Mason B. Williams

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[Cross-posted from New Books in History] “Today, many New Yorkers take the FDR to get to La Guardia,” Mason B. Williams jokes in the opening line of his new book City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (W.W. Norton, 2013) . And, depending on where they start, they pass any number of vital, iconic features in Gotham’s landscape that were built thanks to both men: Carl Schurz Park, the Triborough Bridge, Randall Island’s Stadium, the Astoria Pool, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, William Cullen Bryant High School, the Queensbridge Houses, etc. These public works are the physical legacy of the New Deal, and the legendary partnership between the city’s famous mayor, Fiorella La Guardia, and the state’s former Governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the latter’s presidency. That heritage stands everywhere around us, not just in New York but all over the country. Yet, as Williams notes, the history of this paradoxically productive era in America’s past (a stark contrast to politics in the Great Recession) has been “obscured in turns by ideology and neglect.”

City of Ambition tells that story with sophistication and verve. It is difficult for any scholar, particularly a junior one, to say something interesting about the New Deal, the Big Bang in modern American political history. But Williams uses this quasi dual-biographical approach to make a point we sometimes forget: that federalism, so often the Achilles heel of reform in the United States, actually lay at the heart of this seminal moment. Washington lacked the operational capacity to administer large-scale programs, and so relied heavily upon municipal governments. Far from a zero-sum game, the growth of federal power “enabled local action.”

Heavily researched, ambitiously broad, and finely written, Williams’s book explores a number of other local and national themes, as well. Read and enjoy.

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