Henry J. Stern

HENRY J. STERN, Co-Founder and President

Henry Stern’s career in public service has spanned fifty years of New York City politics. A native New Yorker, Stern attended public schools in upper Manhattan and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1950. He entered City College at 15 and graduated in 1954. At CCNY, he was vice president of the student government, managing editor of the newspaper Observation Post, and president of the Young Liberals. He then attended Harvard Law School where he was president of the Harvard Law Record, the student newspaper.

In 1957, Stern began his career in government as a law clerk for New York State Supreme Court Justice Matthew M. Levy.

In January 1962, Stern was appointed Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan by Borough President Edward R. Dudley, who President Truman had previously appointed the first African-American Ambassador in United States history. Stern continued in this position under Borough President Constance Baker Motley, the first woman elected to that office, and later, by appointment of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the first African-American woman to serve on the federal bench.

In 1966, Stern joined Mayor Lindsay’s administration as Executive Director of the New York City Parks Department by appointment of Commissioner Thomas Hoving. After a year at Parks, Stern moved to Deputy Mayor Timothy W. Costello’s office, where he served as Assistant City Administrator. In 1969, Bess Myerson, Lindsay’s newly appointed commissioner of Consumer Affairs, appointed Stern her first deputy. Four years later, he continued in the post under Myerson’s successor, Betty Furness.

In 1973, and again in 1977, Stern was elected City Councilman-at-large from Manhattan, as a candidate of the Liberal Party—the last member of that party to be elected to public office. In the Council, he introduced smoke-free and gay rights bills which were passed years later. A law he sponsored that was passed requires that photographs of any building be submitted before a demolition permit is granted by the City.

On February 14, 1983, after nine years in the Council, Stern was appointed New York City Parks Commissioner by Mayor Edward I. Koch. In 1989, Stern founded the Historic House Trust, which unified 23 historic houses across the city to better insure their preservation, and the City Parks Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that builds public-private partnerships to care for and grow green spaces and conduct recreation programs. He also founded the Natural Resources Group, an environmental guardianship team of park employees.

After seven years in the Koch administration, at the end of the Mayor’s term, Stern was selected by his former colleague in the Council, Robert F. Wagner Jr., to be President of Citizens Union, the city’s oldest extant good government organization. In 1991, while at Citizens Union, he formed 7A (American Association for the Advancement and Appreciation of Animals in Art and Architecture), which conducts safaris to view the most beautiful local examples of animal sculpture in architecture. Stern and current NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe are co-top dogs of 7A.

In 1994, Stern was reappointed parks commissioner by Mayor Giuliani, and remained in that position for eight years. As commissioner, Stern was credited with improving the cleanliness and safety of New York City’s 1,700 parks and playgrounds. Most notably, Central Park was substantially restored, in partnership with the Central Park Conservancy, which raised over three hundred million dollars in public funds, the largest such private gift in City history.

He also acquired several thousand acres of additional parkland for the city, most coming from other agencies, created over 2,000 “Greenstreets” at traffic intersections, and erected 2,500 historic signs and 800 yardarms for city park flagpoles. Over his 15 years as Parks Commissioner, Stern built over a billion dollars worth of park improvements as part of the capital construction programs of Mayors Koch and Giuliani.

Stern is most proud of the hundreds of young people he brought into public service by actively recruiting college seniors. Many went on to distinguished careers in public service, including former NYC Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler, current NYC Environmental Protection Commissioner Caswell Holloway, and Bradley Tusk, former Deputy Governor of Illinois.

After Stern retired from government at the close of the Giuliani Administration, Mayor Bloomberg appointed him to the board of directors of the Hudson River Park Trust. He is also a director of the Battery Park Conservancy and the Greenbelt Conservancy. In addition, Stern is an advisory board member of The Greenwich (CT) Tree Conservancy and has served as a trustee of Trees New York for the past 25 years.

Stern has received several honors in recognition of his environmental protection efforts, including the National Audubon Society Lifetime Achievement Award and the City Club Earthling Award for Environmental Excellence.

In 2000, Stern was granted an honorary doctorate by City College. He is a past president of the City College Alumni Association and is a recipient of the John H. Finley Medal, the Association’s highest honor, and the Townsend Harris Medal.

In February 2002, Stern, along with Alan M. Moss, former first deputy parks commissioner, co-founded New York Civic to promote good government and advocate for political reform in New York City and New York State. Since then, Stern has written nearly 750 articles on public policy, a number of which have been reprinted in The Huffington Post, New York Post, New York Sun, and various other publications. His articles, which generally are published twice a week, are subscribed to by an email list of over 12,000 readers.

