Henry Stern’s Experience Leads His New York Civic to "Small Victories"

Ira Stoll
Staff Reporter of the Sun
July 14, 2003
Page 3

When the Bloomberg administration named its new school in the new Department of Education headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse the “Tweed Academy,” Henry Stern voiced his objections. It would, he said, “honor the greatest thief in 350 years of city government.” StarQuest
Sure enough, the school was renamed “City Hall Academy,” a name that Mr. Stern, a former City Council member and city parks commissioner, had suggested in an e-mail to a mayoral aide.

“We get some small victories,” Mr. Stern says of New York Civic, the group he founded in February 2002 after leaving the Parks Department at the end of the Giuliani administration.

The group, which bills itself as “New York’s youngest good government organization,” has some measurable accomplishments in addition to the name for the new school.

It has amassed a 6,000-person mailing list to which Mr. Stern sends regular musings about the city’s politics, policy, and history, and sometimes about other subjects as well. A recent fund-raiser brought in $50,000 for the group.

Mr. Stern has testified three times before the council — against pesky car alarms, against a water treatment plant in Van Cortlandt Park without adequate restoration of the park, and for restrictions on sidewalk art vendors.

“I think they’re doing a terrific job,” says Edward Koch, the former mayor. Mr. Stern, he said, is a “brilliant writer” with “deep knowledge of city issues.”

“This is really a wonderful thing for Henry and the city,” said the chief executive of real estate developer Forest City Ratner Companies, Bruce Ratner. “He’s using his wisdom and knowledge of government, and he’s communicating it to people who are interested and have influence.”

Mr. Stern, 68, says his main assets are the experience and judgment amassed in his 40 years in city government, his newfound freedom to speak his mind, and his writing ability. He takes no salary in his role as president of the group — “the city’s paying me anyway,” he notes, referring to his pension.
So why would Mr. Stern start from scratch anew after a long career, at a time when most people are thinking about retirement? Mention the “r” word to Mr. Stern and he recoils. “What, fish?”

He argues that his organization meets a need — “basically, to have an umpire for civic disputes.” Because of his use of e-mail and the World Wide Web — the Web site is nycivic.org — “we communicate with our readers instantly,” Mr. Stern says. By hyperlinking to news articles in the city’s daily and weekly newspapers, Mr. Stern says he can help readers decide “what stories are true and what stories are nonsense.” Mr. Stern promises that those who sign up for his e-mails by e-mailing him at starquest@nycivic.org will receive “no spam, no porn, and no sharing” of their addresses with other groups.

In 15 years as parks commissioner under Mayors Koch and Giuliani, Mr. Stern earned a reputation as an eccentric with a creative flair.A golden retriever, Boomer, almost always accompanied him.

Mr. Stern dispensed more than 10,000 nicknames, or “park names,” to the humans he and Boomer encountered. He developed an elaborate list of unwritten rules known only by their number and letter. He hired bright young people, many of whom are now sprinkled through the city in positions of power.

Some of those practices are carried over at New York Civic. The three-ring binders with the list of park names are close at Mr. Stern’s hand, and his aidede-camp, whose real-life name is David Bromwich (Princeton Class of 2001), also answers to “Gingernut.” He still peppers his conversations with references to the unwritten rules, like Rule Seven, “Do it now”; Rule 30n, “There is no such thing as a free lunch”; and Rule 31n, “There is no such thing as a mental note.” And he still has a concern for parks, working to make sure that a new subway entrance doesn’t swallow up Battery Park.

Others have fallen by the wayside: Boomer, for instance, has retired from public life. “When I had a city car, I took him everywhere,” Mr. Stern said the other day in his new office, an alcove within an events-planning company based in the Garment District, noting that animals aren’t as welcome on the city’s subways and buses. And in his new position, Mr. Stern isn’t working for the mayor. “I’m not beholden to anyone,” Mr. Stern says with a note of satisfaction.

Reprinted from the New York Sun