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

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

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by Mason B. Williams

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“Fascinating. . . . Williams tells the story of La Guardia and Roosevelt with insight and elegance.”—Edward Glaeser, New York Times Book ReviewCity 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


“Fascinating. . . . Williams tells the story of La Guardia and Roosevelt with insight and elegance.”—Edward Glaeser, New York Times Book ReviewCity 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.

Editorial Reviews

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.”
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.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“Remarkable. . . . In an era when many voters feel that the federal government has no business spending money on cities . . . City of Ambition offers a useful and timely corrective.”
Wall Street Journal
“Readable and well-researched history . . . tells [a] tale of governmental ambition admirably.”
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)
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.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(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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City of Ambition: FDR, Laguardia, and the Making of Modern New York 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.