Herb Sturz--the subject of a new book, A Kind of Genius, by New York Times reporter Sam Roberts--talks about innovation, the power of private-public collaborations, the founding of the Midtown Community Court, and his current work at the Open Society Institute.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. This is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Today I’m at the Open Society Institute with Herb Sturz. It’s difficult for me to even begin to describe who he is because he’s done so much. What draws me to him today in particular is a new book out by Sam Roberts called A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems, published by PublicAffairs.
Your career has spanned so much over the last four decades or five decades. The Vera Institute of Justice, for instance: you spearheaded its creation and led it. And Project Renewal, the Center for Court Innovation… Maybe I should start out just by thanking you for having launched the Midtown Community Court which led to the creation of the Center for Court Innovation, which has been my home for the last 10 years.
HERB STURZ: I’m delighted.
WOLF: I thought I might begin with a big picture question, which is, in your incredible experience with public policy and government, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in terms of people’s attitudes about what government can do and just the most important changes in public policy that you have seen?
STURZ: It’s a large question, Rob. I don’t think I’ve seen a great change over the 50 years as it relates to what government can do. I think we—back then people thought that government could do almost anything. One felt really that it took the government to do things, and the role of the private sector was less out front than it is today. And I think there’s been a much greater awareness both on the private, non-profit side or business-side and government that you could do a lot more when you marry private non-profit and government together. They’re not necessarily on the opposite sides of the line. In fact, they add to each other.
The Center for Court Innovation is a kind of perfect example where you started with one experiment working closely with the court, police, D.A. It wasn’t always easy, but it took both sides and a lot of finesse and thought and understanding on both sides. To that extent, I think it just opened people’s eyes more rather than saying ‘it’s a new role for government,’ if you want to call it a new role, as government has helped welcome the private sector. And that’s something that Vera helped certainly start early in the sixties. I doubt it that it was original, that it never happened before. But we made that very central to the way of modus operandi in those years and I think to this day.
WOLF: You have had an extraordinary talent, it seems to me, to connect with the right people, to bridge differences between people. I wonder what your secret is.
STURZ: It is not a secret. What I have done and do to this day is I’m persistent. If I care about a problem, I stay with it and I try to understand it. I try to understand it from everyone’s point of view. And you’re arresting somebody or stopping and frisking someone down on the street, what is the impact on the person who’s stopped? What’s the impact on the person’s family. From the police point of view does this really cut down serious crime, as they would suggest, by making it more certain that people would leave loaded weapons or hard drugs home or not? But those are the – so you’re trying to understand what is at play and what are the collateral effects and what’s more central. And so, it’s really a way of looking at a problem and not assuming you have a lock on knowledge, and also trying to understand, I guess, the motivation of individuals. And certainly in government, what do they need versus the private sector, non-profit sector, and trying to uncover what’s involved in a problem.
WOLF: So much of public policy, criminal justice especially, is fraught with ideologies and things are interpreted through, you know, left and right, and conservative. How do you get people to see beyond that into just the practical aspects?
STURZ: Not difficult. On paper they see it in the ideological side. But my experience with police has been – say, with skid row derelicts, they didn’t like being thought of as street cleaners picking up the same drunk down on the Bowery every day; nothing of value happening. Administrators there are aware that it doesn’t do the court system any favor or anyone else including the skid row derelict to have them hauled into the lower courts everyday. It could be done two, three times a day and nothing of value coming. I think defense lawyers or prosecutors realize they’ve lost dignity dealing with an issue as important as this if, back then, you know, I think a third of all arrests were this skid row-type in the City of New York.
WOLF: You’re talking about the 1960s when you developed Project Renewal.
STURZ: That was then called Manhattan Bowery Project. It evolved to Project Renewal. And the police became our allies. The Correction Department understood it and soon became our allies. It’s not like on all these things that everybody’s going to become your ally. You have to go at a problem also, at times, when you’re going to have groups that are not sympathetic--in their perspective for good reasons. You have to be very careful how you articulate something for sure. But you can articulate it in terms of—and we did, certainly—both fairness and efficiency, and they’re not contradictory.
