A great metropolis holds its breath. Denounced during the campaign for his radical past, the newly elected mayor is quickly embraced by the mainstream press, who now search his every gesture for signs of moderation—and make much play of his ethnically diverse family. Liberals and progressives, who still have trouble believing that one of their own actually won, remain torn between celebration and the fear of an imminent—some say inevitable—betrayal. Meanwhile, the city’s poor and desperate, who voted for the new mayor in overwhelming numbers, wonder whether a campaign that promised so much will make any difference to their lives.
This was New York City on January 1, 1934, when Fiorello La Guardia, a half-Italian, half-Jewish Republican who fought for labor unions, defended the rights of immigrants and opposed American intervention in Nicaragua, took the oath of office. La Guardia went on to become the greatest mayor in New York’s history, leaving behind a legacy of public parks, public housing and public works unrivaled by any of his successors, as well as a reputation for personal honesty and administrative competence that even the outgoing mayor might envy.
Indeed, La Guardia’s accomplishments pose a daunting challenge for any of his successors, who, whatever their other achievements, have been uniformly successful in their struggle to lower expectations. “After eight years of charisma, and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?” asked Ed Koch, whose racially divisive, scandal-racked administration led to David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Yet even La Guardia couldn’t solve all of New York’s problems. One of them, the widening gap between rich and poor, became the centerpiece of Bill de Blasio’s recent campaign. “My job is to help New Yorkers live in New York,” he said.
Eighty years earlier, in What’s the Matter With New York, Norman Thomas and Paul Blanshard worried that “the very men who make the city, who clean its streets and shovel its coal and run its subway trains, may be exiled from it when they quit work at night. Today in New York the average worker simply cannot provide a decent home for himself on the average wage.” Thomas was the leader of the Socialist Party; Blanshard, an ordained Congregational minister, was a muckraking journalist who served briefly as associate editor of this magazine. Their 1932 anatomy of the city’s ills was meant as both diagnosis and treatment plan for an incoming reform administration.
The book’s vision of the city’s future was unabashedly radical: “We are socialists, eager to make New York an example of effective municipal socialism,” they wrote, explaining that cities had “become the frontier of the struggle between organized capital and the forces of social change.” Though it seems farfetched today, socialist mayors once governed American cities as disparate as Bridgeport, Milwaukee, Reading and Schenectady. Dubbed “sewer socialism” by its detractors, and derided by Lenin “because it dreams of social peace, of class conciliation, and seeks to divert public attention away from the fundamental questions of the economic system as a whole,” municipal socialism offered little of the revolutionary excitement or intellectual prestige of Bolshevism. As Thomas and Blanshard ruefully observed, “a man who discusses intelligently the color line in South Africa and the freedom of India will consider a street-car franchise in Brooklyn beneath his mental range, and he will be positively disgraced if anyone asks him to run for alderman.” Yet to read their book today is to realize how much even de Blasio’s campaign promises take for granted the diminished sense of the possible that he—and we—inherited from his predecessors.