The Sons of Revolution and Steerage: On ‘City of Ambition’

The Sons of Revolution and Steerage: On ‘City of Ambition’

The Sons of Revolution and Steerage: On ‘City of Ambition’

FDR, Fiorello La Guardia and rebuilding New York City during the New Deal.


As young, ambitious politicians in New York just prior to World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia had two crucial traits in common: the peculiarity of their respective political identities and, beyond party labels, those political identities themselves. For the arrogant, ambitious Roosevelt, a self-styled gentleman farmer from the “squirearchical” domain of the Hudson River Valley and an admirer of his fifth cousin, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, the obvious political affiliation to claim would have been with the Republican Party, which controlled upstate New York as totally as Tammany Hall and its Democratic Party did New York City. Similarly, a young urban ethnic like La Guardia (described by one biographer as being “half Jewish and half Italian, born in Greenwich Village yet raised in Arizona, married first to a Catholic and then to a Lutheran but himself a Mason and an Episcopalian…a Mr. Brotherhood Week all by himself”) would have been expected to seek favor with the Irish-run Tammany machine and the doors it would open to positions of power, or at least to regular employment.

But for altogether selfish reasons, both men defied convention. Roosevelt, whose father and grandfather had been Democrats, knew he would have less competition for the Democratic nomination and ran for the New York State Senate in 1910 as one among several anti-Tammany “Insurgents,” winning Dutchess County for the Democrats for the first time since 1878. La Guardia, who returned to the city of his birth after a long tour as a consulate official in Europe (where he learned a half-dozen or so languages, enabling him to later challenge one Jewish political opponent to a debate in Yiddish), was radicalized by his work as a lawyer in the needle-trades labor movement. He explained in his autobiography, The Making of an Insurgent, that joining the GOP “seemed the only avenue I could choose at the time in order to carry out my boyhood dreams of going to work against corrupt government,” although Tammany’s reluctance to run Italian-American candidates for office may also have been a factor.

From these different paths, Roosevelt and La Guardia would converge on the same platform: a belief in redistributive taxation, government intervention in the distribution of goods, and protective labor regulation, all of it promoted and sold with a healthy disregard for party discipline, a strategic use of mass media and a certain populist flair. These commitments also entailed a vision of municipal reform advocated by the “efficiency movement,” a coalition of “Good Government” types (or “Goo-Goos”). Whereas earlier reform movements were typically conservative in character, seeking to reduce taxes and spending, the Goo-Goos were committed to using technological advances to make government a more active, competent and responsible part of urban life. Although Progressives spent the prosperous and conservative 1920s in political exile, they developed a wealth of ideas that reformers could draw upon when “the Son of the Revolution and the Son of the Steerage,” in La Guardia’s words, were voted into the White House and New York’s City Hall in the early 1930s.

* * *

The phrase “The Making of Modern New York” could describe a book about the city in any decade of the twentieth century and perhaps even, if we keep our definitions loose, the first dozen years of the twenty-first. It could invoke the years around 1910, when Alfred Stieglitz stood on a ferry off lower Manhattan and photographed the muscular new skyscrapers looming over the terminal, shrouded in a luminous fog. Barbara Haskell, curator of an Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum a few years ago that included Stieglitz’s picture, calls the photograph “an atmospheric vision of the city” and an “architectural image of modernity.” Mason B. Williams, until recently a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, visited that Hopper exhibit and adopted the title of Stieglitz’s photograph—The City of Ambition—as the name of his first book. “The Making of Modern New York” could even apply to a book about the 1970s, a near-cataclysmic time of violence and bankruptcy throughout the five boroughs. Or it could describe a book about the life and times of Mayor La Guardia, who guided New York through more than a decade of Depression and war. Indeed, Thomas Kessner, a history professor at CUNY, already used the phrase in the title of his 1989 biography of La Guardia, and is rightly acknowledged by Williams for the many debts he is obviously owed.

City of Ambition explains how the close professional collaboration between La Guardia and Roosevelt during their nearly coterminous administrations enabled New York City to embark on some of the largest public works projects in American history during a period of severe economic deprivation, and how both the physical and political legacies of that era still shape the city. The book began as an undergraduate paper that Williams wrote at Princeton University, which Sean Wilentz, the eminent American historian, then brought to the attention of his own publisher, who offered Williams a book deal. Last year, Columbia took the unusual step of accepting Williams’s book as a doctoral dissertation, though under a slightly different name—“The Making of New Deal New York”—and with some additional detail.

At the core of the story Williams tells is the idea of “cooperative federalism,” defined by the midcentury constitutional scholar Edward Corwin as a framework in which various layers of political administration operate as “mutually complimentary parts of a single governmental mechanism.” Thus, whereas we intuitively consider power to be a zero-sum game—I give power to you, you take it from me—cooperative federalism allows power at the national, state and local levels to be deployed more efficiently and, ultimately, more assertively. Williams’s contribution to our understanding of the New Deal and of New York City is in identifying the collaboration between FDR and La Guardia as an episode of such federalism, from which there is much to be learned.

