City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York, by Mason B. Williams

As a lifelong Californian, the name La Guardia meant little to me other than an airport and a bronze plaque I once saw at Brooklyn College. That was until I read Mason Williams revelatory book, City of Ambition, about the extraordinarily productive and improbable partnership of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Williams, a professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science at Williams College, masterfully braids together the lives of the two New Yorkers—both born in 1882 and dying just two years apart in their 60s; Roosevelt, the aristocratic country squire; and La Guardia, the glad-handing, Jewish-Italian from Greenwich Village with a knack for languages. Although separated by party affiliation, the Democrat Roosevelt and the Progressive Republican La Guardia both were born to politics and even more so to public service and clean government.

The Roosevelt dynastic fortune was, after all, founded in New York City, which, by the time of the Great Depression, constituted one of the most important and polyglot voting blocs in the country. In the scrappy, irascible, and equally popular mayor, FDR found a partner with whom he could work while delivering support from the city’s voters for his own New Deal initiatives at the federal level. In the city’s Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, both men found a brilliant administrator who used a torrent of New Deal money and labor to radically transform the city, while taking the credit himself.

La Guardia and FDR At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938

La Guardia and FDR
At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy of La Guardia and Wagner Archives, CUNY

The plaque on La Guardia Hall, the handsome brick library building that terminates the grassy axis of Brooklyn College, quotes the Mayor: “Advanced Education Is A Responsibility of Government And Every Boy Or Girl Who Can Absorb It Is Entitled To It.” At a time when students at even public universities obsess more about their debt than sex, I was as impressed by that sentiment as by a campus that has given generations of immigrants and working class youth the opportunity for personal advancement in the ambience of an Ivy League school. 

That, Mason Williams’ book makes clear, is the vision of government’s rightful role that La Guardia and Roosevelt shared. The plethora of parks, schools, colleges, sewers, roads, tunnels, bridges, and libraries they built and the art they left—all of which the Living New Deal has documented in its new map of New Deal sites in New York City—contributed mightily to the city’s rise as one of the world’s foremost cultural hubs and magnets.

Playing Through: Recreation and the New Deal
By Gray Brechin

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York
Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.
Photo Credit: Frank Da Cruz

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built Pelham Bay Golf Course clubhouse in the Bronx is a knockout, but not so unusual in the exceptional quality it offered to the public. David Owen, in a 2005 article on public golf courses in the New Yorker, described the clubhouse as looking “a little like Monticello without the dome,” although its circular foyer and expansive salon are more Art Deco Hollywood than Jeffersonian Palladian. When Living New Deal Director Dick Walker and I visited it in June with local resident and New Deal researcher Frank da Cruz, I mistook it for one of the private clubs in the tonier suburbs of New York City rather than the still working-class Bronx.

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017
The Club House serves the Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

Pelham Bay and adjacent Split Rock Golf Courses share the clubhouse and both were, Owens writes, designed by noted golf architect John R. Van Kleck as two among many outstanding public courses commissioned by parks czar Robert Moses in four of the city’s five boroughs. Owen’s article also describes Brooklyn’s WPA-built Dyker Beach clubhouse as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house” but with a membership including “carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course,” by which he means a public golf course open to all.

Original concession stand. The concession stand as it appeared in 1940

Original concession stand
The concession stand as it appeared in 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy New York City Parks

By building ski lodges, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, archery ranges, swimming pools, innumerable baseball fields as well as golf courses, New Deal agencies like the WPA democratized sports previously available only to the wealthy while realizing what Franklin Roosevelt called for at a 1943 press conference: “We must plan for, and help to bring about, an expanded economy which will result in more security, in more employment, in more recreation.” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also saw the need to plan for the greater leisure time that would result from automation once the Depression was over. In his recent book, City of Ambition, Mason Williams writes,  “The core of La Guardia’s “economic readjustment’ . . . was the reduction of working hours (and the retention of existing wage levels) to create what he called a “spread of employment” which in turn would “create an opportunity for education, for recreation, for travel, for enjoyment of life.” At the same time, recreational facilities would provide numerous jobs for those who staffed them. 

Club room Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif

Club Room
Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

FDR doubtless thought a lot about the benefits of physical activity since they were largely denied the once-athletic man after he contracted polio in 1921. But, like La Guardia, he also knew that Americans in the near future would have much more spare time, and that recreational and educational opportunities should be available to them to productively fill it.

The New Deal encouraged public health in its broadest dimension: the development of a full human being and a healthy society of citizens, not consumers. Though few remember who built them and why, public golf courses continue to deliver on that promise by building the community of which David Owens writes many decades after WPA workers traded their shovels for four irons.