Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Big Airport Plans Today and Yesterday: Governor Cuomo, Mayor La Guardia and the Shift from City to Metropolitan Scale

Mayor La Guardia Announces the Opening of
Municipal Airport (La Guardia), 1939
(Source: La Guardia and Wagner Archives)

A fortnight ago, Governor Cuomo, flanked by Vice President Biden announced a $4 Billion reconstruction of La Guardia Airport, a project that will be undertaken by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Why the Governor, the Vice President and the Port Authority? Why not the Mayor?

The announcement seemed to beg for some historical context from those of us here at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives.  In the 1940s, Mayor La Guardia too envisioned big airport plans.  But back then, La Guardia’s dream was a grand new airport on Jamaica Bay, and it was the city, not Albany or Washington, who took the lead in planning its own future.  For La Guardia, the new airport at Idlewild (JFK) was an investment to secure New York City’s future dominance in world trade and travel in the emerging aviation era.  Today, in contrast, many New Yorkers think of the airports as a regional enterprise largely divorced from the city rather than one purposed for the city’s benefit.

Our story of the transition of New York’s airports from municipal to regional is set in the 1940s and begins with the early inadequacy of the airport that bears La Guardia’s name.(1)  Then as now, the airports have reflected the tension between New York as a place of aging infrastructure and jostling crowds, and its demand for grand facilities befitting a great metropolis.  

Vice President Biden’s depiction of La Guardia Airport as overcrowded and outdated is a recurring complaint, dating back almost to the Airport’s origins. 

In 1939, under the leadership of Mayor La Guardia, the small North Beach airfield reopened as the New York Municipal Airport (soon dubbed La Guardia Field) -- the finest, most modern airport in the world.  Yet within two years, as it claimed title as the “World’s Busiest Airport,” the New York Times declared “that great terminal [at La Guardia]…already finds itself overcrowded.”  During World War II, as the Army Air Corps forced a curtailing of commercial traffic at La Guardia to meet its own needs, the pressure for space for commercial flights reached the boiling point.  By 1946, Harry Guggenheim, businessman, aviator and publisher of Newsday described La Guardia Field as “dangerous and disgraceful.”

Site Plan for Idlewild (JFK) Airport
(Source: “Municipal Airport at Idlewild” (1945), 
NYC Department of Records/Municipal Archives)
Although plans were made to rehabilitate and expand La Guardia Field, Mayor La Guardia himself backed a much more spectacular solution:  A new International Airport at Idlewild, better known today simply as JFK.  “We are building this greatest of airports, not in the hope that some day there will be need for it,” wrote the Mayor back in 1945, “but because commercial aviation must have it the moment it is completed.”(Click here to see the city’s grand plans for the original JFK)  The press heralded “Fabulous Idlewild,” as a transformative project for the modern metropolis – the unbounded solution to New York’s future aviation needs.

The cost and complexity of new infrastructure like Idlewild (JFK) Airport was overwhelming, however, and precipitated the shift in control from the city to public authorities and to the state and federal governments.  As he struggled with the city’s debt limit, Mayor O’Dwyer, La Guardia’s successor, promoted the idea of transferring the airports (and their debt) from municipal ownership to an independent public authority.  La Guardia himself spoke out against the plan, preferring municipal ownership.  (Read the reactions to La Guardia’s critique by a leading investment banker and the new Deputy Mayor here).  Arguing the future of New York was as a region greater than just the city, the Citizens Union preferred ownership by the Port Authority.  But Mayor O’Dwyer and his powerful Construction Coordinator Robert Moses initially preferred a new Airport Authority over which the city would retain some control.  The Port Authority, although headquartered in Manhattan, had been created in Albany and Trenton.  The Citizen’s Budget Commission, in contrast, suggested the city finish building the airport itself and then contract operations out to a private company.  It seemed for a short time like O’Dwyer and Moses would win, but the new Airport Authority proved inadequate to raise the necessary capital.  In 1947, the Mayor invited the Port Authority to assume control of the airports.  The move, as Guggenheim put it, was intended to provide “airports and service removed from politics and without further debt obligation by the City.”

Plane Taxiing over Highway at JFK, shortly after airport opening 
(Source: Port Authority Report, December 31, 1948,
NYC Department of Records/Municipal Archives)

In 1948, the city celebrated the opening of the New York International Airport (the Port Authority's name for Idlewild before it became JFK) with a huge international air exposition.  But it was the Chairman of the Port Authority, not the Mayor who accepted the Haire Trophy for “outstanding achievement in the field of airport planning.”  As the Port Authority established its dominance over the airports, it couched its power diplomatically.  “The Port Authority,” they wrote in their first annual airport report, “wishes to express its sincere appreciation of the helpful assistance and cooperation received from the City of New York.”  Power had shifted from city officials to regional and state authority.

Transferring control of the airports to the Port Authority was an innovative solution to the tremendous post-war infrastructure needs of the late 1940s.  But it also helped transform how we understand and manage our airports, as regional enterprises largely divorced from the city rather than infrastructure in service to the city itself.  Today we face similar infrastructure needs.  Who is in charge and how we choose to pay for them will matter.

(1) Nicholas Bloom’s recent history of JFK Airport, Metropolitan Airport (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), explores the regional context of the airport in depth.
The original documents included here are the property of the New York City Department of Records/Municipal Archives, 31 Chambers Street, New York, NY  10007, www.nyc.gov/records and may not be duplicated or reproduced without their written permission.  The digital editions of original documents included here are for research purposes only.  We hold microfilm copies of the originals, and as always, you are welcome to come to our archives and view the documents yourself.  User friendly finding aids and computerized indexes on our webpage facilitate rewarding research.  You might also enjoy our wonderful video collection, some of which is available on our YouTube site, and selected images from our collection on our Flikr site.  We welcome you to follow us on FaceBook, and if you like, like us there.  Researchers wishing to visit the archive in person, please contact Douglas Di Carlo, our Archivist in advance of your visit.  Hours for researchers are generally Monday to Friday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. We are closed most major holidays. We look forward to your use of our materials.

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