Mason B. Williams
W. W. Norton, New York, 2013, English
Nonfiction, Urban Design
6.5 × 9.6 inches, hardcover, 512 pages
ISBN: 9780393066913
Suggested Retail Price: $29.95

City of Ambition is a brilliant history of the New Deal and its role in the making of modern New York City. The story of a remarkable collaboration between Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, this is a case study in creative political leadership in the midst of a devastating depression. Roosevelt and La Guardia were an odd couple: patrician president and immigrant mayor, fireside chat and tabloid cartoon, pragmatic Democrat and reform Republican. But together, as leaders of America’s two largest governments in the depths of the Great Depression, they fashioned a route to recovery for the nation and the master plan for a great city.

Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust”—shrewd, energetic advisors such as Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins—sought to fight the Depression by channeling federal resources through America’s cities and counties. La Guardia had replaced Tammany Hall cronies with policy experts, such as the imperious Robert Moses, who were committed to a strong public sector. The two leaders worked closely together. La Guardia had a direct line of communication with FDR and his staff, often visiting Washington carrying piles of blueprints. Roosevelt relied on the mayor as his link to the nation’s cities and their needs. The combination was potent. La Guardia’s Gotham became a laboratory for New Deal reform. Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed city initiatives into major programs such as the Works Progress Administration, which changed the physical face of the United States. Together they built parks, bridges, and schools; put the unemployed to work; and strengthened the Progressive vision of government as serving the public purpose.

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Phil Patton

Thousands of fans heading for Yankee Stadium pass the sign “Bronx Terminal Market 1935,” its letterforms cast in a sturdy concrete facade suggesting their era. The market was the site of one of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s triumphs--over government inefficiency and organized crime—and serves as one of the smaller symbols of his role as city shaper.

I thought of that market while reading City of Ambition, a study of La Guardia’s relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and thus of the New Deal.  City of Ambition is important reading for anyone interested in the design of cities and particularly how plans and visions are translated to physical and social reality—or not.  The Bronx Market, whose days since La Guardia have been less happy, is proof of how much New York is still the city of Roosevelt’s New Deal—still the city La Guardia and FDR built. Bridges, highways, parks, schools, and more were constructed as economic stimulus measures. They are what we today call infrastructure; they are also extensions of the market, in its ancient sense of the agora, the common, public space.

So, as the author writes, “The book is also a study of how government came to play an extraordinarily broad role in a quintessentially market-oriented city.” The Federal government accounted for about a third of New York’s budget at the high point of the New Deal. The story is a useful corrective for the naïve policy wonk: it tells of political club houses, ethnic resentments and crime, organized and semi-organized. Aside from intermittent stiffening into academic jargon, the narrative is engaging.

La Guardia summed up New York’s variety: his parents were an Italian and a Jew, he was born in Greenwich Village and raised in Arizona.  He was a progressive Republican. He managed to charm even FDR and the two crossed party lines in mutual support. He was also folk hero, part neighborhood grocer, part favorite uncle, the “little flower” who read the Sunday newspaper comics on the radio to children when a newspaper strike prevented their delivery. Such acts were given physical form in parks and pools and schools, many of them still in use in the city today.

The book comes at an appropriate time, when Federal stimulus is under discussion again, and also when Bill De Blasio, another activist candidate with a short article in his name and a melting-pot background, appears set to move into City Hall.

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