Elegy for an emerald emperor

Former New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. Photo: swedennewyork, via flickr

Remembering Henry J. Stern, who championed New York City’s green spaces in inimitable fashion

By Michael Garofalo

Henry J. Stern, the eccentric, ebullient, irreverent, irascible, irrepressible, unforgettable public servant who dedicated much of his four decades in city government to advancing New York’s parks system, died at his Upper East Side home March 28 at the age of 83.

Stern, a Manhattan native, served as commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation from 1983 to 1990 under Mayor Ed Koch and again from 1994 to 2002 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“I will be the Commissioner for good times for people, plants and animals,” Stern told the New York Times in 1983 as he began his first stint leading the agency. “I will be a man for all species.”

The Parks Department added 1,600 acres under his stewardship, a total surpassed only by the master builder Robert Moses. Stern’s legacy includes the addition of 100,000 street trees to the city’s urban forest as well as the Greenstreets program, which continues to enliven grey, unused areas of the concrete jungle with verdant plantings.

Public Servant and Public Showman

Stern’s civic achievements are inseparable from the characteristic flourishes with which he carried out his work.

A genius for publicity, he attracted constant press coverage of Parks initiatives with winning quips and a list of gimmicks and stunts too long for this article. He presided with comic reverence over a funeral to commemorate the death of a 151-year-old weeping beech tree, donned Neptune and astronaut outfits (among other costumes), and was trailed at public appearances by his Golden Retriever Boomer and a staffer equipped with a handheld counter during a bid to secure the world record for “most petted dog.”

His detractors may have rolled their eyes at these antics, but they brought attention and funding to Parks, helping to build the system we know today. “There’s a very serious side to Henry and a very significant physical legacy that I think tends to be minimized because he was such an interesting character and did such interesting things,” Adrian Benepe, who worked under Stern at Parks for 14 years and succeeded him as commissioner, told Straus News. “There was a method to all Henry’s zaniness.”

Stern coveted each tree and every inch of parkland he oversaw. He fought zealously to expand the city’s network of green space at every opportunity, often getting his way through sheer stubborn willfulness. He recognized the ecological value in undeveloped tracts of parkland, many of which he designated “forever wild.” And amid budget cuts he marshalled the power of private philanthropy to help fund and maintain parks and historic houses throughout the city, building upon the successful example of the 1980s renaissance brought about in part by the Central Park Conservancy.

“He was a city kid through and through, but he loved nature in the kind of way only a true city kid can,” Benepe said. Stern often spent his weekends driving around the city, exploring and inspecting every corner of the Emerald Empire, as he called the city’s vast public parklands.

Stern was also prone to controversy. The city settled a lawsuit for $20 million that alleged racial discrimination in the department’s hiring under Stern’s leadership, a charge he always denied, and he was known to make impolitic racial remarks.

Manhattan Born and Raised

Henry Jordan Stern was raised in Inwood in an immigrant household and displayed academic brilliance from an early age, graduating from the Bronx High School of Science at 15. He went on to attend City College and graduated from Harvard Law School at age 22 in 1957. He entered New York City politics in the early 1960s and was a fixture in civic life for the next half century.

Stern won election to the City Council as an at-large representative of Manhattan in 1973. During the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, Stern, in partnership with his friend and Council colleague Robert F. Wagner, Jr. began selling neckties bearing the city seal out of the trunk of his car. Proceeds from the “Stern & Wagner” line supplemented the public coffers.

A Penchant for Park Names

As Parks commissioner, Stern conferred nicknames, or “noms de parc,” upon thousands of employees, reporters, celebrities and anyone else willing to play along. Stern drew his own moniker, StarQuest, from the German translation of his surname. Parks staffers — the Starlings, in Stern-speak — dutifully catalogued each new entry in an official volume.

Janos Marton was an 18-year-old Parks intern during the summer of 2001 when an assignment brought him to a nondescript South Bronx basketball court known as the Field of Dreams. In his report, Marton proposed renaming the park after Big Pun, the then recently-deceased Bronx rapper depicted in a nearby mural.

Marton found himself unexpectedly summoned to the commissioner’s office at the Arsenal in Central Park. The new name was a no-go due to objectionable lyrical content in Pun’s songs, Stern told him, “But I appreciate your gumption and your efforts, and so I have bequeathed you the parks name Big Pun.”

Like so many who crossed StarQuest’s path, Marton stayed in touch with Stern and came to call him a mentor. “In a city of 8 million, he was among the most unique people you could ever come across,” Marton, who now works on criminal justice reform at the American Civil Liberties Union, said.

Stern’s fondness for appellations extended to the very parks he administered. The sliver of mid-block green space on the Upper West Side originally known, forgettably, as the 71st Street Plot became, thanks to Stern’s Latin embellishment, Septuagesimo Uno.

When the Department of Transportation wanted to remove some trees in an unnamed East Side playground to make way for a widened entrance to the 59th Street Bridge, Stern renamed it 24 Sycamores Park — a defensive measure against anyone who would commit premeditated arborcide (another Sternism, popularized during his successful crusade to enact harsh penalties for unauthorized tree killing). You can’t get rid of any trees, his thinking went, if they’re counted in the name of the park.

A Pool for Henry

It’s fitting that recent public efforts to rename a Parks facility in Stern’s honor have centered on an Upper East Side pool he frequented, given his devotion as commissioner to restoring Moses-era public pools, which he prized as free and democratic spaces.

In 2016, Community Board 8 unanimously called on the city to rename the swimming pool in John Jay Park after Stern during his lifetime, an effort Benepe helped lead. The city never acted on the request. But with StarQuest now departed, it seems likely that before long New Yorkers will be able to enjoy a swim in the Henry J. Stern Pool.

This story has been corrected to include former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s nom de parc. A previous version incorrectly stated that Giuliani did not have a park name.