December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

by Thomas Kessner

The snow fell with a light touch on Jan. 1, 1934, as the citizens of New York City waited for news from their newly sworn-in Mayor. Few knew what to expect of the stocky man with the funny falsetto voice and wide-brimmed Stetson. Most had doubts he would be able to do anything to stem the avalanche of corruption, crime and poverty which held their city hostage. But less than one hour into Fiorello La Guardia’s first term, those doubts were eased.

At police headquarters, Kessner writes, the Mayor issued his first orders: “Since the turn of the century, police had divided the city into informal zones of preferential enforcement…. Until now, organized crime had bought benign neglect. ‘We are removing that protection [La Guardia said]. Now see that that kind of crime is ably handled. If not—get out!’ The acceptance of’ even a dime’ would result in dismissal. ‘Be good or begone.’ ”

The no-nonsense tone was thus set in place and the situation would remain that way for the 12 years of La Guardia’s rule. The press called him the Little Flower (the English translation of Fiorello), but he plowed through the entrenched bureaucratic maze more like a little tractor.

He replaced the cardboard shantytowns of the homeless with public housing projects. He improved the school system, ordered parks built and existing ones improved, and set loose master builder Robert Moses to develop the city’s new bridges, highways and tunnels. He drop-kicked City Hall hacks to the outer boroughs and wheedled patronage perks down to nothing. In his free time, he rode around on the back of fire engines and fought three-alarm blazes, and he read the comics over the radio during a drawn-out newspaper strike. He remains, both in the minds of most political historians and of those voters old enough to remember, the most revered Mayor in New York history.

On Sept. 20, 1947, La Guardia died after a bout with cancer, less than two years after he had left office. He was 65 years old. That day, President Harry Truman, in a telegram to the Mayor’s widow, Marie, expressed a feeling most New Yorkers still hold as gospel. “He was,” wrote the President, “as incorruptible as the sun.” (McGraw-Hill, $24.95)

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