Saturday, January 31, 2009

LaGuardia vs. Moses

This past week I went to Robert Caro's last lecture on "The Shapers of New York" at the New-York Historical Society. This final lecture was about the battle between New York's greatest Mayor and its greatest builder as they wrestled for control of the city's destiny during the Great Depression and World War II. While history has sainted Fiorello LaGuardia's Mayoralty as the one that successfully implemented the New Deal into our city, in the end Robert Moses won the battle as to who would set the city's priorities for literally decades to come.

LaGuardia and Moses were two titanic egomaniacs who literally could not stand the sight of each other. When the Mayor and his Parks Commissioner would be in the same room together, they would pace around each other like two boxers in a ring waiting to the punch the other guy out. They would yell and scream and call the other loathsome names. Moses would call LaGuardia a "dago" and "wop" or, even worse, an "organ grinder." And LaGuardia, the lesser educated and refined but more gentlemanly of the two, would call Moses "your grace."

As I mentioned in my first post about this series, each year LaGuardia would present a city budget that would take care of the needy and poor in NYC and Moses would then swoop in and re-jigger it so that he could get money for his building projects. But their disputes weren't only centered around money. Theirs was a brutal battle of wits and raw power.

This conflict is probably best exemplified in the Astoria Ferry incident
of 1936. Shortly before Triborough Bridge was to open, Robert Moses wanted to get rid of the ferry service that took people from Astoria across the East River to Manhattan. These were working people who couldn't afford cars to go over Moses's new bridge and this service was vital to them. LaGuardia ordered that the ferry service continue. So one night, literally minutes after the last ferry had pulled away from the dock on the Manhattan side, a couple of barges pulled up in front of the dock. Bulldozers and pile drivers were unloaded and they began ripping and shredding it to pieces. A furious LaGuardia ordered the police to head down and stop this. Armed cops told the workers to cease and desist immediately. Their reply? "We don't work for you. We work for Mr. Moses." And their work continued without incident.

Robert Moses was so popular, so powerful, his power so unquestioned that not even the Mayor and police department of the greatest city in the world could stop him.

That said, Fiorello LaGuardia's impact on NYC was enormous. He reformed the corrupt Tammany Hall-controlled government and steered the city successfully through the Depression. He was als
o an out-sized, only-in-New York personality who liked to read comics to children over WNYC radio. But in his last years as Mayor, he was literally dying. After he left office in 1945, he would eat lunch at his favorite downtown club and grumble that Robert Moses had too much power -- and that while he, LaGuardia, could control him (which wasn't true) now no one could (which was true). He died in 1947. Today's he's remembered as NYC's greatest mayor and has an airport, a street, a high school and a college named after him. (This is especially ironic since LaGuardia never graduated from either). If you ever walk down LaGuardia Place, between Houston Street and Washington Square, you can see a life-sized statue of the Little Flower that captures his personality perfectly.

These final lectures were a lot of fun and very informative. It was great to hear Robert Caro bring old New York back to life and I was especially grateful that he autographed my copy of The Power Broker. He also told a funny story about how, when he was writing the book, he couldn't get a hold of Moses's Triborough Authority records which were legally sealed. However, he was told that carbon copies of all these records were stored by the Parks Department under the 79th Street Boat Basin. So Caro and his wife Ina would go there to browse through these carbons. The Parks Department made it clear they didn't like having them there and, whenever the guard went to lunch or stepped out, he would remove the light bulbs so that Caro and Ina would literally be in the dark. So after that they would bring their own light bulbs and screw them in whenever the guards went away.

Carbons and light bulbs -- just one of the ways that great history is unearthed so that the rest of us can better understand the great city that we live in.

1 comment:

  1. With citations from both the New York Times and, the sixth paragraph claims that Fiorello H. La Guardia did not finish both his secondary and post-secondary education when from other credentials, Laguardia had an education at a high school in Prescott, Az, New York University, and New York University School of Law.


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