Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mason B. Williams's "City of Ambition"

Mason Williams is a historian of 20th century American politics. He is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, where he has also taught a variety of classes in 19th and 20th century U.S. history. Starting this summer, he will be a Bernard and Irene Schwartz postdoctoral fellow at the New-York Historical Society and the New School. In the fall, he will teach a class called “From the Founding to Facebook: Democracy in American History.”

Williams applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York, and reported the following:
Page 99 of City of Ambition finds Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, progressive Republican from East Harlem, puzzling over the causes of the Great Depression. Like many other Americans, he sought to make sense of the paradox of want amidst abundance. Why were people suffering in poverty while farms and factories were producing so much?

La Guardia believed the root causes of the economic catastrophe lay in the mechanization of industry and agriculture. In a vicious cycle, people rendered superfluous by new machinery had stopped buying consumer goods, in turn reducing the demand for labor. The economy would only revive, La Guardia believed, when legislation worked to spread employment more broadly, rendering the benefits of technological advances to all—not just to the owners and managers of capital. Toward those ends, he championed progressive taxation, unemployment insurance, and, above all, maximum hours-minimum wage regulations. Some of the agenda La Guardia and other congressional progressives pushed in the last years of Herbert Hoover’s presidency would see enactment during Franklin Roosevelt’s “Hundred Days.” Yet these and other attempts to stimulate private-sector job creation failed.

Much of the rest of City of Ambition explores the far-ranging consequences of what FDR and the New Dealers did next. Faced with what would now be called a “jobless recovery,” FDR and the Democratic Congress would decide to put the unemployed to work on public investment projects designed largely by local governments—including New York City’s, headed from 1934–1945 by one Fiorello La Guardia. This approach would dramatically expand the capabilities of America’s local governments. Before the onset of World War II, the federal government and the city of New York, acting collaboratively, would build highways, tunnels, bridges, and a major world airport; would build and staff neighborhood health clinics; would launch a program of working-class public housing; would expand the city’s recreational facilities dramatically; and would build schoolhouses across the city. These programs would also reshape the city’s politics, encouraging citizens to imagine a broader role for government in city life.

While the policy response to the Great Depression did not play out exactly as Fiorello La Guardia had hoped, it did play out in a way that made his remarkable mayoralty possible—and which has shaped New York City and the nation, even until today. While page 99 does not speak to the core of that story, it does help to frame it.
Learn more about City of Ambition at Mason B. Williams's website.

--Marshal Zeringue