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Vice President Biden’s depiction of La Guardia Airport as overcrowded and outdated is a recurring complaint, dating back almost to the Airport’s origins.