Immediately after La Guardia was elected as the mayor of New York City in November 1933, Roosevelt announced the creation of the Civil Works Administration—a “fundamental change,” in the president’s words, not merely to his administration’s approach to the unemployment problem, but to the very nature of American federalism. Previously, national and local governments operated in almost entirely distinct spheres; the New Deal, beginning with the CWA, reconfigured that relationship to include an unprecedented unity of purpose and integration of means. Roosevelt called the CWA “really and truly a partnership,” combining, Williams writes, “the planning and operational capacities of local governments” with “federal legal and fiscal resources.” Travis H. Whitney, administrator of the CWA for New York City, said the program would allow the city to do “those things which make our city more beautiful and useful, and which the city on its own behalf would hardly ever be financially able to do.” By Williams’s count, the CWA in New York employed “21 cartographers, 12 botanists, 59 doctors, 531 nurses, 135 dentists and 38 dental hygienists, 1,841 teachers, 210 librarians, 167 architects” and so on. But the CWA lasted only six months: Roosevelt always intended it, as he intended all federal work relief programs, to be a merely temporary response to a temporary emergency.

States and cities proved incapable of handling the responsibility for work relief, and protests broke out across the country. La Guardia, soon to assume the leadership of the US Conference of Mayors (a position he held until the end of his mayoralty in 1945), presented to Roosevelt “a long-term program” for the employment of “workers of all types…paid prevailing wage rates” to build affordable housing and schools. This was similar to the program Roosevelt unveiled on January 4, 1935, which sought to hire 3.5 million unemployed workers, who were, the president said—as if trying one justification for such an unprecedented extension of federal power, and then another—“the victim of a nation-wide depression caused by conditions which were not local but national. The federal government is the only government agency with sufficient power and credit to meet this situation.”

Intergovernmental spending exploded. In 1936, as the major New Deal programs were kicking in, 14 percent of the federal budget was directed at public works collaborations with states and municipalities. By 1939, that amount had more than doubled.

For cities like New York, Williams notes, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) “was essentially a gift of manpower.” Federal expenditures on projects for the Parks Department, for example, were more than eight times the department’s own budget in 1937. WPA money contributed to reinvigorating the city-owned radio station WNYC, launching a vast mosquito eradication project, and paying unemployed teachers to hold free classes on topics ranging from philology to sewing. Harold Ickes’s Public Works Administration (PWA) funded massive construction projects like the Lincoln Tunnel. “A decade that had begun with typical recession-era disinvestment,” Williams says, “ended with the public property of the city in perhaps the best physical condition in its history.” To the extent that the New Deal, as an episode of cooperative federalism, made that achievement possible, it deserves City of Ambition’s valedictory tone. But the story that the book tells is oddly incomplete.

* * *

Williams tries laudably to appeal to both the general and the academic reader, borrowing from the popular genre of the municipal Bildungsroman—boasting of its appeal to “fans of Gotham and The Power Broker“—and indulging in obscure jargon. (Williams repeatedly refers to “the New York Democracy” to indicate the statewide Democratic Party, an outdated and distracting moniker.) But the book he has written will satisfy neither audience. Far from the majesty of Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (a draft of the sequel to which Williams was able to consult), City of Ambition is largely a conventional dual biography wrapped around two or three main chapters.

What’s strange is how Williams draws on the mystique of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s classic biography of Robert Moses, the dominant figure in municipal construction during the Depression and the postwar era, while going out of his way to neglect both author and subject alike. Williams systematically downplays both the centrality of Moses to the story of public works in New York City in the 1930s and the centrality of Caro’s book to our understanding of Moses. Williams cites Moses’s self-serving memoir, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, or the essay collection Robert Moses and the Modern City, co-edited by Kenneth Jackson—another of Williams’s mentors—rather than Caro, at times when to do so makes no sense at all.

“Today, many New Yorkers take the FDR to get to La Guardia” Airport, Williams writes in the first sentence of his book. But this is only superficially relevant, as it ignores the fact that, with federal financial assistance, it was Robert Moses who built the FDR, then called the East River Drive Extension. Moses also built the Triborough Bridge, with WPA money, and ran it as a semi-private fiefdom largely to avoid having to answer to the sons of Revolution and Steerage. Grand Central Parkway and La Guardia, with input from its namesake, were also built by Moses, as were most of the public works projects that Williams’s New Yorkers would see during the drive to the airport, and which Williams attributes to his two main characters, if only because they are “monuments from this time.”

Stranger still is Williams’s silence on the Order 129 controversy, the most intense conflict between federal and city power in the 1930s, during which Roosevelt, through Ickes, publicly tried to force La Guardia to fire Moses as head of the Triborough Bridge Authority because of a longstanding rivalry between the president and the master builder. Ickes threatened to withhold PWA funds for the bridge until Moses was dismissed, which provoked a swift backlash from the Moses-adoring public. “The city could conceivably turn elsewhere for funds for completing the bridge,” one Goo-Goo wrote to the president, in a letter shared with The New York Times, “but if the city’s share of the vast funds involved in relief is likewise in jeopardy, there is no adequate source of funds.” La Guardia dithered, Roosevelt surrendered, and Moses retained his post until 1968. Relying almost exclusively on Caro’s account of the episode, Williams wrote about Order 129 on his blog in December, which he named “Robert Moses month,” and even noted that the episode dramatizes the kind of difficult normative question markedly absent from City of Ambition: “What should be the relationship between America’s governments?” Tellingly, readers were promised an additional post on “how we ought to view Moses in the 21st century,” but it has yet to materialize.

