‘Whimsical’ former parks commissioner Henry Stern dies at age 84

nyc parks commissioners
Courtesy of NYC Parks

Longtime New York City Parks commissioner Henry Stern died Thursday after a long illness. He was 84-years-old.

Stern first served in the post under Mayor Ed Koch from 1983 to 1990 and he returned to lead Parks during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration from 1994 to 2002.

“We are sad to hear of NYC Parks Commissioner Henry Stern’s passing,” NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver said. “The longest serving Parks Commissioner after the legendary Robert Moses, he was unique, memorable, and most of all a dedicated public servant. We are grateful for his passion for all things parks; his work brought our city’s green spaces back into the forefront of public consciousness. His legacy will live on eternally.”

During his time in office, much of the structure of the modern park system was implemented and refined. Stern started the Greenstreets program, the City Parks Foundation, Partnerships For Parks and the Historic House Trust.

“Henry Stern was a truly devoted Parks Commissioner and one very fine public servant,” former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman said.

Prior to being appointed Parks Commissioner, Stern served in public office for more than 30 years in a variety of roles. He was elected to the City Council in 1973 and was re-elected in 1977.

“He served the city well for a very long time,” Shulman said. “He taught me how to love trees. I really loved that guy even though everyone thought he was a little screwy.”

Stern was known to dress up like trees and he even arranged a funeral for a tree that died in Flushing in the late 1990s.

“It is a very sad day, we lost a legend. Henry was a towering figure. He had a tremendous knowledge of all things New York City,” Coffeed Co-founder and CEO Frank “Turtle” Raffaele said. “Everything he did was in a fun, eccentric and whimsical way.”

Raffaele was born and raised in Howard Beach and went to work for Stern in the 90s. It was Stern that gave him his nickname after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“Henry like to have fun but he really had a sense for good government and he knew how to lobby for capital to improve the park system,” Raffaele said. “And he was a real mentor to young people at every level of city government.

Raffaele would often ride with Stern as he toured park space outside of his home borough of Manhattan where he grew up in Inwood, graduating from the Bronx High School of Science at age 15, before becoming the youngest member of the class of 1957 at Harvard Law School, graduating at age 22.

“He was immensely interested in the outer boroughs, he called it the Emerald Empire,” Raffaele said. “He left his mark on Forest Park, on Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the waterfront parks in Queens like Gantry and Socrates. He really opened up the beaches in the Rockaways but it wasn’t just the large parks. He paid attention to all of the smaller open spaces like playgrounds all around Queens. Henry loved animals and if you go into any playground you’ll find little animal features. That was Henry.”



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