In March 2010, Stern joined forces with former Mayor Koch and Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey to found New York Uprising, a nonpartisan, independent coalition aimed at putting an end to corruption in Albany and restoring the public’s faith in government. Among the trustees of New York Uprising are many of the City and State’s most esteemed former elected and appointed officials.

In the last election cycle, New York Uprising successfully lobbied the majority of the state legislature and candidates for statewide office, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, to sign a pledge that they would pass historic legislation creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission, support a stronger ethics code, and enact budgetary reform. It remains to be seen to what extent these pledges will be honored.

Stories from Henry J. Stern

Many Factors Determine Voter Choices.
Demonstrations Can Bore the Public.
For Messages, Use Western Union.
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, November 18th, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street campaign is faltering, despite considerable public sympathy for the social issues which the protesters seek to publicize.

The pickets and other demonstrators focused on a seam of popular discontent at economic inequality in the United States, the difficulty people face in obtaining work, and the failure of wages to keep up with rising costs. The effects of the Great Recession, specifically people losing their jobs, their mortgaged homes and large portions of their 401(k)s, have left millions of Americans unhappy with their own economic situation and their prospects for the future.

Although there is widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama, the public holds Congress in even lower regard. Last month, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, Congress registered a 9% approval rating, the worst in the legislative body's history since Americans were first surveyed on the subject in 1977. Although the President may have erred in reaching too far and, paradoxically, retreating too often, the Congressional followers of Rule 9-J, "Just Say No", have offered the American people next to nothing.

City Moves on Zuccotti Occupiers
After Two Months' Acquiescence,
Next Round Will Be in Court
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Tuesday, November 15th, 2011
Last night, the city administration used its power to close down, at least temporarily, a street demonstration that had occupied Zuccotti Park, a previously uncelebrated 33,000-square-feet plot of choice Lower Manhattan real estate with trees and benches softening the skyscrapers surrounding it on three sides.

The Park is located on the west side of Broadway, between Cedar Street and Liberty Place, roughly two blocks north of Trinity Church, which is at the head of Wall Street. It is public open space, owned and maintained by Brookfield Properties and intended for passive recreation. It was created through a transaction in which Brookfield was permitted to build a substantially larger office building on the site. Mr. Zuccotti, a former first deputy mayor of New York City during the Beame administration, serves as the co-chairman of Brookfield, a Canadian company.

Governor Defers Budget Decisions,
Blames Volatility in World Markets
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, November 10th, 2011
A widely used political metaphor is the canary in the mineshaft. The small yellow bird is said to be more sensitive to carbon monoxide and methane than human beings. Therefore, when poisonous gases accumulate in an enclosed underground area, the canary is reputedly the first creature to sense its toxic effects. This makes the bird a living smoke alarm, and signals miners and others to escape.

The canary warns of danger not by calls of alarm, but by their absence. Since canaries sing a great deal of the time, miners could read their silence as indicating that the birds were dead or dying, and that it was past time to flee. The concept of the canary in the mineshaft is used to describe a situation in which peril is perceived by a few, but is imminent for all.

Pension Reform Agreed Upon,
But Will the Promises Be Kept?
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, October 28th, 2011

The city's antiquated pension system has long been in need of streamlining and updating. The agreement reached yesterday by Mayor Bloomberg, Comptroller Liu and leading labor unions provides hope that 2012 will be a year of pension reform, but such hopes have previously arisen and been dashed on the rocks of political reality.

New York City employees have different pension plans, all under the management of the City Comptroller: the Employees' Retirement System (NYCERS), the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS), the Police Pension Fund Subchapter 2, the Fire Department Pension Fund Subchapter Two, and the Board of Education Retirement System (BERS). Each pension fund is financially independent of the others and has its own board of trustees, which include city officials and relevant union leaders. In general, the city and the unions have roughly equal authority over the funds.

Brief Interruption Ends;
Commentary Will Resume
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Some of you may have wondered at the absence of commentary for the past few weeks. An explanation is in order.

It is not that there is nothing to say about the city or that everything worth saying has already been said.

It is not that we have despaired of improving the performance of government and have withdrawn from commenting out of a sense of futility.

Nor is it that the affairs of the nation, state, and city are being so well handled by Mssrs. Obama, Cuomo, and Bloomberg - not to mention the legions of their adversaries, rivals, and detractors - that any commentary would be superfluous.

About Author: 
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.