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.
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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.