I think if Vera and its off springs from the beginning just put it as ‘All we care about is the maltreatment of defendants,’ we would have done some good things, but we never would have taken it the next step to understand and open up doors that weren’t all that hard to break down. A good idea, it takes you away. Then you have to be I will say a little smart and persistent, again surrounding the problem, and how to articulate it.
WOLF: So it sounds like seeing from the perspective of all the players allows you to find common ground. I mean you know what the police, how they’re seeing this problem, you can find a way to come up with a solution that …
STURZ: Often. Not always.
STURZ: Not always. And there will be problems in anything. You may have to put it off a month or two months or three. Or you have to figure out what the entry point is to get support. And it differs. There’s no rule. You have to get the feel of the situation, the feel of what the public policy person has to—what his or her needs are at a certain time—what politics of the government is.
WOLF: Well, so let me ask you: Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever been through the justice system?
STURZ: Well, let’s see. When I was about nine, I was sort of arrested. Someone stole a bicycle that was in our garage, my first bike. And they left an old used bike in there. And so, that was all there was. And so, one day a few days later I was driving the bicycle on the street, and I felt somebody grab my arm and said that’s my son’s bicycle. And they took me, believe it or not, to the police station, and they put me behind the bar. I was about nine. I couldn’t remember. They called my family and I was – you know, it wasn’t real traumatic, but I was so scared. I always remember most the police bringing me in there and that arm and hand grabbing me and his saying, ‘You stole my son’s bike.’
WOLF: It’s an interesting story because it is – it’s a complicated story, you know. It’s not like you were entirely – you were innocent in a sense, but on the other hand, you understand that it was probably a stolen bike.
STURZ: I did understand it, but also you get back to – I was nine.
WOLF: Right. Yes.
STURZ: How much did I understand?
WOLF: Well, right, right.
STURZ: And I had support from my family that didn’t know the nuance of that. And then I was arrested, as it were, at the University of Wisconsin, when a friend of mine, who later became deputy police commissioner of New York, and I were trying to earn some money with our variation of “simonizing” carwash business. And we put on up and down the street, putting on a little tag on people’s windshields saying ‘here’s your ticket’ to getting a good “simonizing”.
STURZ: The police took us and brought us into the police station in Madison, Wisconsin. And then a third sort of thing was in Chicago where I went for a weekend just to feel what it was like to be, knowing it was a phony in a way, what it’s like to be kind of poor. I went with old clothes and no money. And I spent a weekend sleeping one night in a flophouse and another in a police station and spending it during the day in a sawdust covered saloon, getting a feel of what it was like to just drink beer and all that sort of thing.
WOLF: Well, let me ask you, I know I’m sure you’ve told the story many times, but since I am from the Center for Court Innovation, maybe you could take a few minutes and just talk about what led to the creation of the Midtown Community Court, you know, what you were thinking at the time.
STURZ: Well, I really was sensitive to the idea of community and justice and working in the community. That was consistent with certainly early work with the Bowery, with Wildcat. I also played a role in the redevelopment of Times Square when I was chairman of the Planning Commission. And then I got to know Gerry Schoenfeld. I met him first in City Hall when we came to see Mayor Koch and I was deputy mayor.
WOLF: And Schoenfeld is the theater owner, Broadway producer.
STURZ: He was the head of the whole Shubert Organization.
STURZ: And it was really over I think breakfast, I always complaining about panhandlers and such, and the mess-up in Times Square, and what can be done about it, and no one cared but the theater. Whether he first said it or I first said it, I’m not sure, but let’s say he did about doing something with the courts. It just was not necessarily original, the concept, in Times Square. And I do remember very well saying to Jerry, “Gerry, you know what? If you give me a theater, I’ll give you a court” because I knew he’s so dramatic and that we could do it and that will take care of a place in Times Square. He offered it rent-free for three years.
