A monument showcasing Mayor LaGuardia, mid applause. Almost as if he is appluading how far his beloved city has come. (Courtesy of: amNewYork 2019)

Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia

In the middle of Greenwich village in New York City, a statue of a man small in stature depicts one of the most famous and effective mayors the city had been led by. In 1929, the city of New York was filled with corruption and vice handled under the firm grip of the corrupt political faction found in Tammany Hall. Jimmy Walker-a Tammany Hall supported Democrat and current mayor of New York City-would run for re-election against the Republican maverick, Fiorello L. LaGuardia. LaGuardia was known to be a man who despised corruption, crime, and was all around seen as an honest man who wanted what was best for the city rotting from corruption. To no one’s surprise, the honest candidate would lose by the largest margin in New York City mayoral elections to a man put in power by a corrupt political machine.[1] This would not be the first time LaGuardia would run for mayor because in 1933, the position of mayor would be once again opened as incumbent Jimmy Walker would be forced out of office due to a political scandal. By 1933, LaGuardia would rise to the position of mayor and begin his tenure with tough-on-crime policies and a fierce opposition to corruption plaguing the government.

Born to an Italian mother and Jewish father in New York City, LaGuardia was already tied to New York City the moment he was born.[2] He was a combination of two ethnic groups that were historically looked down upon in the city which would impact how he would deal with his future policies as mayor. He would receive his law education from New York University and practiced law in the city until 1915. This fateful year would see him become the New York Deputy Attorney General which propelled him into the world of politics. 1916 would see him be elected to the House of Representatives and his time in congress would make him a known Republican with progressive ideologies. Namely, LaGuardia was supportive of immigrant families which was dear to him due to his parents being immigrants.

Even before he was elected to the position of Mayor, the “Little Flower” (a nickname derived from the English translation of LaGuardia) had laid out his political platform to attack Tammany Hall and rid his beloved city from the machine’s grip. The origins of his crime fighting passion would be because of his Italian background as a son to an Italian mother and father. He viewed the Italian mobs and gang operated organizations as a disgrace to the good and honest Italian people in New York and wanted to get rid of them as they stained the image of Italian-Americans.[3] From this stemmed his hatred of all criminal activities that stained the image of his beloved city. His work as a lawyer saw advocacy for New York reform that he would later carry on in his mayoral campaign.

His first campaign for mayorship was run on the premise that he would bring down the corrupt Tammany Hall. LaGuardia would describe the machine as a “vicious, greedy, and cruel” institution that needed to be uprooted and disposed of so that the city could reach new heights.[4] Even though LaGuardia spoke to inform the citizens of New York about the ills of Tammany Hall, the reality was that the city had relied on the political machine for so long that it seemed necessary for many voters. The act of LaGuardia informing the public about the true nature of the Tammany Hall was an effective strategy as many New Yorkers had their eyes opened to the corruption plaguing the city. And when he was eventually elected during his second run for mayorship, the city was ready for a change. LaGuardia’s agenda took on a five-point approach that was both reformative, and a return to New York City values. The five approaches were to restore finances and provide a free market, developing relief programs, cleaning out political corruption, replacing patronage positions with merit-based employment, and raising New York to a modern city. While LaGuardia was most successful in all areas of his agenda, he is best known for his approach to destroying corruption, not only against Tammany Hall, but the gangs that ran rampant in the city.[5]

The first order of business to directly combat Tammany corruption was to clear out City Hall of any redundant or unnecessary positions. Many employees under Jimmy Walker had been employed through a patronage system to reward loyalists for their support towards the machine. LaGuardia made sure that this patronage system would no longer be in place. Instead, he would hire employees based on their skill and merit and not on who they knew politically. This process would see different demographic groups work together in city hall. This was progressive change as compared to the past administration who had employed puppet positions to collect unchecked payment. Immigrants, African-Americans and women were employed under the LaGuardia administration. By the time positions were remodeled and new employees were given their jobs, City Hall would symbolize how New York could operate without the looming grip of corruption.

