York has a tradition of larger-than-life mayors
The Prince of the City
was outlawed for the entire week. As mayor, Walker rarely allowed
his job to interfere with his social life. He paid his personal bills with
contributions from people who did business with the city and he
paid the city’s bills by borrowing. By 1932, explains historian Mar-
tin Shefter, “one-third of the entire city budget was devoted to debt
service” and its total debt, conveniently financed by Wall Street just
a few blocks from City Hall, “nearly equaled that of all the 48 states
The city, which had to borrow from the banks to meet its pay-
roll, had been reduced to a ward of financier J.P. Morgan. When
Walker and his gorgeous mistress left for Europe, walking away
from the bribery and shakedown scandals he’d help create, his tem-
porary successor as mayor was John P. O’Brien, a loyal Tammany
guy. Asked who his police commissioner would be, O’Brien
famously replied, “I don’t know, they haven’t told me yet.”
With the city suffering from a 25 percent unemployment rate,
Fiorello La Guardia, who despised the bosses of both Tammany and
big business, came in to clean up the mess. Elected in 1933 as a
fusion candidate backed by both the Republicans and anti-Tammany
reformers, he won with only 40 percent of the vote in a nasty three-
way race by somewhat unfairly accusing an opponent of being an
anti-Semite. “In exploiting racial and ethnic prejudice,” wrote
Robert Moses, “La Guardia could run circles around the bosses he
despised and derided. When it came to raking ashes of Old World
hates, warming ancient grudges, waving the bloody shirt, turning the
ear to ancestral voices, he could easily out-demagogue the dema-
La Guardia, a tough campaigner who bragged, “I invented the
low blow,” carried the day with an unlikely coalition of Italian
plebeians, WASP patricians and Jewish socialists. In the patronage-
driven government he inherited, the surgeons hired for city
hospitals by Tammany Hall had to be tipped if you expected them
to operate
La Guardia was revered by left-wing New Dealers. They saw
him as moving New York toward European style social democracy,
if not outright socialism. But La Guardia was more paternalist than
socialist. Tammany Hall served as a just-off-the-boat employment
agency for new arrivals. La Guardia saw himself as a benign padrone
who would similarly look after a population just a half-generation
removed from peasantry by providing the same services honestly and
 Mayors and Mores in the Ungovernable City
In 1935 he issued an emergency proclamation temporarily ban-
ning the sale of baby artichokes in the city’s public markets. The
target was the Harlem racketeers shaking down grocers “who pur-
chased, under force, this delicacy especially valued by the Italian
community.” Accompanied by bugle-blowing police officers, La
Guardia shouted out the proclamation from a flatbed truck outside a
wholesale market in the Bronx. “I want it clearly understood,” La
Guardia said in his ringing falsetto, “that no bunch of racketeers,
thugs, and punks is going to intimidate you as long as I am mayor of
the city of New York.”
In the early 1940s, while the U.S. and USSR were allies of con-
venience in the war against Hitler, a trade delegation from the Soviet
Union dressed in its diplomatic finery came to visit La Guardia. La
Guardia, the man of the people, looked at the Soviet diplomats and
then at his own baggy paints and frayed shirt: “Gentleman,” he said,
“I represent the proletariat.”
He was beloved, explained Supreme Court Justice Felix Frank-
furter, because he “translated the complicated conduct of the City’s
vast government into warm significance for every man, woman and
child.” But by transferring patron/client relationships from the immi-
grant neighborhoods to City Hall, La Guardia turned New York into
an administered city of clients rather than citizens
In the short term, La Guardia screamed and bullied his way to
better government. La Guardia, said New Dealer Rexford Tugwell,
treated his own staff like “dogs.” In one famed incident he called in
a stenographer in order to humiliate a commissioner who was pres-
ent. He shouted at her, “If you were any dumber, I’d make you a
commissioner.” La Guardia who rarely took a vacation, employed
the technique of his hero, former New York City Police Commis-
sioner Theodore Roosevelt, popping in to city offices unannounced
to catch people goofing off. A mayor who gave a “prize” he called
the “Order of the Shankbone” to the official who had made the
biggest mistake since he last met with them was not to be trifled
with. “It would be almost but not quite fair,” wrote Tugwell, “to say
that he was an instinctive dictator.”
La Guardia paid off the banks, promoted honest and efficient
government by expanding civil service appointments and allied him-
self with Franklin Roosevelt, making New York into “the New Deal
City.” La Guardia, writes historian Thomas Kessner, became a mas-
ter at milking money from the federal government. He was in
Washington twice a week where he enjoyed extraordinary access to
The Prince of the City
the president. Half joking, FDR said of La Guardia, “Our Mayor is
probably the most appealing person I know. He comes to Washing-
ton and tells me a sad story. The tears run down my cheeks and the
first thing I know, he has wangled another $50 million.”
La Guardia made good use of the money. He hated lawyers,
calling them the “semi-colon boys.” He loved architects and engi-
neers who, with the help of federal grants, built the East River (now
FDR) Drive, the Triboro Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Queens
Midtown Tunnel during his tenure as mayor. But not even the vast
flow of federal money could keep up with the city’s spending. La
Guardia added an array of new taxes and his comptroller, who dis-
missed deficits as “entirely a bookkeeping transaction,” adopted the
old Tammany policy of rolling one year’s expenses over into the next
year’s budget
The mayor didn’t help matters with his relentless hostility to
business. He pledged to make New York a “100 per cent union city,”
and when businesses threatened to leave, he threatened to blacklist
them. “The forces of organized money,” he argued, “are unanimous
in their hate for me.” When a 1944 report spoke of “the alarming
flight of industry to younger cities,” creating “ghost neighbor-
hoods,” he responded with plans for even more public works.
Without massive city spending to absorb the returning veterans, he
feared that, as in the worst days of 1930s, labor violence “hell will
break loose.”
The glory years were indelible but brief. By the late 1930s, not
even La Guardia’s special relationship with FDR could keep the city
on an even keel fiscally. When he came into office La Guardia used
federal money to pay off the city’s debts to J.P. Morgan and other
banks. By the end of his three terms, the city was once again in
hock to the bankers. New York, explained the Citizens Budget Com-
mission, “faces a crisis in its fiscal affairs” because spending
independent of relief was growing three times faster and debt five
and a half times faster than the population. The mayor’s ally, Comp-
troller Joseph McGoldrick, adopted the Tammany practice that La
Guardia had once denounced of financing current expenditures with
debt imposed on future generations. World War II temporarily res-
cued the city from its fiscal fate and the return of machine politics
in the 1950s temporarily slowed the rate of increase of city spending,
but except for boom times New York would never again be able to
afford its government.
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