City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York

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Two political titans forge a modern city and a vibrant public sector in this history of strong leadership at a time of national crisis.City of Ambition is a brilliant history of the New Deal and its role in the making of modern New York City. The story of a remarkable collaboration between Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, this is a case study in creative political leadership in the midst of a devastating depression. Roosevelt and La Guardia were an odd couple: patrician president and immigrant mayor, ...

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City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York

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Two political titans forge a modern city and a vibrant public sector in this history of strong leadership at a time of national crisis.City of Ambition is a brilliant history of the New Deal and its role in the making of modern New York City. The story of a remarkable collaboration between Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, this is a case study in creative political leadership in the midst of a devastating depression. Roosevelt and La Guardia were an odd couple: patrician president and immigrant mayor, fireside chat and tabloid cartoon, pragmatic Democrat and reform Republican. But together, as leaders of America’s two largest governments in the depths of the Great Depression, they fashioned a route to recovery for the nation and the master plan for a great city.
Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust”—shrewd, energetic advisors such as Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins—sought to fight the Depression by channeling federal resources through America’s cities and counties. La Guardia had replaced Tammany Hall cronies with policy experts, such as the imperious Robert Moses, who were committed to a strong public sector. The two leaders worked closely together. La Guardia had a direct line of communication with FDR and his staff, often visiting Washington carrying piles of blueprints. Roosevelt relied on the mayor as his link to the nation’s cities and their needs. The combination was potent. La Guardia’s Gotham became a laboratory for New Deal reform. Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed city initiatives into major programs such as the Works Progress Administration, which changed the physical face of the United States. Together they built parks, bridges, and schools; put the unemployed to work; and strengthened the Progressive vision of government as serving the public purpose.Today everyone knows the FDR Drive as a main route to La Guardia Airport. The intersection of steel and concrete speaks to a pair of dynamic leaders whose collaboration lifted a city and a nation. Here is their story.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Edward L. Glaeser
…fascinating…Williams tells the story of La Guardia and Roosevelt with insight and elegance…Williams's aim is to write history, not policy analysis, and he succeeds impressively at that. America's cities are the country's true economic heartland, and much of our most important past is urban. City of Ambition helps us to understand that past.
Publishers Weekly
The Great Depression sparked not just the aggrandizement of Washington but the efflorescence of municipal government, according to this sweeping reinterpretation of the New Deal political economy. Historian Williams explores the interdependence of F.D.R.’s New Deal with the progressive administration of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia: as Roosevelt sought ways to channel federal relief and public-works spending into a moribund economy, La Guardia responded with a plethora of shovel-ready infrastructure projects and social programs, from the Lincoln Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge to parks and beer gardens, an opera house, and legendary arts and theater initiatives. The result, he shows, was a vast expansion of municipal capabilities—in 1937 the Works Progress Administration was providing 31% of New York’s budget—that transformed New Yorkers’ conception of the role of government and bequeathed a “homegrown version of social democracy.” Williams builds his analysis around vivid profiles of F.D.R. and especially of La Guardia, the colorful, pugnacious Republican reformer who roped union militants and socialists into his coalition. (The author’s rich account of the era’s crazy-quilt political alliances will astonish readers accustomed to today’s rigid partisan lines.) Challenging conventional stereotypes about big government and local control, Williams highlights federalism as a revolutionary force. 8-pages of photos. (May)
Ira Katznelson
“This illuminating study offers a fresh vantage from which to comprehend key features of the New Deal and the history of New York. Moving between a vibrant portrayal of persons and incisive accounts of processes, City of Ambition is written with verve and imagination.”
Sean Wilentz
“An extraordinary book. In telling the story of how Roosevelt and La Guardia—men as fascinating as they were powerful—forged a mighty political collaboration, it brilliantly reinterprets the New Deal from the vantage point of the nation’s greatest city. It also marks the remarkable debut of a gifted young historian.”
Mike Wallace
“An excellent account—well written and thoroughly researched—of how FDR and La Guardia, in an era of depression and war, channeled federal resources into crisis-ridden municipalities. Williams’s recounting of their achievement is a salutary reminder of what was once possible, and could be again.”
Mike Wallace
“An excellent account—well written and thoroughly researched—of how FDR and La Guardia, in an era of depression and war, channeled federal resources into crisis-ridden municipalities. Williams’s recounting of their achievement is a salutary reminder of what was once possible, and could be again.”
Library Journal
This exhaustive study looks at both the political and the personal partnership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia during the 1930s and 1940s as each grappled with the enormous challenges of the Great Depression then U.S. entry into World War II. Williams's first book sheds new light on how LaGuardia, benefitting from New Deal largesse, funded infrastructure projects that reshaped New York into a "showcase for American democracy." In return, Roosevelt gained much-needed political support from LaGuardia for shaping new economic directions for the country. Such a story involving larger-than-life and well-loved figures should compel and engage the general reader. Alas, the workmanlike writing here, combined with mind-numbing statistical details, makes for a plodding read that is further complicated by an excessive focus on the many accomplishments of both figures, which detracts from the impact of their relationship on New York City. VERDICT The material here is too dense and inartfully presented. Perhaps scholars of U.S. presidential history or urban political specialists may value it as a reference, but others looking for a more insightful analysis of the era and these two leaders would be well rewarded by consulting Thomas Kessmer's splendid Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York.—Richard Drezen, Jersey City, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughgoing, sometimes plodding account of the first major federal bailout of New York, one met with happier tidings than the equivalent of that old headline reading, "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Fiorello LaGuardia might have seemed an unlikely ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt; though born in Greenwich Village, he was from Arizona, wore a black Stetson hat to remind himself of his birthplace and was a Republican, conservative by even the standards of the era. Yet, writes debut author Williams, he was also both fiercely pragmatic and an enemy of the old political machines that conspired to keep him, as mayor of New York City, from doing his job. As a believer in market forces, LaGuardia helped build "a physical infrastructure in which commerce could thrive and the interdependent processes of urban enterprise function efficiently." LaGuardia's eventual progressivism, coupled with Roosevelt's willingness to put the federal government--through myriad programs, including the famed Works Project Administration--into action to solve the city's problems, were of a piece in creating "a new conception of urban governance" that wedded private and public decisions and initiative, without need for those corruptible and corrupting political machines of yore. "Like LaGuardia," writes Williams, "Roosevelt understood governments as parts of a continuity of social organization, with responsibilities derived from the interdependence of modern society." It is not Williams' fault that remaking a major city into another kind of major city is a complex business, but he errs toward too much completeness instead of eliding some of the lesser moments--the argument over whether subway fares should be free, for instance, or subsidized by a commuter tax. Perhaps too detailed, but a useful contribution to an already rich literature.
The Barnes & Noble Review

