Kirkus Reviews QR Code
CITY OF AMBITION by Mason B. Williams


FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York

by Mason B. Williams

Pub Date: May 28th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0393066913
Publisher: Norton

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.