August 6, late afternoon, in Central Park, alongside the zoo, near East 64th Street. Commissioner Henry J. Stern '57 is taking his golden retriever for an airing in the park, behind the 1847 Arsenal that houses the City of New York Parks & Recreation Department. It's a beautiful day, and the broad sidewalk teems with pedestrians and babystrollers. One toddler after another makes a beeline for Stern's dog. "Oh, that's the Parks commissioner and his dog, a woman says to her friend. "Want to pet the doggie?" Stern asks a child.
Back inside The Arsenal, Stern calls attention to the WPA lobby murals of old parks, and other features of his historic headquarters. Entering the administrative offices we pass a photo of Stern wearing a combat helmet and stepping off a launch, ready to plant the park flag on the shore of a new waterside park.
All signs indicate Stern is no starchy, self-important bureaucrat. He doesn't hesitate to mimic a Marine, or don a toga, or kiss a largemouth bass all for the good of the parks. He even enjoys the endless five-borough round of park dedications, statue unveilings one of Ol Blue Eyes will be coming to Times Square and speeches to open a free concert or a new ball held.
But the HLS graduate also deals with more serious matters daily. After all, Sterns bailiwick consists of 28,131 acres of parkland, 15 miles of beaches, 854 playgrounds, 700 playing fields, 33 recreation and senior citizen centers, and so forth, plus an ever-expanding array of programs and events. He is responsible for $167 million in capital spending, a large budget that is insufficient to satisfy New Yorkers' insatiable demand for greenery and places to play, which means the commissioner works hard to establish park partnerships with community groups, companies, foundations, and generous New Yorkers.
And because this is New York, Stern's agenda is driven by dazzling diversity and competing interests. A standoff between the bird lovers and anglers over a Central Park wildlife refuge, where birds were being killed by fishing gear, was settled when Stern established new fishing rules and increased enforcement. Now art vendors are protesting permits required by the Parks Department to sell art in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming violation of their First Amendment rights. None of this fazes Stern.
"There are constant, spirited controversies: dog owners versus anti-dog owners, rollerbladers versus bicyclists. People have strong feelings about their public spaces. We resolve things in a conciliatory fashion," he says.
But Stern knows how to wield authority. The U.S. Supreme Court decided a case on Stern's watch that gave his agency legal authority to control sound levels at park events. At present, the Parks Department is suing a state agency for the destruction of 2.6 acres of Manhattan's last native forest during a toll center expansion.
Under Stern, the department budget has more than tripled. In the last five years his agency has acquired another 1,600 acres. His Greenstreets program has planted and labeled more than 30,000 trees on city streets. New parks include City Hall Park and the Chinese Scholar's Garden in Staten Island. A planned Hudson River Park will run from Battery Park to 59th Street, and a new golf course is coming to Ferry Point in the Bronx. Major restoration projects underway include the 19th-century Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn.
Lounging on his comfy old sofa, Stern recalls his HLS days: buying his first tweed jacket at the Coop, his friendly study group, the daunting Socratic style of Professor Keeton, the bottomless pile of reading material, being named president of the Harvard Law Record.
After graduation, he was rejected by one New York firm after another because he is Jewish. But if discrimination hadnt interfered, Id have gotten a law firm job and been miserable, he says. After four years as a law clerk for New York Supreme Court Justice Matthew M. Levy 22, Stern became assistant to the borough president of Manhattan. From then on, his career centered on city government, as executive director of the Parks Department, assistant city administrator, first deputy commissioner of consumer affairs, and liberal member-at-large to the New York City Council.
In 1983 Mayor Ed Koch appointed Stern to his current post, and he served until 1990, when Mayor David Dinkins was elected. From then until 1993 Stern was president of the Citizens Union of the City of New York, a venerable civic organization that monitors city government. Then Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor, and returned Stern to his Parks commissioner post in 1994. He has been happily ensconced at The Arsenal ever since.
Stern's goal is to continue to expand and improve the parks, and increase citizen participation. "The strength of our parks politically and at budget time depends on how much people care about them," he says.
Soon nervous aides are glancing at their watches and the commissioner is in motion again. The park SUV pulls up, Stern and company climb aboard, and off he goes to greet the crowd at another public event.