Fiorello La Guardia
One of the first things I did after becoming mayor of New York was move the desk used by Fiorello La Guardia, America’s greatest mayor, into my office at City Hall. It’s too small for me to sit behind, since the man known as “the Little Flower” was just a smidge over five feet tall, but I wanted to be reminded every day of how extraordinary leadership can improve millions of lives.
To La Guardia, who became mayor during the Great Depression, there was no higher ideal than compassion for our fellow citizens. He came to office with an impressive résumé: Born to Italian immigrants, he worked his way through New York University School of Law as a translator at Ellis Island and later served as the first Italian American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But nothing could have fully prepared him for the challenges ahead. When La Guardia took office in 1934, one out of seven New York City families was dependent on government relief. Some 350,000 substandard tenement buildings threatened the lives of those who called them home. City government was riven with corruption from the reign of Tammany Hall.
But La Guardia, a revolutionary at heart, saw obstacles as opportunities to improve the lives of the people he served. Take the tenements. At a time when public housing was an untested idea, La Guardia established the nation’s first public housing authority. Seven years later, with a big assist from the New Deal, New York was home to 13 public housing developments with 17,000 safe and clean apartments. The great challenge of our time, as of his time, is economic inequality, and I am creating or preserving 200,000 affordable apartments for the same reason he did — so hardworking New Yorkers don’t go broke trying to keep a roof over their heads.
A reporter once asked La Guardia about his dreams. He envisioned the “City of Tomorrow, with marvelous parks and buildings, finer hospitals, safer and more beautiful streets, better schools, more playgrounds, more swimming pools.” As mayor of New York and a proud progressive, he was an inspiring example of the way Italian Americans could make their country a better place.