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The Mayor from, and of, the South Village: Fiorello LaGuardia

Fiorello (Italian for ‘Little Flower’) LaGuardia is remembered today as one of New York City’s greatest mayors. A progressive who guided New Yorkers through the Depression and World War II, he was the first Mayor to serve three terms, and the first of either Italian or Jewish descent. It was LaGuardia’s achievements as mayor, and his birth in the South Village, that prompted the Friends of LaGuardia to commemorate LaGuardia with a statue on October 19, 1994. The statue, designed by Neil Estern, is located at 547 LaGuardia Place between Bleecker Street and West 3rd Street. However, LaGuardia’s impact on New York and the Village was felt long before he became mayor. And that early career and upbringing would profoundly shape who he was as mayor and as a public servant.

Statue of Fiorello LaGuardia at 547 LaGuardia Place

LaGuardia was the child of immigrants, born on December 11, 1882, at 177 Sullivan Street (then known as 7 Varick Place; demolished). His father Achille Luigi Carlo LaGuardia was from Foggia, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies before Italian unification. Fiorello’s mother, Irene Luzzatto-Coen, was from a well-established Sephardic Jewish family in Trieste, the largest port city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today part of Italy). Soon after his parents married, they emigrated to the United States and lived in Greenwich Village. Interestingly Achille would prohibit his son Fiorello from speaking Italian. And while Achille was a lapsed Catholic and Irene a non-practicing Jew, Fiorello would go on to be a lifelong Episcopalian. Fiorello did not spend all of his early life in New York. By the time he turned 16, he had lived in the Dakota Territory, the Arizona Territory, and St. Louis after his father joined the Army in 1885.  

Building that stands today at 177 Sullivan Street

This nomadic childhood would eventually take Fiorello into the US Consular Service. He would serve as a clerk at the US consulate in Budapest, the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from 1901 to 1904. Then from 1904 to 1906, he was head of the consulate in Fiume, the second-largest port in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today known as Rijeka in Croatia). From the time of Fiorello’s birth until the start of the First World War in 1914, migration from Eastern and Southern Europe to the United States increased drastically, especially from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly 25% of all immigrants to the United States during these years came from the Empire, with over 85% heading to New York. The Italian population tripled in New York, and Fiorello’s birthplace the South Village became near majority Italian at 42% of the population. Fiorello played a key role in this flow of immigrants.

Cunard poster advertising their route between Fiume (modern-day Rijeka) and the United States

During his time in the consular service, he would learn Italian, Croatian, German, and Yiddish. In the two years he spent in Fiume, he transformed how migrants were processed there to help ensure their passage through Ellis Island on the other side. He contracted local doctors to inspect migrants before boarding the ships and made sure conditions aboard the ships were sufficiently hygienic. His methods became standardized even in the face of strong protests from the shipping companies and remained in place after he left Fiume.

LaGuardia at his desk when he was an interpreter at Ellis Island

Fiorello would go on to use his language skills as an interpreter at Ellis Island from 1907 to 1910, once again helping migrants. In 1916 he became a congressman representing East Harlem by appealing to its diverse ethnic communities. He became mayor of New York in 1934 running with support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Fiorello LaGuardia was a true New Yorker, a native of the South Village, but also a son of immigrants who saw firsthand the journey immigrants took from one end to the other in search of a better life. Fiorello’s own family was touched by the horrors of the Holocaust. While his sister, who married into a Hungarian-Jewish family in Budapest, survived, his brother-in-law was lost. Though he rose to prominence in the world of New York City politics, LaGuardia never forgot where he came from. Today his statue at LaGuardia Place is a fitting tribute to this remarkable man born in the South Village.  

Mayor LaGuardia with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944

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