During his presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked of New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, "Our Mayor is the most appealing man I know. He comes to Washington and tells me a sad story. The tears run down my cheeks and the tears run down his cheeks and the next thing I know, he has wangled another $50 million out of me." FDR was being playful, but there was truth in his quip, as historian Mason Williams demonstrates in his first book, the compelling if occasionally leaden City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York. City of Ambition traces the unique Depression-era collaboration between the two formidable politicians, who, the author says, became "more closely associated in the public mind than any mayor and president had ever been."

Williams devotes too much ink to the details of La Guardia's early career as a U.S. congressman, but the book picks up when the focus shifts to his New York mayoralty, which spanned the depths of the Depression and World War II. The heart of the book concerns the impact of federal relief on the creation of modern New York. The "physical legacy of the New Deal still pervades the city," Williams observes, and indeed, that legacy is extraordinary. The New Deal agencies the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Works Progress Administration together financed the Lincoln and Queens- Midtown tunnels, the Triborough Bridge, the Belt Parkway, La Guardia Airport, numerous subway extensions, and the campuses of Brooklyn and Hunter colleges. They bankrolled the construction of public housing, schools, and neighborhood health clinics, and, under the legendary city parks commissioner Robert Moses, funded the creation, expansion, and refurbishment of park space, playgrounds, beaches, swimming pools, and sports facilities, democratizing access to recreation for a populace greatly demoralized by the Depression. Ironically, the 1930s, the author notes, "ended with the public property of the city in perhaps the best physical condition in its history."

Williams attributes this astounding productivity in large part to the partnership between Roosevelt and La Guardia, men who, despite hailing from different backgrounds, having very different styles, and belonging to different political parties, shared a conviction that robust executive leadership could make government a bold, constructive force for the common good. FDR had come to believe that massive unemployment would be best addressed by the federal government's subsidizing of municipal programs that put the jobless back to work. The national government had not up to that point been a visible force in state and local affairs, but cultivating a strong relationship with Washington was an early priority of the Republican anti-Tammany reformer La Guardia, who stormed into office in 1934 with a burst of activity. ("It was as though a hundred short men in black Stetsons had been loosed upon the city," one citizen recalled of the Greenwich Village–born but Arizona-raised mayor's seeming ubiquity, in the type of vivid image too rare in the book.) At the start of his mayoralty, sending his commissioners to meet with FDR's cabinet members, La Guardia noted of federal-municipal partnerships, "The possibilities are tremendous. The surface has not even been scratched." Most American cities benefited from New Deal largesse, of course, but Williams notes that La Guardia worked hard to maximize Gotham's piece of the pie. He was successful: "At the peak of the New Deal," Williams writes, "federal spending on projects sponsored by New York's municipal departments...totaled more than 30 percent of the city's annual budget."

The friendly and productive relationship between the patrician Democratic president and the pugnacious Republican mayor served them both well. Roosevelt could rely on the mayor to cross party lines and campaign energetically for him, support that FDR valued amid growing conservative opposition to the New Deal. Meanwhile, the ambitious and publicity-hungry La Guardia cherished the widely held belief that he and the president shared a special bond. As the U.S. entered WWII, he desperately wanted his loyalty to be rewarded with either an appointment as secretary of war — which Roosevelt had all but promised him — or a high-ranking military commission, but several Roosevelt advisers opposed any such move, with Harold Ickes, for one, warning against La Guardia's "dramatic qualities." The president strung La Guardia along for a while ("I still believe General Eisenhower can not get along without me and am awaiting your order," the mayor wrote FDR pitiably at one point) but ultimately only offered the mayor a generalship that La Guardia rejected because he felt it lacked sufficient authority.

Despite the bitterness of that blow and the resultant cooling in their friendship, La Guardia spoke movingly of Roosevelt after the president died in 1945. Weeks later, the mayor, himself in ill health, announced that he would not seek a fourth term. He died not long after, in 1947, prompting former vice president Henry Wallace to say, "First Roosevelt, now Fiorello — the fighters are taken from us when we need them most, but the fight continues." In our era of toxic partisanship and distrust of government, it is difficult to image the fight ever again being waged in quite the same way.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393066913
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/2013
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 977,423
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Mason B. Williams is a historian specializing in urban politics with degrees from Columbia University and Princeton University. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is his first book.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2013

    Amazingly Yhorough

    For someone who is very familiar with the history of NYC I found this book very enlightening and extremely accurate. Aside from being a little tough to read, it is factually accurate and presents a heretofor unknown relationship between FDR and Mayor Laguardia.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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