Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Amazon Review of Mason B. Williams', "City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York"

Mason Williams just loves government. He can't get over how New York City became a paragon of an Amercian version of social democracy under the able leadership of Fiorello La Guardia financed by his his good buddy FDR sitting in the White House. With up to a third of the city's budget being funded by Washington, the city had the resources to build the projects we are so familiar with 75 years later. In the interest of full disclosure, growing up in the Queens of the 1950s, I benefited from much of what Williams writes about, especially the parks and the playgrounds.

Williams tells a good story, especially about the La Guardia - Roosevelt relationship and the political millieu of 1930s New York, but he leaves out much. In particular, although he is mentioned, the great "power broker" Robert Moses is hardly discussed. I would have loved to learn more about the La Guardia - Moses relationship. Afterall it was Moses and his public authorities that built the infrastucture for today's New York. Think the airports, the bridges, the tunnels and the roads. Also think the parks and the playgrounds. Second he fails to note that the brilliant administrators the city had in the 1930s were a result of Jews and Itallians who were locked out of the private sector found their way into municipal government. That was an important one off. Lastly Williams is so enamoured with government that he is a booster of rent control. Nowhere is a discussion of the downside of what rent control wrought as the housing stock aged.

I have noticed that several reviewers and implicitly Williams see lessons from the 1930s for today's New York. I hate to break it to you but they aren't there. Why? Both Roosevelt and La Guardia rightly opposed public employee unions. Their presence today makes it far more difficult to administer the city than in La Guardia's day. Also Robert Moses exisited in a world without environmental impact reports and their attendant lawsuits. What took a few years to build in the 1930s would take at least a decade today, assuming the project would even be allowed to start.

Nevertheless readers who have nostalgia for the 1930s and who are more politically liberal than myself would really enjoy this book. It plays into all of their fantasies.

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