There are many different ways that a park can come into existence. Some, like Prospect Park, are carefully planned, immaculate visions of natural oases in urban settings. Others, like the whimsically named Planeview Park, are conceived out of happenstance or providence. Federal Aviation Administration regulations stipulate that airports are required to have a large, clear piece of land leading up to airport runways. In 1958 the Port Authority surrendered nine parcels of land, stretching from 78th Street and 25th Avenue to the Grand Central Parkway, across from La Guardia Airport, to Parks with the understanding that the land could only be used for park purposes.
Fiorello H. La Guardia (1882-1947), for whom La Guardia Airport is named, was born in Greenwich Village, the son of a United States Army bandleader. He received his law degree from New York University, was admitted to the bar in 1910, and became the nation’s first Italian-American Congressman in 1916. La Guardia held various Congressional posts until 1932, and served as president of New York City’s Board of Aldermen (predecessor of he City Council) from 1920 to 1921.
In 1933, La Guardia was elected mayor on a reform Fusion ticket following the scandals which had forced Mayor James J. Walker (1881–1946) from office, and he was inaugurated on New Year’s Day 1934. Over the next 12 years La Guardia left a distinctive mark on the City. He unified and modernized the public transit system, consolidated and centralized much of the city government, cracked down on illegal gambling, and began transportation projects that built the City’s bridges, tunnels, parkways, and airports.
Although the two men disagreed about the airport project, La Guardia and Triborough Bridge Authority Chairman Robert Moses (1888–1981) embarked on an unprecedented expansion of the New York City Parks system throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Originally an amusement park, North Beach Airport was a private landing strip until 1935. Mayor La Guardia chose the site because of its proximity to Manhattan and its water approach, which facilitated landings, and minimized the need to destroy housing.
On September 9, 1937, Mayor La Guardia broke ground on the site by commandeering a steam shovel, an apt symbol of the immensity of the project that lay ahead, which was funded through a $45 million Federal Works Progress Administration grant. More than half of the 558 acres on which the airport was built is man-made -- filled in with more than 17 million cubic yards of cinders, ashes, and trash.
The new airport, called New York City Municipal Airport, was one of many transportation projects built or begun in the 1930s to modernize the City’s infrastructure. When it opened, the airport accommodated both domestic and trans-oceanic flights, and was trumpeted as a state-of-the-art facility in an age when air travel was starting to overtake other forms of transportation. “No effort has been spared…in making [the airport] worthy of the new world, an airport unsurpassed and even unrivaled in utility, capacity, safety, convenience and beauty,” boasted publicity pamphlets for the project.
In August of 1940, the Board of Estimate named the airport for La Guardia, who considered the project one of his greatest achievements. He stopped by the airport frequently, even paying a visit after bad weather shut it down to ensure the facility’s bathrooms were clean. In 1942, three of the runways began sinking into the landfill; in 1947, with the airport bankrupt, the Port Authority assumed operation of the facility. Today, LaGuardia is one of the busiest airports in the nation, serving millions of passengers each year.