NYC has been led by 110 mayors over its nearly 400-year history, but most of the men who have had the honor of being “hizzoner” have long-faded into obscurity. Only a select few mayors have been memorialized, mostly with places named after them in NYC. So in honor of the city’s latest mayoral inauguration, let’s learn a bit about some of these former NYC mayors who have places named after them.
Fiorello La Guardia – LaGuardia Airport
It’s only right that the mayor who lobbied so hard for NYC to have its own airport in the early days of aviation gets an airport named after him. But Fiorello La Guardia fought for more than just airports during his four terms as NYC mayor from 1934 to 1945. He fought for a more efficient city government, workers’ rights, and higher living standards for the city’s poorest, among other progressive reformer causes. La Guardia not only frequently tops the list as one NYC’s greatest mayors; he’s also considered as one of America’s greatest mayors.
Fiorello La Guardia – Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts
La Guardia actually founded this specialized high school in 1936, which isn’t surprising because the man knew how to turn on the theatrics. Even he once admitted, “I am an inconsiderate, arbitrary, authoritative, difficult, complicated, intolerant, and somewhat theatrical person.”
Robert Anderson Van Wyck – Van Wyck Expressway
The Van Wyck Expressway is named after Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck, the first mayor of NYC after the Consolidation of 1898 that created the five-borough city we’re familiar with today. It must have been hard trying to create some order out of the chaos that came from combining cities and towns together to form one colossal city, but as a Tammany Hall tool, I imagined that Van Wyck didn’t have to work too hard. With a campaign slogan of “To Hell with Reform,” it’s questionable that Van Wyck was the right man for the moment, which helps explain why he was ousted out of office in 1901 after one term and replaced with the reformer Seth Low. Nonetheless, his name still lives on in the form of the Van Wyck Expressway, which connects the John F. Kennedy Airport to the northern part of Queens.
Ed Koch – Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge
Remembered more for his personality than his policies, Ed Koch was one of New York City’s longest-serving mayors, holding three consecutive terms between January 1, 1978 and December 31, 1989. Picture the stereotypical New Yorker and you’ve probably nailed Ed Koch’s personality. He was brass and combative and fiercely loved the city, which arguably made him the right person to boost New Yorkers’ spirits after the tension, riots, murders, and near-bankrupcy of the 1970s.
Policy-wise, the Koch administration directed billions of dollars towards rebuilding housing and parks in the city’s most devastated areas and steadied the city’s finances, among other achievements. But his handling of scandals within his administration, rising murder rates and racial tensions, as well as the poor response to both the AIDS and crack epidemics most likely caused voters to deny Koch a fourth term as mayor. Still, Koch, with that larger-than-life personality, is remembered fondly by New Yorkers. But it puzzles us why in 2011 the City Council voted to rename the Queensboro Bridge (or the 59th Street Bridge if you’re Manhattan-centric), the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. The man never lived in Queens.
James Duane – Duane Street in Manhattan
Manhattan’s Duane Street and nearby Duane Park are named for Mayor James Duane, who served as the first NYC mayor following the end of the American Revolution. Although we barely remember him now, Duane was quite a hot shot during his day. He was considered one of the leading figures of the Revolutionary War, was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, and was eventually chosen by George Washington to be a judge of the United States District Court. For a man with all these roles on his resume and who married into the New York’s influential Livingston clan, being mayor of New York seems like the most minor part of his legacy.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, this is where Duane in Duane Reade comes from.
Richard Varick – Varick Street in Manhattan
Lower Manhattan’s Varick Street runs along what used to be the property of Richard Varick, a New York lawmaker, mayor, and bestie of both Benedict Arnold and George Washington. Varick was a Jersey boy who was studying to become a lawyer at King’s College until he was swept up in revolutionary fervor and joined the Continental Army. There, he served under General Philip Schuyler and became good friends with Benedict Arnold, who somehow kept Varick in the dark about his treacherous activities. Despite Varick’s former association with Arnold, George Washington later selected him to be one of his secretaries and aides-de-camp. This was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.
