This city’s history can be told in myriad ways, whether through its splendid structures, incredible infrastructure, or titanic transportation. But in the end, what makes New York truly memorable throughout history has been its people.
Of the millions upon millions of citizens that have called NYC home, few have guided the course of the city’s progress like the elected leaders who take on the mantle of mayor. Being a local leader in a global metropolis means our mayors carry a great deal of influence, and throughout the years that influence has made for some memorable tenures. Here are just four of the most notable mayors in New York City’s history.
Thomas Willett (1665-1666, 1667-1668)
The first mayor of NYC was born in England, but made his name as a trader in the colonies while simultaneously taking part in administering the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. His fluency in Dutch led to his taking the odd job from Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch leader of the colony of New York (then called New Netherland). Stuyvesant would eventually sign his power over to the English in 1664 with Willett present, and New York City was born. Appointed by new Governor Richard Nicoll, Willett served as mayor of the newly christened city, and his bilingual status was an asset to the transition. When the Dutch briefly retook the city in 1673, Willet was persona non grata and fled back to Massachusetts, where he died the following year.
DeWitt Clinton (1803-1807, 1808-1810, 1811-1815)
The son of a Revolutionary War General, DeWitt Clinton’s contributions to New York and the nation were far less combative than those of his father. As mayor of NYC, Clinton was a crucial supporter of the humanities; establishing the New York Historical Society, the American Academy of the Fine Arts, and serving as a Regent of the State University of New York (SUNY).
Moving on after his mayoralty to become Governor of the state, he played a crucial role in the construction of the Erie Canal. This megaproject connected New York and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes, massively expanding the young country’s trade possibilities. His name lives on throughout the city–whether a high school in the Bronx, a park in Chelsea, or public housing in Harlem, DeWitt Clinton’s legacy will be emblazoned upon this city for generations to come.
William Havemeyer (1845-1846, 1848-1849, 1873-1874)
Son of a German immigrant, Havemeyer grew up in his father’s sugar business. By the time he turned 40, he sold his interest in the successful family store and set out to build a political career. He ingratiated himself with the famously corrupt Tammany Hall, but managed to maintain a measure of independence and fought against Tammany politicians later in his career. Havemeyer was strongly anti-slavery, a position that put him at odds with many in the political establishment of his day. For his third term, he defeated the Tammany-endorsed Abraham Lawrence and reorganized the city’s government much to the derision of entrenched powers. A crusader until the end, Havemeyer passed away while in office and was buried in the Bronx.
Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945)
Havemeyer famously clashed with the powerful Tammany group, but it wasn’t until the extremely popular and charismatic LaGuardia was elected many decades later that the old party machine was snuffed out for good. As mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia revitalized a suffering city in the midst of the Great Depression.
The son of Italian immigrants, he rallied voters in favor of pro-labor and immigration initiatives during his time as a U.S. Representative for his district in East Harlem. Deciding to run for mayor later on, he claimed the support of the immigrant populations Tammany had long leaned on for control. This popular backing came mostly thanks to his ambitious agenda: financially empowering individual citizens over the banks, expanded work relief for the unemployed, ending corruption and organized crime, and modernizing the city’s transportation and parks systems.
His unmatched charisma helped make these lofty goals realistic, and few mayors in history were as popular as he. Today, the airport that bears his name is a testament to his forward-thinking approach, along with the famed performing arts high school and several more parks and schools. In 1993, LaGuardia was “overwhelmingly” voted the greatest mayor in American history by a panel of historians and experts. In a city that won’t accept any less than the best, Fiorello LaGuardia may well stand for years as the finest municipal leader the nation has ever seen.