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"Mayor LaGuardia championed building the biggest and best-equippedairport in the nation"


Monday, August 14, 2017


Mayor LaGuardia championed building the biggest and best-equipped airport in the nation

Mayor LaGuardia's crown jewel: the airport that bears his name

BY Jay Maeder



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                                                  Aerial view of the ceremonies marking the inauguration of the Pan American Airways airbase, at LaGuardia Field. 

The story went that one day in 1934 the formidable new mayor of the City of New York was flying home from Chicago aboard a TWA DC-2 that landed, as was its practice, at Newark. And everyone got off the plane except Fiorello LaGuardia, who pointed out that his ticket said CHICAGO-NEW YORK and said he wanted to go to New York, not Newark. And the captain politely explained that, well, Newark was where New York flights landed because that's where the airport was. And LaGuardia said again that his ticket damn well said New York and he refused to leave his seat.

And the captain thought this over, and by and by the plane was in the air again, delivering Mayor LaGuardia, its sole passenger, to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which could only just barely accommodate a DC-2.

This was, the story went, specifically the reason that five years later New York City had the biggest and best-equipped airport in the nation.

It is true, of course, that Fiorello LaGuardia was in any case one of commercial aviation's more indefatigable champions and a great friend and supporter of the various interests that sought to advance it in ever bigger and bolder modern America. Still, it is recorded he often grumbled that somehow it just wasn't right for New Yorkers to be stuck with an airport that was basically in another state altogether.

Old Floyd Bennett, though, was no more convenient to the city than Newark was, and LaGuardia decided that Governors Island was a fine place for an airport, since soon it would be linked to Manhattan via the long-planned Brooklyn-Battery tunnel. But he could never drum up any federal interest in that idea. Then one day his eye fell upon a peninsula on the Queens shoreline, a dismal strip of badlands called North Beach, separating Flushing Bay from Bowery Bay and scenically overlooking the great Rikers Island garbage dump.

It wasn't pretty, but in 1937 it suddenly had two things going for it. A few minutes away in one direction was the new Triborough Bridge. And a few minutes away in the other was the site of the forthcoming World's Fair.

North Beach had been developed in the 1880s by piano manufacturer William Steinway, and for some few years it had been a popular shore resort and amusement park. By the end of the 1920s, the Curtiss-Wright Corp. had turned it into a private airfield. North Beach Airport was 20 minutes from the city; sport fliers used it regularly; the Police Department's Aviation Unit was hangared there; so was the Daily News' photo plane. But it certainly couldn't handle commercial airliners. LaGuardia decided he was personally going to fix that.

In August 1937, the city bought North Beach Airport from Curtiss-Wright for $1.3 million and immediately began to more than quintuple its 105 acres with 17 million cubic yards of landfill scooped up from Rikers Island's mountains of cinder, ash and refuse. More than 20,000 relief workers from the federal Works Progress Administration worked around the clock for two years. The mayor was determined to finish his pride-and-joy airport by the time the Fair opened April 30, 1939.

He didn't, quite. There were many obstacles to timely completion: For one thing, the price tag swiftly increased from $13 million to $40 million, and the airport was scathed by the cost-conscious as a colossal boondoggle. Building tradesmen branded the WPA workers incompetent wastrels and insisted that the private sector could have brought the job in for half the cost. Newark officials, meanwhile, lodged protests with civil aviation authorities, seeking to protect their investment in their field. When the fair opened, there was not yet an airport to serve it.

On a sparkling Sunday, the 15th of October, the mayor "with pardonable pride," he beamed dedicated his crown jewel before more than a quarter-million New Yorkers. The TWA, American, United and Canadian Colonial lines showed off their gleaming silver ships on the field's six runways; 75 military planes stunted high overhead; the mighty Pan American Atlantic Clipper rode the bay off the Marine Terminal, symbolizing the trans-oceanic service soon to come. As LaGuardia spoke, a young woman paraded before him with a large sign reading NEWARK IS STILL THE WORLD'S GREATEST AIRPORT. Cops hustled her away and told her to go home.

Regularly scheduled service began at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 2, with the arrival from Chicago of a TWA transport carrying a gentleman named Omero Caton, who previously had been the first person over the Triborough Bridge and through both the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. The first outgoing flight, American's Night Owl to Chicago, left at 1:20, half an hour behind schedule. United, meanwhile, flew in several loads of office files from Newark.

On Nov. 10, North Beach Airport officially went out of existence and became LaGuardia Field. By Christmas, the city was forced to impose parking and observation-deck fees to discourage the tens of thousands of people who were visiting every day just to watch the airplanes take off and land.

The building trades may have had a point about WPA labor; within two years the hangars and the airstrips were sinking into the landfill and extensive remedial work became necessary.

By that time it was plain that LaGuardia Field wasn't big enough anyway, and the mayor began planning the even larger Idlewild Airport. 

First published on June 2, 1998 as part of the "Big Town" series on old New York


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