Fiorello La Guardia

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY BILL DE BLA­SIO Twit­ter: @BilldeBla­sio Bill de Bla­sio is the 109th mayor of New York City.

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.

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