After the war, Varick helped codify New York State’s laws, and at one point, in 1788, Varick simultaneously held the positions of the Recorder of New York City, New York State Assemblyman, New York State Speaker of the House, and State Attorney General. Apparently people thought he was just that gifted as both an administrator and a lawyer that he could juggle all of those jobs at once. In 1789 Varick was appointed mayor of New York City, serving eleven consecutive one-year terms until 1801. Despite his talents, Varick was a political pariah by the end of his stint as mayor, as New York City went through financial crises, multiple yellow fever epidemics, and Federalist vs. Democratic-Republican feuds under his watch. Like everyone worn down by the city, Varick left NYC for New Jersey, becoming one of the founders of Jersey City.
DeWitt Clinton – Clinton Hill, Clinton Street and Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, DeWitt Clinton High School, DeWitt Clinton Park, and Castle Clinton
If it’s named “Clinton,” it’s safe to assume it’s named after DeWitt. Although Clinton did serve as mayor of NYC multiple times (from 1803 to 1807, 1808 to 1810, and 1811 to 1815), that’s not the reason his name is plastered everywhere. In 1817, DeWitt Clinton became governor of New York State and spearheaded the construction of the Erie Canal, which would connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes via an east-west waterway through Central New York. Several of Clinton’s contemporaries thought the canal was a foolish idea, calling it “Clinton’s folly” and “DeWitt’s ditch,” but once the canal was completed in 1825, Clinton had the last laugh, as the Erie Canal’s relative ease of transporting goods from the Midwest to the East made New York City the most important, most affordable, and most profitable shipping port in the US. As though his witnessing the success of the Erie Canal wasn’t enough, DeWitt Clinton’s name still being all over NYC is like him giving his haters (including Thomas Jefferson) a middle finger from the afterlife.
David Dinkins – David N. Dinkins Municipal Building
It makes sense that the Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street bears David Dinkins’ name. Not only did he work there for a decade as a city clerk, but his patient rise through New York politics meant he was particularly familiar with all the people and operations in the Municipal Building. But Dinkins isn’t remembered for his time as city clerk or even his tenure as Manhattan Borough President; he’s remembered as New York City’s first Black mayor. Although no one can deny that Dinkins was a gentleman and a trailblazer, as a mayor Dinkins got mixed reviews. NYC was already in rough shape when Dinkins took the office from Ed Koch in 1989. But it wasn’t much better off in 1993 when he lost the office to Rudy Giuliani. At that point, racial tensions were at a zenith, with Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights literally at each other’s throats. Not to mention, Staten Islanders had voted to secede from the city in 1993. But Dinkins acted slowly and cautiously — too slowly and too cautiously, his critics said. Decades after leaving office, Dinkins still wondered how much of this criticism was fair and how much of it was race-based.
Philip Hone – Hone Avenue in the Bronx
Philip Hone’s one year stint as mayor of New York City from 1826 to 1827 is probably the most blasé detail about his life. The son of a German immigrant, Hone made his fortune in the auction business, becoming so fabulously wealthy by age 40 that he retired from work. With his newfound freetime, Hone focused his efforts on being an upper class social butterfly, hosting and going to parties, sitting on the board of every NYC institution, and making friends with everyone who was anyone in his day. For a guy that ran in the same social circles as John Jacob Astor, Samuel Morse, and John Quincy Adams, it’s surprising his name isn’t as well-known these days as his contemporaries are.
As I said earlier, being mayor of NYC was just another line on Hone’s extensive resume. Philip Hone’s real legacy (aside from his soirees) was his extensive diary that he wrote in from 1828 until his death in 1851. This is one of the most detailed accounts historians have explaining what life was like in New York in the first half of the nineteenth century, at least from the perspective of a wealthy white socialite.
Hugh Grant – Hugh J. Grant Circle
Taking the office at 31 years of age in 1889, Hugh Grant (no, not that one) is remembered as NYC’s youngest mayor and is memorialized at this one acre Parkchester park.
What former NYC mayor do you think deserves to have a place named after him? Share it in the comment section.
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