WOLF: This is when you were a planning commissioner.
STURZ: No. This is while I was doing housing, working for Mullen Corporation.
WOLF: So you weren’t in government. You weren’t in the judiciary, but you were promising you’d give him a court.
STURZ: Yes. And one of the first persons I went to was Bob Keating. And Bob, whom I knew, I mean who in fact had followed me as coordinator of criminal justice –
WOLF: I’m sorry, and Judge Keating was the –
STURZ: City Administrator Judge of Criminal Court.
STURZ: And Bob was welcoming, but we got overwhelmed by opposition from neighboring real estate owners, from theater preservationists. We had opposition from the New York County district attorney. We had a mixed response from the police at different levels. The defense bar was concerned about ‘will this be a plea factory?’ and so on.
And ultimately, we had to change the venue from the Long Acre Theater to the current home on 54th Street. There I started with no money. I think I raised $5,000 or $10,000, not more than that I know, from the Shubert Theaters. And then I knew I needed more money so I went to see Peter Goldmark who was then president of Rockefeller, very shortly or around that same time, I hired John Feinblatt because then I had the nucleus of some money.
STURZ: Not a lot.
STURZ: But it started with like nothing.
WOLF: And you had to get the courts backing, too.
STURZ: Well, not just one. We had to get the state administrative judge. We had to get ultimately Chief Judge Judith Kaye and, you know, of the story of her coming the night before.
STURZ: In her jeans to help whitewash the walls of that court. Midtown Community Court and Red Hook and then Center were blessed with two really extraordinary persons to really make it work, which was John Feinblatt and Greg Berman, two great people.
WOLF: And so, maybe you can tell me a little bit about the kinds of work you’re doing, how you’re occupying yourself here at the Open Society Institute?
STURZ: I guess I’m spending most of my time working on the mortgage foreclosure problems. George Soros asked me to try to look at this and what collateral impact on young people is when they get thrown out of school, have to move or lose their homes.
I helped set up something called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods ,which became a not-for-profit that was set up by Shaun Donovan, now secretary of HUD and the mayor and Christine Quinn, head of the City Council. But I also went back to my past and helped them to start something called the Neighborhood Improvement Project. Taking the elements of supported work, we put people, in this case welfare recipients and homeless people, and capture their welfare entitlements through the city’s Human Resources Administration and put them out in work crews. And ironically the first group that received an award to do that from HRA was Wildcat Corporation.
WOLF: Which you had started.
STURZ: And so, what I did was change the concept and bring it up 30 years later to a whole other big problem, which was mortgage foreclosure. And the idea is can you use people like this as a sort of mini-WPA, you might say, in the neighborhood, not to go necessarily to the houses that are foreclosed but at the surrounding houses.
WOLF: And do what?
STURZ: Remove the graffiti, remove debris ranging from old refrigerators to cars, re-sod the lawns, fix broken fences.
WOLF: You know, with Obama in the White House, I just wonder what your hopes are for this administration, what you see that might be different.
STURZ: My thoughts are just filled with hope. I love to turn on the television and read the paper and see Obama in action talking. I love to see Michele Obama and the two kids. It gives me a great expanse of feeling when you have high, real quality people in the White House trying to do hard stuff. I have no wild expectations. There’s a lot of stuff that would be out of his control. But I feel there’s a real intelligence and a big heart going for him.
WOLF: Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you. I learned a lot. I’ve been talking to Herb Sturz who is the subject of a new book, A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems, by Sam Roberts ,who details all of Herb Sturz’ amazing achievements whether he’ll call them that or not from the founding of the Vera Institute of Justice to the Wildcat Corporation to Project Renewal to the Center for Court Innovation and Midtown Community Court. The list is quite long and it’s still being added to. So thank you for taking the time. This is Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thanks for listening.