Fiorello LaGuardia: Mayor for the Ages

Fiorello H. LaGuardia stood at only 5’2”, but still casts a shadow over New York today.  His nonstop boosterism for his hometown and his unyielding tenacity helped the city weather the Great Depression better than most.  LaGuardia will be long remembered as one of the greatest, if not the most colorful mayor the city has seen.

LaGuardia was born in Greenwich Village in 1882.  With his father being in the army, he moved around when he was young—first to Arizona and then to Florida before settling in Trieste, Italy, for a time.  He worked for the U.S. State Department before returning to New York to earn a law degree, supporting himself by working at the U.S. immigration station at Ellis Island.

Entering politics, LaGuardia was an anomaly: a half-Jewish Italian Episcopal Republican.  He once joked that he was a balanced ticket all by himself.  LaGuardia served in Congress in two non-consecutive stints—broken up when he volunteered for service in World War I in the Army Air Corps.  In Congress, LaGuardia amassed a liberal record, speaking out against prohibition and allied with progressives of both parties.

After being defeated for reelection to Congress in 1932, LaGuardia ran for mayor of New York in 1933 (city elections are held in off years).  He was able to win the election as a Republican in one of the most heavily Democratic cities in the country due to ongoing corruption scandals within the Tammany Hall machine and the fact that there was more than one Democrat running in the election.

The time to celebrate the victory was short lived as New York was suffering through the Great Depression.  LaGuardia worked tirelessly to help direct federal relief funds to the city.  In no small part due to fellow New Yorker Franklin Delano Roosevelt being president, New York was lavished with funds during the Depression, which allowed new infrastructure to be built and existing civic amenities repaired.  LaGuardia also revolutionized the way mayors did business by appealing directly to the federal government for aid (previously, state governments had to make the appeal), traveling by airplane, and communicating with constituents on radio (LaGuardia’s Sunday radio show on WNYC drew over 2 million listeners at its height).  He was also known for riding fire engines to fires in progress, leading marching bands in parades, and declaring a war on organized crime in the city.

LaGuardia had a great national profile as well.  In the lead-up to World War II, he was named by President Roosevelt as the chief civil defense coordinator for the country.  While he tried to do this responsibility along with being the mayor, it was impossible to do both jobs and he resigned his federal post once the U.S. entered the war.  LaGuardia was an outspoken opponent of Nazi Germany and their anti-semitic policies.  LaGuardia’s sister would be imprisoned by the Nazis in a concentration camp during the war, adding to his reasons for opposing the Nazi regime.

After declining to run for a 4th term for mayor in 1945, LaGuardia stepped down.  He briefly served as a director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for a short time.  He also had a syndicated newspaper column, working hard until he died of pancreatic cancer in 1947.  His presence is still felt in the city—from the airport named after him to the parks, roadways, and numerous other pieces of infrastructure created during his mayoralty.  The “Little Flower” as he was called, exemplified the colorful city he so loved.  Facts about LaGuardia and places associated with his life will be shown on Sights by Sam tours.

The Defense of New York

As the nation’s largest city, New York has been a primary target of America’s enemies in war.  This entry is a (very) short history of the defense of the city.

From its foundations, New York was a fortified settlement.  Worried about incursions from Native Americans and other European powers, the Dutch built a fort at the foot of Manhattan (where Battery Park is today—hence its name) and a wall where Wall Street is to defend against unwanted incursions.  The fort also served to defend the entrance to the Hudson River so the Dutch cargoes of beaverskins harvested near Albany would go unmolested on their way back to the Netherlands.  The English would later strengthen fortifications in the city when they took New Amsterdam.

During the American Revolution, the British captured New York in 1776 after what was ultimately the largest engagement of the war.  General George Washington ordered the building of crude fortifications in Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan.  These failed as the British would take the city for the duration of the war.  Americans continued to keep the British from invading New England by defending the Hudson River by stringing a sharp chain across the river at West Point (Benedict Arnold betrayed the U.S. by trying to help the British capture this emplacement).

Due to the experience of the invasion, the U.S. government would begin a massive fortification building spree, with emplacements constructed at Castle Clinton on Battery Park, Castle William on Governor’s Island, and Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island (the location of the Statue of Liberty today).  These forts would have provided an impressive defense of the harbor during the War of 1812, but were never used and obsolete mere decades after their completion.

Subsequent army bases such as Fort Tilden and Fort Hamilton on the approaches to the Narrows in New York Harbor were constructed in the 1800s.  There was also a naval dock built in Staten Island, in addition to the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex, which churned out ships such as the U.S.S. Monitor in the Civil War and the U.S.S. Missouri in World War II.  When aviation first appeared, Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn was an air base for military aircraft (this airfield is now where the NYPD has their aircraft based).  Armories were completed throughout the city, with many New York City-based units serving with distinction in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

The last time New York has been threatened with war was during World War II.  The German navy attacked several merchant ships in New York harbor—within sight of Manhattan.  Under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was also the chief of Civil Defense for the U.S. at the beginning of World War II, the entire city was mobilized to fight.  Blackouts became a common occurrence at night, trains carried troops from all over the country to board ships bound for Europe and the Pacific, and workers streamed in from all over the country to work at factories in and around the city.  At the peak of the war, 70,000 workers labored all day and all night at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (the suspension bridges on the East River were boarded up so that enemy spies could not see the ships being constructed). Supplies also left for the front from the  massive Brooklyn Army Terminals on the East River.  The end of the war in 1945 led to the famous celebrations at Times Square, which were among the largest in New York’s history.

After the war, the military would be redeployed to areas away from population centers and where more space was readily and cheaply available.  The Brooklyn Navy Yard would be shuttered and the remaining bases in the city limits (with the exception of a small presence at Fort Hamilton) closed by the early 2000s.  The city is still well defended by units of the armed forces within easy reach from New Jersey, Long Island, and Upstate New York.  The defense of New York remains important today.  This is among the facts you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.


Act of Consolidation

Although there are larger cities in terms of area in the U.S. than New York (Jacksonville, Florida, covers more area), and there are other cities around the world that have more inhabitants, New York remains the largest city in population in the U.S. and still covers a large area (at over 300 square miles).  The current boundaries of New York date back to 1898.  The ramifications of this merger (called the Act of Consolidation) are still felt today.

New York eclipsed Philadelphia as the largest city in the U.S. by the time of the first census.  As New York grew, the neighboring cities also increased in population.  This was most notable in Brooklyn, which would eventually become the country’s fourth largest city.  As the population of the region increased, it was becoming apparent that one city government would function in a more efficient manner.  After the Civil War, Brooklyn and New York had combined fire and police departments.  The addition of the Brooklyn Bridge also helped to draw the two cities together even more.

Much of the opposition to consolidation came from Brooklyn politicians, who naturally feared their loss of control in the new city.  Their protests were drowned out by citizens in Brooklyn, who were upset about corruption scandals in the City of Brooklyn and that the municipality was having trouble finding clean water—while New York had a reliable source of fresh water piped in from the Catskill Mountains.

In 1896 the State of New York approved a consolidation of the City of New York (which included Manhattan and the Bronx), the City of Brooklyn, Richmond County (Staten Island), and Queens County.  Areas of Queens County rejected the consolidation and split off (with state approval) to become Nassau County.  The Bronx would be spun off into its own borough before World War I.  Under a new city charter, the city council would acknowledge the roles of the separate boroughs with an upper house called the Board of Estimate, which included the mayor, city council president, comptroller, and the five borough presidents.  This chamber was declared unconstitutional in the 1980s and abolished.

