Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia cuts the tape and opens the
new Sixth Avenue subway at 34th Street, New York, in 1940.
City governments have often been caricatured as corrupt bastions of patronage, graft, and bribes. The reality, of course is more complex. Reform has played an important part in the history of cities, sweeping out the looters and infusing City Hall with a progressive spirit. Reformers and good government elements have given cities progressive social welfare programs, re-imagined the urban landscape, upgraded the civil service, and made government more efficient.


Mayor La Guardia fights a tired tiger, the
symbol of New York’s Tammany Hall political
machine, in his successful quest for a second
term in 1937.
There is no more famous urban reformer than New York’s Fiorello H. La Guardia. Coming to office at the height of the Great Depression, he transformed a bankrupt and corrupt government into one which aimed to meet the needs of a beleaguered city in the throes of depression. He launched new relief measures, cleaned out the corrupt civil service and refused to accept the idea that a great city could not reinvent itself with new parks, schools, hospitals, bridges, airports, and subsidized public housing. His honest administration won the strong support of the New Deal administration in Washington and changed the relationship between cities and the federal government forever. As one of his many awards said, he took government out of the hands of the politicians and placed it back among the people, where it belonged. He did this with panache and rare style, taking a sledgehammer to the “one-armed bandit” slot machines, rushing off to fires on a police sidecar or reading the comics over the radio during a newspaper strike. He infused his relish for the people into city government and made it kind.


La Guardia taking the ax to slot machines that had been
operated by organized crime, aboard a boat on Long
Island Sound, 1937.
Through the Great Depression and World War II, he set a standard for efficient and clean government that has not been surpassed. Tempestuous and sometimes even dictatorial at times, he gave New York as good a government as it has ever had.