At 6:50 a.m. on December 21, 1935, police trumpeters roused the workers at the Bronx Terminal Market. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia climbed onto the back of a vegetable truck and proclaimed a ban on baby artichokes for posing a “serious and threatening emergency” in the city. According to the Pittsburgh Press, LaGuardia made his message clear: “I know you dealers are honest men,” he shouted, “and as long as I am Mayor, no racketeer, thug or punk is going to intimidate you.”
Three days later, an extortion racket within the baby artichoke trade was broken, and the ban was lifted. Gangsters were arrested, and the illegal surcharges they imposed on baby artichokes from California ended.
LaGuardia was elected one year earlier on a platform to drive corruption out of city government and off the streets. He was determined to rid the streets of criminal activity, which during the Great Depression included extorted “extra” payments on fruits and vegetables.
Why baby artichokes? Unlike the larger, tougher version of the vegetable, baby artichokes were sold in Italian neighborhoods and their trade was not tracked by the New York City police. Local vegetable markets were not on the radar of the Secret Service, the Federal agency targeting the mafia’s counterfeit money operation. LaGuardia recognized the baby artichoke as the symbolic centerpiece of the powerful Morello crime family, and he aimed to depose The Artichoke King, boss Ciro Terranova.
LaGuardia found the leverage he needed when New York gangs terrorized California artichoke farms with gas bombs from small planes. The baby artichoke racket now proved an interstate affair, and Herbert Hoover, head of the FBI, was alerted. When LaGuardia stood up among the vegetable dealers at dawn and proclaimed his ban, he anticipated swift capitulation from the gangs due to the federal agencies involvement. The baby artichoke was no longer invisible.
The New York City Municipal Archives holds clues to the new Mayor’s strategy and methods of eradicating corruption. LaGuardia’s telegraphs to Hoover show his efforts to establish the connection between the New York gangs and the California farmers, elevating the racket to the federal level.
Receipts from surveillance of the vegetable trade, and reports from the (now defunct) Department of Markets show LaGuardia’s careful investigation of this matter.
Files with research on prior mayoral proclamations for persuasive public messaging show his study of peaceful leveraging of power.
LaGuardia’s fluency in symbolic language is admirable. He drew vivid verbal pictures that were captured in the media, and fluently communicated nuanced messages. As fascist regimes were emerging in Europe, his commitment to legitimate power was timely. LaGuardia’s stand may have caught the eye, and ear, of playwright Bertolt Brecht as he fled Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In 1941 the German playwright wrote the The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui while awaiting a visa to enter the United States. The parable play chronicles the rise of “The Cauliflower King,” a fictional 1930s Chicago mobster, and his attempts to control the cauliflower racket. The play is a satirical allegory of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. The language of coercion and the tools of demagogues are instantly recognizable tropes. Once you see them, you can’t miss them.
After he successfully defeated the illegal control of the artichoke, LaGuardia enlisted the cooperation of New York restaurants to drive up demand for the delicious, diminutive vegetable, thus rewarding honest, peaceful enterprise.
Letter of support forMayor LaGuardia's artichoke campaign from the Wil-Low Cafeteria chain. Mayor LaGuardia Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.
The (now defunct) Department of Markets noted the robust health of the baby artichoke market:
Reports from the New York City Department of Markets, Weights and Measures on the "artichoke situation," January 1937. Mayor LaGuardia Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.
And the artichoke farmers of California were forever grateful:
Letter from the Artichoke Growers of California, 1935. Mayor LaGuardia Papers,NYC Municipal Archives.