No less frustrating is the way Williams offers an “intervention in the literatures” about interwar New York while risking little analysis or evaluative judgment. The idea of “progressive federalism,” or decentralizing power in order to advance the autonomy and the political and economic interests of left-leaning local communities, has been explored in recent years by Yale law professor Heather Gerken in an influential article in Democracy; by Vanderbilt historian Gary Gerstle in Dissent; and by Martha Derthick in her book Keeping the Compound Republic (2001), which Williams cites but does not discuss. Even a slightly greater engagement with the literature from which he borrows the “cooperative federalism” framework would have made City of Ambition a far more consequential addition to it. Regrettably, Williams only gestures to what many readers will recognize as problems with the way New Deal public works and relief programs were implemented in New York City. A chapter on this subject might have acknowledged the fleeting nature of the Roosevelt–La Guardia political alignment—a circumstance, ironically, that made the whole arrangement possible in the 1930s, as well as nearly impossible to replicate today.

* * *

In 1937, Senator James Byrnes of South Carolina found that his state had been paying 23.6 percent of the cost of its WPA projects, whereas New York City—spitefully dubbed the WPA’s “49th State”—had been paying just 0.5 percent. The Roosevelt administration countered by showing that in absolute numbers, New York had spent $56 per person on WPA projects to South Carolina’s $8, and rounded up enough votes to defeat Byrnes’s motion to give Congress greater power over work relief and to demand state and local sponsors to pay a greater share of the projects’ cost. Williams, with his account of this episode and many others throughout the book, is content to simply tell the story, but Byrnes’s implicit question—why should a South Carolinian pay for mosquito eradication in the Bronx?—deserves an answer. While admitting that “rural tax dollars were being funneled into the Northeast and Midwest to maintain people in the overgrown cities,” Williams is unmistakably dismissive of New Deal critics who suggested “the agency was subsidizing an unsustainable (and perhaps undesirable) social arrangement.” Yet geographic and even racial resentment was an active component of Southern hostility to the most innovative extensions of federal power in the 1930s, as Ira Katznelson explains in his recently published Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Acknowledging that fact shouldn’t render any questioning of the New Deal on these lines inadmissible, especially if the concept of federalism, cooperative or otherwise, is to maintain any vitality in coming years, as Williams implies it should.

It is on the question of sustainability that City of Ambition bottoms out. Only at the end of the introduction and the end of the final chapter does Williams address how the “cooperative federalism” of the Roosevelt–La Guardia years may have contributed to the vicious fiscal crisis New York experienced in the 1970s. As the New Deal gave way to wartime defense spending, La Guardia called for a massive new public works program to help offset what he thought would be another unemployment crisis accompanying demobilization after the war. Testifying to a Senate subcommittee, he admitted: “Ask me who is going to finance these public works afterwards—I am probably as well-informed as anyone in this country, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ Nobody knows, gentlemen; nobody knows.”

Williams briefly acknowledges that some observers have claimed New York City became “addicted” to federal money during the New Deal: “the revolution in how people conceived of the functions of government had pushed municipal spending higher even as the course of urban development”—white flight, plunging property values—“ate away at what the inherited revenue structure could supply.” The more the federal government spent, the more the city spent: between 1936 and 1940, Williams shows, municipal spending on parks, libraries and museums rose by 60.4 percent; on welfare and hospitals by 50.2 percent; on public properties and works by 44.6 percent. After the federal spigot was turned off, the city was compelled by force of habit to compensate for the lost revenue. The city’s tax base thinned in the next few decades, and the municipal government was forced to borrow in order to maintain even a minimal level of services for the residents—increasingly poor and needy—who remained.

Williams writes that Stieglitz’s photograph of the New York skyline “captured the ebullient commercialism of the early twentieth century,” but that the city before and during World War II was one of “decidedly public ambitions.” Had public works and relief financing been more stably established before and especially after the war, it is probable that the very idea of such spending would not have been discredited. Instead, for the past three or four decades, New York has reverted to the status it had in Stieglitz’s time as a city of mostly private ambition and achievement. Williams claims that the physical legacy of the New Deal in the city consists of “mute testaments to an era of tumult and creativity, and to a conception of government which reached its apotheosis in interwar America and which shaped New York City profoundly.” But by neglecting to chasten his enraptured narrative with any semblance of sobriety, given the 1970s and its aftermath, Williams ignores the sense in which that legacy could very well consist less of monuments to a “conception of government” than of tombs.

In 2004, John Nichols looked at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's record and ranked him far below the iconic New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Read all of the articles in The Nation's special issue on New York City.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy