Henry Stern, who died Wednesday at age 83, was a close and valued friend of the Manhattan Institute and, as New York’s Parks Commissioner from 1983 through 1989 and again from 1994 to 2002, an important player in New York’s rebirth under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
An upper-Manhattan-born whiz-kid who graduated from Bronx Science at 15, City College at 19, and from Harvard Law at 22 in 1957, Stern came to the Parks Department after a public-service career that began with a clerkship to a state supreme court justice right after law school and included two terms as a New York city councilman. Always open to new approaches as Parks Commissioner, he gladly embraced the philanthropy-funded Central Park Conservancy, grateful for the manpower, expertise, and master plan it provided to transform what had been one of the glaring symbols of Gotham’s long 1970s and ‘80s decline—a litter-strewn dustbowl punctuated with algae-choked pools and peopled with dope dealers and muggers—back into the urban Elysium that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had created in the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of his tenure, not only was Central Park, with its manicured lawns, cheerfully bustling playing-fields and playgrounds, and fastidiously restored bridges, buildings, and statues, an extraordinary theater of urban civility, thronging with well-behaved crowds of New Yorkers and tourists of every class and ethnicity, but so too were a host of other New York parks, brought back to vibrant life and verdant beauty from what old-timers like me remembered as dystopian no-go zones out of Taxi Driver. His work was key to the virtuous circle of civic order, public safety, falling crime, and burgeoning prosperity over which Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg presided.
If you look at photos of pre-World War I Manhattan, one thing that strikes you is the barrenness of the side streets, all blank pavement, void of vegetation. Not when Henry got through with them. His campaign to plant New York with 1 million trees was transformative, and anyone who sees the streets luminous with Callery-pear blossoms in spring, or invitingly cool with green arches of honey locusts or willow oaks in summer, should bless his memory. He was passionately devoted to those trees and relentless in his campaign to prosecute those who vandalized them for “arboricide.”
In his willingness to experiment, he was one of the first city officials to embrace Giuliani’s version of workfare, the Work Experience Program, at a time when conventional New York liberal pols—as Henry had been at the start of his career—saw welfare-reform as a political third rail. The program appealed both to Henry’s practical and his moral side, providing him with a plentiful supply of labor, however unskilled, at a time of fiscal constraint, and also giving his WEPs, as he called them, the experience and work ethic they needed to re-enter the world of responsibility and citizenship that many of them found liberating and exhilarating. Because so many of the WEPs were minorities, Henry’s reward was, perhaps inevitably in left-wing Gotham, a charge of racism and ultimately a discrimination lawsuit by the department’s salaried minority employees.
Rumpled, slouching, sometimes seemingly distracted under his bushy white eyebrows, Henry radiated a whimsical irony that I always suspected sprang from his being the smartest person in the room but not permitted, as a politician, to explode politically-correct shibboleths or speak politically-incorrect truths that were as clear as day to him. Sometimes this came out as simple whimsy, as in his ritual of dubbing all his subordinates and friends with noms du parc: he was StarQuest (a play on the German “Stern”), for example; I was Electro; my late wife, Electra. But since he had thousands of such nicknames, his uncanny ability to remember all of them without hesitation was one more display of his extraordinary power of mind. The whimsicality came out, too, in periodic stunts: appearing at events costumed as Neptune, say, or an astronaut or matador. But sometimes the whimsicality had a reckless edge that got him in trouble, as when he told a group of Chinese-American kids admiring his beloved golden retriever, Boomer, that they were welcome to pet him but not eat him.
He emphatically left his mark on New York—acres of marks, hundreds of thousands of them. When Gotham’s trees start to bloom next week, thank Henry.