While LaGuardia had already taken action against Tammany Hall, he was still only one man and needed additional aid to combat political corruption. In a deal with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the two men would agree to help one another in carrying out their political agenda. Roosevelt, the former governor of New York would help the current mayor of New York City in an emblematic battle against corruption that both men despised. In administering proper enforcement of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government would repay LaGuardia by stripping Tammany Hall associates of federal patronage to help bring down the political machine[6]. The influence of Tammany Hall was steadily declining as Fiorello appealed to the citizens of New York as an honest politician looking to do what was best for his citizens. Not only had LaGuardia find himself with direct support from the federal government, he had put New York City on a brighter national spotlight than ever before. News of his success in combatting corruption would spread across the country as his efforts would be detailed by national news coverage and iconic imagery.

Tammany Hall’s declining influence was not enough to satisfy LaGuardia’s hatred for crime. He soon turned to New York City gangs in 1934 by directly opposing monopolies and gambling. This chapter of LaGuardia’s policies had a personal connection to him because of his Italian heritage[7]. He viewed the Italian gangs that spread fear to citizens were a disgrace to Italians and their usage of vices had deeply offended his personal sentiments. Monopolies in the food business were a rampant exploitation because Italian mobsters held many vendors in their grip by collecting and extorting money for exotic produce. The one that cost the most disturbance in the business of food were vendors that were selling artichokes.[8] These honest vendors were taken advantage of by Italian gangsters by collecting a percentage of the profits earned from artichoke sales. To directly combat this, LaGuardia would implement a controversial decision to ban the sale and trade of baby artichokes so that Italian gangsters could not profit from street vendors. He would announce on the streets of the city that it was a necessary measure to take and apologized for the direct hit to the businesses of the hard-working vendors. The difficult decisions that LaGuardia would have to undertake would prove ultimately effective in decreasing the influence of gang crime.[9] The policy would be recalled after only three days due to vendors complaining of plummeting sales of other products. However, due to New York being under the national eye for a long time due to LaGuardia, the FBI took notice and cracked down on illegal artichoke sales and monopolies. After the illegal artichoke trade was nipped in the bud, LaGuardia made the effort of increasing the sales of legitimate artichoke trades through restaurants to help the national trade of artichokes and smaller businesses[10]. The persona of LaGuardia as a hands-on mayor would be a defining characteristic of the Little Flower. The integrity of his character was showcased through his direct addressal of street vendors and helping the businesses reclaim their revenue due to the artichoke ban. The fact that the mayor made it a point to get vendors back on their feet proves how much LaGuardia cared about the livelihoods of his citizens. Years after the artichoke wars were finished, LaGuardia still made sure that vendors selling artichokes were able to get their business back into making profits

Years after the artichoke wars and his controversial ban of the sale of artichokes, Mayor LaGuardia inspects the produce sold by vendors impacted by his ban. After crime mafias took a hit to their illegal businesses due to the loss of monopoly on artichokes, the mayor would make it his personal duty to put street vendors back on their feet and promote business by urging citizens to purchase produce from the vendors. (Courtesy of: Getty Images)

Another way that LaGuardia would fight crime was taking a stand against gambling, another criminal endeavor that Italian gangsters had control over. Gambling through nickel slot machines were popular in New York and it created a substantial amount of criminal profit[11]. Gangsters preyed on the addictive tendencies of certain citizens and the fierce mayor took action against this directly once again. LaGuardia would order the confiscation of slot machines around the city and would personally destroy them with sledgehammers[12]. Images of the mayor smashing these slot machines became iconic photographs that would symbolize the intensity of the mayor’s tough on crime policies. As these images circled around, LaGuardia would become an archetype of what cities wanted from their mayor: an honest man who was ready to do what it takes. His time in office would see LaGuardia continuously crack down on gambling operations which directly impacted the profits made by the gangs of New York. By the end of his first term in office, LaGuardia had showcased he would stay true to his word to combat corruption and directly fight against criminals who tried to take hold of his city.

The tough on crime mayor showcased his crime-fighting passion in dramatic form, often taking matters into his own hands. After slot machines would be confiscated from illegal gambling operations, Mayor LaGuardia would take to smashing as many as he could with a sledgehammer. (Courtesy of: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)

The hands-on approach by LaGuardia won the hearts of New Yorkers and the beloved mayor was forever cemented as one of New York’s finest leaders. While crime did not completely dissipate under the oversight of LaGuardia, its influence upon the city was greatly reduced. The efforts made by the great Mayor would help lead New York out of a dark time period muddled by government corruption and criminal vices. It is only fair that New Yorkers in the modern age uphold the legacy of a mayor who rose to the occasion when the city needed him most.