While some say that the Act of Consolidation marked a great decline for many years for Brooklyn (the city lost its professional baseball team and independent newspapers in the ensuing years) and Staten Island (which has unsuccessfully tried to separate from the city several times due to a perceived indifference from the city government), it has been argued that the consolidation was beneficial as it helped to streamline government throughout the region and helped to develop the metropolis into what it is today.  Information such as this is explained on every Sights by Sam tour.

What’s in a Name: A Brief History of the Borough Names

Traversing through New York City, named after King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York, many new arrivals and some long time residents have wondered why the boroughs have their names.  This short guide should explain why the boroughs are called what they are:


The origins of the name are not agreed upon.  The name Manhattan could be a Dutch corruption of a Lenape or Munsee word for “Place of Many Hills”, “Place Where One Gathers Bows,” or the oft-quoted “Place of General Inebriation.”


Brooklyn is named after Breukelen, a Dutch village.  Various sources say this further translates into “the Broken Land.”


This borough was named for Queen Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II, who was the sovereign when the English took what became New York from the Dutch.


This area was named after Jonas Bronck, a Scandinavian settler (who was believed to be Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, depending on who you ask) who was a major landholder in the area in the 1600s.

Staten Island

Staten Island was named by Henry Hudson for the Staten Generaal, then the name of the Parliament for the Netherlands.  In 1683, the island was reorganized into Richmond County, named after the Duke of Richmond, illegitimate son of King Charles II.

The naming of the city itself and the outer boroughs follows a consistent pattern with the Age of Discovery in naming areas after important people or landowners (this pattern is repeated all across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), or as a linguistic corruption of already existing local names (which was common at one point in India and is still common in many New York neighborhoods).  Another entry regarding some of the neighborhood names will come at another time.  You are able to learn this and other history like it on a Sights by Sam tour.

Under the Streets

Under the very streets of New York is one of the most important sights to behold, yet important for ferrying over three million people through the metropolis daily.  The New York City Subway, with 469 stations and enough track to go from Manhattan to Chicago, is essential to the functioning of the city as we know it.

Before 1904, when the current system opened, a crowded, seemingly never ending mass of horse carriages plied across the city.  The horses powering these carriages produced thousands of gallons of waste daily. This was in addition to the dead horses, which had to be removed.  For many, transportation was done via streetcars and cablecars, but these were dangerous for pedestrians in some areas (the Brooklyn Dodgers earned their nickname from fans dodging trolleys careening around their ballpark).  There were several elevated lines, but these were initially powered by steam (sending their pollution onto the streets below) or blocked out light to the bottom of the street (such as on the Bowery).  A new solution had to be found.

Inspired by developments in London in the mid 1800s, underground rail was sought.  Inventor Alfred Ely Beech developed a short subway line that was powered by large fans blowing the car from one terminal to the other in the late 1800s.  This line was short-lived due to political issues.

In 1900, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) began building its lines on the east and west sides of Manhattan and opened in 1904.  The IRT was soon joined by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) and later the Independent Subway System (IND, run by the city, as it was built independently of private investment).  The City of New York wound up owning all three systems a little before World War II.  Being three different companies, the stops often overlap, with many stops converging in Lower Manhattan as the idea was to move as many people as possible to the business district for work in the morning and back home at night.  The old systems are all incorporated into the current system: the IRT (numbered lines), the BMT (J through Z lines), and the IND (A through G lines).  Many lines can run in a local-express configuration, and the system is the largest of its type in the world that runs all day, every day.

The subway, in addition to being mostly utilitarian in its purpose, does have art in it such as Guastavino tiling, while other stations have intricate mosaics (Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall has pictures of the great bridge and Astor Place has beavers, which allude to the source of the Astor Family’s wealth in furs).  Several stations also have pieces from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts and Design Program, which features local and well-known artists.

The next time you are traveling from point A to point B in our great city, take a moment to look for hidden design accents and marvel that this is the busiest, hardest working system of its type in the country and an instant symbol of the great city.  This is one of the many things you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.