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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The[n-y-c]files: Themanwhodrovethebumsout

Published: January 26, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

Come find out what you cant know;

see whats not there. Its no more, but it used to be in humanitys hometown;

you know where. These are the [n-y-c] files. *


Picture, if you possibly can, a nation fallen on hard times such as our generation has never known, a quarter of its workforce unemployed. Imagine its largest city, home to millions of new Americans, their hard-won financial gains immeasurably set back in the worst economic cataclysm of the century. Suppose there lives a stocky man, barely five feet tall, the son of two such immigrants. In a high-pitched voice he speaks seven languages. Imagine this unlikely character elected to public office and waging war on the corruption of a long-entrenched political establishment. Winning the hearts of millions and a permanent place in a citys history and collective consciousness, he becomes a figure whose very name remains a household word to New Yorkers, young and old alike, to this day. The name: LaGuardia.

Born in the Bronx in 1882 to an Italian father and a mother of Jewish origin, Fiorello Enrico LaGuardia did not grow up in the city with whom his name has become synonymous. He lived as a kid in Prescott, Arizona, and then began his legendary career serving in several American consulates abroad. But when he returned to the city of his birth and finished his education at NYU, something about his character was evident in the jobs he took. Something fundamentally decent and quintessentially New York

One job was with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Another was as a translator at Ellis Island;

there, he became conversant in Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, Hungarian, and other languages in his daily work with newly-arriving immigrants.

In the opening years of WWI, LaGuardia became a Deputy Attorney General for his state, and then a member of the US Congress, where he represented the Italian-American enclave of East Harlem. He spent the later war years in Europe serving in the newly-formed Army Air Service, a precursor to the US Air Force.

Following the war and the death of his wife, LaGuardia was re-elected to Congress in 1922 on a distinctly populist platform. His support for labor reforms and his opposition to caps on immigration showed his favor for the welfare of ordinary citizens and newcomers alike.

In spite of his dogged efforts on the issues which directly addressed the needs of the electorate, LaGuardia became best-known for his tireless drive against corruption in the citys Democrat-controlled political machine, whose original West 14th Street headquarters, and indeed the establishment itself, were popularly known as Tammany Hall. Waging the fight against Tammany required unlikely political alliances, and LaGuardia managed to forge a coalition between wealthy New Yorkers and working-class Jewish voters when elected mayor in 1933.

It was a very personal fight. Organized crime was flourishing amidst the hardship of the Depression years, and LaGuardia detested the negative stereotype that was so harming the Italian-American communitys reputation. He ordered the arrest of local mob boss Lucky Luciano, declaring in a radio broadcast, Lets drive the bums out of town. Luciano eventually received a sentence in excess of thirty years. In an even more legendary act of political showmanship, LaGuardia confiscated the slot machines of another local boss, Frank Costello, and smashed them with a sledgehammer in front of reporters.

Although a Republican, he supported Franklin D. Roosevelts Presidency. Working with Robert Moses of the New York Parks Commission, LaGuardia instituted large municipal public works projects, thus bringing thousands of new jobs and massive Federal funding to the city. After his final mayoral term ended in 1945, New Yorkers returned the favor, immortalizing his name for the entire world in a brand new landmark, that ultimate symbol of the modern era

It is said that once, when LaGuardia bought a plane ticket to New York and saw that the tickets destination read Newark, NJ, he ordered the plane to instead be flown to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. From then on, he was determined to see New York get its own passenger airport. That day occurred in late 1939 when New York Municipal Airport opened in Queens. As the mayor gave his speech on the opening day, a skywriting plane flew overhead, spelling out a wish and a grateful tribute across the sky:


That pilots wish was finally granted when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over administration of the airfield in 1947, the very year that Fiorello Enrico LaGuardia died.

A man of the people. A leader and a patriot. Gone now, yet living still in a million hearts, forever with us in blessed memory. And ever-present here. In the [n-y-c] files.

* Third in a series:
[ When a nickel was magic ]
[ D-train to Stillwell Avenue ]