 

References

Lagarchivist, director. Fiorello H. La Guardia Attacks Tammany Hall, 1933. LaGuardia Community College, YouTube, 22 Feb. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaHflVDIzZo. Accessed 15 Feb. 2022.

Siler, Leon. “NEW YORK ELECTS A MAYOR.” Current History (1916-1940), vol. 47, no. 1, University of California Press, 1937, pp. 35–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45337761.

Associated Press. Mayor LaGuardia Takes a Sledgehammer to Slot Machines. Circa 1942. Burns, R., 2021. New York: An Illustrated History. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, pp 426.

Kessner, Thomas. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia.” The History Teacher, vol. 26, no. 2, Society for History Education, 1993, pp. 151–59, https://doi.org/10.2307/494812.

Kilkelly, M. B. (2017, June 8). Behold the baby artichoke, or, power to the punies. NYC Department of Records & Information Services. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.archives.nyc/blog/2017/6/8/behold-the-baby-artichoke-or-power-to-the punies#:~:text=At%206%3A50%20a.m.%20on,threatening%20emergency%E2%80%9D%20in%20the%20city.

Kaufman, Herbert. “Fiorello H. La Guardia, Political Maverick: A Review Essay.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 105, no. 1, [Academy of Political Science, Wiley], 1990, pp. 113–22, https://doi.org/10.2307/2151228.

Burns, R. (2021). In New York: An illustrated history (pp. 419–457). essay, Knopf DoubledayPublishing Group.

Bettman. (n.d.). Fiorello LaGuardia Inspecting Produce. Getty Images. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/mayor-fiorello-laguardia-of-new-york-examines-some-celery-news-photo/515174906?adppopup=true.

Carskadon, T. R. “New York’s Fighting Mayor.” Current History (1916-1940) 43, no. 4 (1936):353–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45335189.

 

[1] Kessner, Thomas. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia.” The History Teacher, vol. 26, no. 2, Society for History Education, 1993, pp. 151–59, https://doi.org/10.2307/494812.

[2] Backes, A. D. (2021, January 3). Fiorello La Guardia – history of New York City mayors. ClassicNewYorkHistory.com. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from https://classicnewyorkhistory.com/fiorello-la-guardia-history-of-new-york-city-mayors/

[3] Carskadon, T. R. “New York’s Fighting Mayor.” Current History (1916-1940) 43, no. 4

1936): 353–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45335189.

[4] Lagarchivist, director. Fiorello H. La Guardia Attacks Tammany Hall, 1933. LaGuardia Community College, YouTube, 22 Feb. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaHflVDIzZo. Accessed 15 Feb. 2022.

[5] Carskadon, T. R. “New York’s Fighting Mayor.”

[6] Kaufman, Herbert. “Fiorello H. La Guardia, Political Maverick: A Review Essay.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 105, no. 1, [Academy of Political Science, Wiley], 1990, pp. 113–22, https://doi.org/10.2307/2151228.

[7] Siler, Leon. “NEW YORK ELECTS A MAYOR.” Current History (1916-1940), vol. 47, no. 1, University of California Press, 1937, pp. 35–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45337761.

[8] Kilkelly, M. B. (2017, June 8). Behold the baby artichoke, or, power to the punies. NYC Department of Records & Information Services. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.archives.nyc/blog/2017/6/8/behold-the-baby-artichoke-or-power-to-the-punies#:~:text=At%206%3A50%20a.m.%20on,threatening%20emergency%E2%80%9D%20in%20the%20city.

[9] Kilkelly, M. B

[10] Bettman. (n.d). Fiorello LaGuardia Inspecting Produce. Getty Images, Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/mayor-fiorello-laguardia-of-new-york-examines-some-celery-news-photo/515174906?adpopup=true

[11] Burns, R. (2021). In New York: An illustrated history (pp. 419–457). essay, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[12] Associated Press. Mayor LaGuardia Takes a Sledgehammer to Slot Machines. Circa 1942. Burns, R., 2021. New York: An Illustrated History. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, pp 426.

 

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