Despite the effects of the Great Depression, the City Planning Commission under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia reported for the period 1920–1939 a staggering increase in New York City motor vehicle registrations from 225,000 to nearly one million. As a result of the evolving needs of constituents, and with a glimmering post-war economic boom on the horizon, when Manhattan Borough President Edgar J. Nathan, Jr. came to power in 1941, plans for public works projects such as the Lower Manhattan Crosstown Expressway (LOMEX) and East River (FDR) Drive were well underway to convert Manhattan from an island of pedestrians to one of motorized commercial activity, suburban commuters, and, by necessary association, vast highway networks.
However, despite this common goal, officials differed on their approach to financing such expansive developments, which sometimes caused increased tension and poor or antagonistic communication.
On March 9, 1944, Manhattan Borough President Edgar J. Nathan, Jr. rushed to Albany to derail a bill, written by Robert Moses and backed by La Guardia, which intended to surrender partial control of New York City highway construction to the State in exchange for public works funding. To Nathan’s dismay, he learned of the imminent proposal not by way of an internal memo or personal letter, but by reading about it in a local journal.
Furious that he had not been consulted on an issue that directly concerned his office, Nathan disseminated a press release immediately. Making a Republican appeal on behalf of local jurisdiction, Nathan countered, “The City should zealously retain its control over these areas so that highways, public wharfage and access to private property may be designed to meet the commercial uses which the future growth of the city may require, as well as the expeditious movement of traffic. How can a state official, acting directly or through private design firms, adequately solve such Manhattan problems? The City officials entrusted with this by the Charter have been chosen by the people because of their knowledge of these local needs and their ability to negotiate expeditiously and fairly with conflicting interests.”
In response, an enraged Robert Moses published a vicious criticism of Nathan’s critique, in which he asserted, “The Borough President of Manhattan has betrayed the interests of the city as a whole,” and, later, wrote a fuming letter to an unidentified public official who had supported Nathan in the dispute, in which he called Nathan’s proposed changes to the bill “astonishing,” “preposterous,” “ridiculous,” and “a fiasco,” and even went as far as to call Nathan’s position indicative of a “dog in the manger attitude” because the proposed bill would not immediately affect Manhattan. Almost a year later, Mayor La Guardia sent Nathan the following note, echoing Moses’s jabs, though perhaps on a different disagreement altogether:
Despite very cordial bookends, the note is dripping with disdain, almost as if in a nod to the venomously polite tone with which many early U.S. politicians openly criticized each other’s political maneuvers and motives. La Guardia’s move calls to mind Hamilton: An American Musical, in which Thomas Jefferson raps, “Our cabinet is fractured into factions […] We smack each other in the press and we don’t print retractions,” and, later, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr sing a duet based on preserved correspondence between the two men, in which they sign off on even the most threatening of notes with the phrase, “I have the honor to be your obedient servant,” in accordance with social and political norms.