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Fiorello LaGuardia — NYC’s ‘Greatest Mayor,’ One of Several from Greenwich Village

Fiorello H. LaGuardia was born on December 11th, 1882 in Greenwich Village. LaGuardia and his family lived at 177 Sullivan street, which would have been known as 7 Varick Street at the time, in a building that has since been demolished. Fiorello LaGuardia would go on to become the 99th Mayor of New York City, serving a twelve year term from 1934 to 1946. LaGuardia served as Mayor during the Great Depression and World War II, and is has widely acclaimed by scholars and historians as New York City’s greatest mayor. He oversaw an era of great public investment, and left behind a legacy that has since profoundly shaped the city. Prior to his time as New York City Mayor, LaGuardia also served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1923 to 1933. Here are just some of examples of the mark he left upon the city:

Mayor Laguardia. Image Source: Fine Art America

LaGuardia Airport 

Although the current reputation of LaGuardia Airport is mixed, it is undeniably the most centrally located New York City airport – something for which LaGuardia strongly advocated. LaGuardia began to push for an airport within New York City after seeing that his ticket on a flight home that said “New Jersey,” as his flight was flying into Newark Airport, which was then the area’s only airport. Initially Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn was developed as New York City’s municipal airport. However, due to Floyd Bennett’s remote location, Newark Airport was still seen as the more viable option for many travelers from the city. In search of a more centrally located airport within city limits, LaGuardia initially pushed for development of an airport on Governors island, a plan that was soon found infeasible. So attention was turned to a private airfield in Queens called Glenn H. Curtiss Airport, which had originally opened in 1929. This field came under city control in 1935, and opened as a municipal airport in 1939 after a massive four year renovation.

Opening Ceremony at LaGuardia airport, 1939. Source: Fine art America

Great Depression & New Deal Era

As mayor during the Great Depression, LaGuardia was in charge of administering federal New Deal programs in New York City. LaGuardia persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to release billions of dollars in New Deal Era funds for projects in the five boroughs. This helped employ 700,000 people on various construction projects and provided the city with much needed infrastructure upgrades. One major result was the eleven Works Progress Administration pools that opened across the city during the summer of 1936. These were massive outdoors pools that featured top of the line equipment and grand recreational centers. The pool’s opening ceremonies were attended by thousands, including Mayor LaGuardia, who was there to celebrate their marvel. These pools remain operating today, and are visited by thousands of New Yorkers each summer who need a place to cool down and relax. 

Astoria Pool, the largest of the eleven WPA pools that opened during the summer of 1936. Source: Museum of the City of New York

LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts

Also in 1936, Mayor LaGuardia opened the High School of Music and Art, as a place for New York City public school students to pursue an education in music and visual art while also completing a full academic program. LaGuardia described this school as the “most hopeful accomplishment” of his administration. The school was originally established on 135th Street, and moved to its current location near Lincoln Center in 1984. When it moved, it was combined with with the School of Performing Arts, an arts high school that was focused on dance and drama, founded in 1948. The combined schools were named LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Since their establishment, these schools have educated an extensive roster of prominent actors, visual artists, musicians and dancers. This list includes Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Aniston, Timothée Chalamet, Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, and numerous visual artists including Milton Glaser, among countless others.

LaGuardia High School today. Source: New York Post

Fiorello LaGuardia’s influence is undeniable, and his accomplishments do not end here. He also oversaw the unification of the New York City Subway system, which brought the entire transit system under municipal control. He also adopted a new City Charter that helped eliminate the power that Tammany Hall had in city government. Today, an arts high school, a community college, an airport and a Greenwich Village Street all bear the name LaGuardia, something that can not be said for any other New York City Mayor. While Laguardia founded the arts high school, and played a pivotal role in the development of the airport, Laguardia Community College and LaGuardia Place are named purely as a way to commemorate Mayor LaGuardia for his service to the City of New York.

LaGuardia, who was born in Greenwich Village, is one of several mayors from or who lived in the neighborhood. Since New York City consolidated the five boroughs in 1898, three other New York City Mayors — Ed Koch, J.J. Walker, and George McClellan — were also Greenwich Village residents. These four account for 19% of the twenty-one New York City mayors elected post-consolidation (the figure is an even higher 24% if you count Bill de Blasio, who lived in Greenwich Village while attending NYU). That’s a pretty high percentage given that Greenwich Village only makes up about 0.76% of New York City’s population — just one more example of this neighborhood’s disproportionately large impact on the city and world around it.

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