One of the many remarkable things about the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition was the footage of Fiorello LaGuardia (above), then a liberal Republican congressman and soon to become New York City’s greatest mayor, holding a bunch of grapes and saying something to the effect that “if fermentation could be outlawed we might as well ban the law of gravitation itself.” Never having seen that before (one of so many fresh ones from the film, seen on public television this week), it nonetheless brought back to mind much of what I had learned about this amazing man over the years from various sources, including another terrific documentary, The World of Tomorrow, about the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, and Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker, about LaGuardia’s collaborator/nemesis, Robert Moses.
It made me recall LaGuardia having said that one of his goals as mayor was to make the life of all New Yorkers not just bearable but genuinely fun on a day-to- day basis. (The World’s Fair, still famous today for its Trylon and Perisiphere architectural centerpiece, was one of the many ways he tried to do this, along with public parks, the creation of institutions such as City Center in a former Shriner’s building, and stands on personal liberties, including the legal use of marijuana, that would be considered quite radical even now). How, ill and on the eve of leaving office, he panicked about how much power he had ceded to Moses, his parks commissioner, whom he realized would go on to take much of that fun away and grievously harm the city in the process (which Moses proceeded to do after LaGuardia’s death in 1947, building monstrous highways and hideous housing projects everywhere, particularly along the waterfronts of nearly all of the boroughs). * How much this man, a brilliant civic reformer, could also embrace the impudence and common sense of a city that was indeed the most enjoyable in the world, a fighter not only against the restrictive, anti-urban beliefs of the rest of the country but also, on a local level, against all of the roads paved to hell by all of the supposed do gooders in the world, most especially Moses himself . How true liberalism concerned itself not only with fundamental issues such as the fair distribution of wealth and civil rights but also the concept of cities and towns as places of communal enjoyment and the pursuit of happiness– so much so that it sought to plan for it properly on a grand scale.
It isn’t hard to know what side of the current Hudson waterfront debate LaGuardia would have fallen on. Embracing the concept of communal happiness when making long- term decisions for a city –even one as small as Hudson — is still a concept that we don’t have to ever feel ashamed of embracing for ourselves. —Scott Baldinger
*An anecdote from the Caro book: “LaGuardia and Moses were two titanic egomaniacs who literally could not stand the sight of each other. When the Mayor and his Parks Commissioner would be in the same room together, they would pace around each other like two boxers in a ring waiting to the punch the other guy out. They would yell and scream and call the other loathsome names. Moses would call LaGuardia a ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ or, even worse, an ‘organ grinder.’ And LaGuardia, the lesser educated and refined but more gentlemanly of the two, would call Moses ‘your grace.’