A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems, by Sam Roberts, PublicAffairs, $27.95.
New York City is our nation’s capital of urban social innovation. Shaped by activists and troublemakers, progressive philanthropists, aggressive labor unions and an impressive array of not-for-profit tinkerers, the city has long been a hothouse of change-making from above and below. After reading Sam Roberts’ “A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems,” it seems clear that for nearly half a century, Herb Sturz is one man who has been at the center of it all.
Herb Sturz is not a household name. In spite of that, or maybe because of that, he has, during a career that has now spanned over four decades, accomplished a great deal for New York City’s residents. He has worked outside of government, as a founder of the Vera Institute of Justice and many of its spin-off programs, such as the Bowery Project (now Project Renewal), and the Wildcat Service Corporation, to name just two. He has also worked inside government, as chairman of the City Planning Commission and deputy mayor for criminal justice, both under Mayor Ed Koch.
However, unlike social reformers like Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement House, and Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives”, who became synonymous with the causes they championed, Herb Sturz – who was born in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1930 – has not yet achieved that profile. Perhaps as a result of the broad range of his projects, or because of his eagerness to share the credit for the success of these projects, Sturz is barely known outside the local policy world. Perhaps this book by Sam Roberts, urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times, will change that.
Throughout “A Kind of Genius” Roberts drives home the point that, although Sturz has been thoroughly involved with social service work for nearly 50 years, he still retains something of an outsider’s perspective. Unlike many people who find themselves working in the field of criminal justice, senior services or job development, Herb Sturz wasn’t trained as an attorney, social worker or community organizer. No, Sturz began his career as a writer. As a result, Roberts argues, he has brought a fresh approach to long-standing civic challenges such as bail reform and workforce development that is both practical in its approach and effective in its outcome.
Sturz’s policy successes got their start with a 10-part series on the Bill of Rights he wrote for Boys’ Life Magazine, which led him to cross paths with activist millionaire Louis Schweitzer. At the time, the bail system in New York left many charged with minor crimes, but who could not afford to pay for bail, in jail for weeks while their cases wended through the criminal justice system. (This is still the case, as City Limits Investigates reported in depth in the Fall 2007 issue.)
What follows in Roberts’ account reads like a Who’s Who in Criminal Justice for 1961, with Sturz and Schweitzer meeting with Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Judge John M. Murtagh, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David Bazelon, law professor Caleb Foote, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, future Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, and many others. In the end, Sturz and Schweitzer developed the Bail Reform Project, which went into operation in 1961 with the assistance and support of Mayor Wagner and courts administration. Over time the Bail Reform Project would identify criteria to determine which individuals could be released to their families without bail because they had been identified as a low flight risk. As a result of this program, many New Yorkers accused of minor crimes were kept from spending countless hours in prison, and since that time, the model set forth by the program has been replicated nationwide.
Sturz went on to address an array of other issues. But his goal, with new programs, was not to increase the size and scope of his organization. Instead, Sturz and his associates decided that Vera would serve as an incubator for programs that would later become independent. In doing this, Sturz would help to develop a model for nonprofit development that is still common today. What is more, Vera’s progeny serve as testament to the potential of public-private partnerships. In the diverse fields of job development, supportive housing, health care for the homeless, seniors’ transportation or the establishment of community courts, Sturz repeatedly showed a knack for putting people and resources together effectively for the common good.
For those of us who hope to make a life of helping others, Sturz’s biography provides a clear example of how to keep work interesting. After developing direct services programs in the Koch administration, Sturz headed up both criminal justice and planning, where he began the task of reshaping Times Square. After the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Sturz worked with George Soros and his Open Society Institute to develop affordable housing and home ownership opportunities to help ensure that the gains of the Mandela administration were sustained.
The Open Society Institute is Sturz’s current base of operations, from which he launched ReServe, aimed at matching the skills of retirees with nonprofit organizations that can use their gifts. Allowing older professionals the ability to continue to engage the world around them, while providing organizations in need of expertise with real-world know-how, ReServe employs a favorite Sturz concept of double utility. Simply put, double utility refers to the way in which a social services program can function for the benefit of two separate populations in a way that is mutually beneficial. For example, Sturz found that with his Wildcat Services Corporation, he could both help recovering addicts gain necessary job skills, and provide needed services to the participating community. In doing so, such a program sustains itself, not merely by helping those in need, but also by allowing clients the opportunity to help others as well.
As a biography, Roberts’ book is well done. However, the later chapters, which focus on Sturz in government, lack the drive and detail of the first chapters on Sturz during his time at the Vera Institute. Sturz was deputy mayor for criminal justice shortly after the blackout of 1977 and the Son of Sam killings, a dark and dramatic period in New York City criminal justice history. Yet “A Kind of Genius” skimps on period detail while covering this era. Also, as chairman of the City Planning Commission for the better part of the 1980s, Sturz likely found himself at the center of some significant disagreements between that decade’s “power brokers” and the community activists that were there to confront them. It would have been a treat to read about how Sturz’s kind of genius negotiated those tough waters. Overall, the book succeeds as both a biography and a primer on not-for-profit innovation. As the role of nongovernmental organizations continues to expand, let’s hope that this field and its histories receive the attention they deserve.
Attorney Stephen Burzio is program director of the Bushwick Housing and Legal Assistance Program of the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council.