Day and Night in N.Y.C.

Banker and community builder Deborah Wright '84, Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern '57 and longtime Legal Aid lawyer Stephen Pokart ’65 all make their living in N.Y.C.

Deborah Wright ’84 | Henry J. Stern ’57
Stephen Pokart ’65

August 6, early Friday morning, at 125th Street near Lenox Ave., a.k.a. Malcolm X Boulevard.
It’s barely 8 a.m., and window washers are already at work on Carver Federal Savings Bank. The bank is headquarters stands on a bustling block of 125th Street that tells the story of Harlem today, with its themes of hardship and progress. Boarded-up windows, pawnshops, and the unemployment office juxtapose restored historic buildings, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp., and a sparkling new Starbucks Coffee.

This is familiar stomping ground for Deborah Wright ’84, Carver’s new president and CEO. Until June she worked across the street from the bank, as president and CEO of the Empowerment Zone, where she pushed for dozens of small business, nonprofit, and commercial real estate projects throughout Harlem. But then the job she’d set her sights on for years opened up. She became the first woman leader of the nation’s largest African American-managed bank, with the charge to re-energize a troubled institution struggling to compete with today’s megabanks.

Carver was founded 50 years ago, when African Americans couldn’t get financial services. Rebuffed by the state, the bank’s founders got a federal charter and opened the first branch. For years they had the market to themselves.

Then came the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, revised in 1995, which required banks to invest in the communities through which they derive deposits. “The irony is, this tiny institution, whose market was generated by discrimination, now finds itself competing with the very folks who wouldn’t give services or set foot in New York’s minority communities,” Wright says.

Carver’s new chief faces the fascinating challenge of meshing the bank’s traditions with mainstream capitalist tenets. While Carver is a publicly traded company, with a mandate to make money and increase shareholder value, it’s also a community fixture. “I have to find a way to bridge those two worlds,” Wright says.

To generate new revenues, and keep Carver unique, Wright will launch one-stop financial services tailored to inner-city customers. She plans to offer seminars to teach Carver clients how to use bank services and select products that fit their personal goals. She will clean up Carver’s bad loans and tap her community ties to find new investment partners and depositors.

Wright will also maintain the bank’s role as an entry point to the financial services system. “There are still an enormous number of community members who need that,” she says. For example, Harlem has a large immigrant population, and many fear bank bureaucracy and that their money will be confiscated or that the INS will track them down if they open bank accounts. “We have a significant elderly population also, with people still keeping cash under their pillows.”

The bank president’s strong sense of community was shaped by family example, she says, particularly the public works of her minister grandfather and grandmother, her minister father, and her aunt Marian Wright Edelman, the famous founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and White House adviser, who once worked for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi.

After finishing a joint J.D./M.B.A. degree at Harvard, Wright practiced law for a short time but found that it didn’t hold her interest. She switched to investment banking on Wall Street, but it didn’t satisfy her desire to make a difference in people’s lives. So she chose a new path, in community development.

After a stint as marketing director of a Harlem apartment complex, Wright was appointed to the New York City Housing Authority Board by Mayor David Dinkins. In 1994 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed her commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), where she led New York’s redesign of housing and tax foreclosure policies and introduced key reforms that helped return properties to community residents and entrepreneurs. In 1996 Wright led the startup of the nation’s largest Empowerment Zone, overseeing a capital budget of $250 million in city, state, and federal funding. The projects were zooming along and then that once-in-a-lifetime Carver offer came.

With a Y2K meeting soon to start, Wright steps outside for a quick photo session. While the photographer snaps away, she talks enthusiastically about the neighborhood: the great new buildings coming in, the venerable ones slated for restoration, like the historic Lenox Lounge just down the block. That Starbucks site on the corner was about to become another pawnshop, until Wright single-handedly fought to bring the upscale franchise to Harlem.

After a long, dry spell Harlem is booming, and Wright will ensure the bank benefits and does its part. The window washers are finishing up; Carver’s facade sparkles in the sun. “I’m going to shake it up, polish it up, and take it to the next level,” she says.


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, Stern’s 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 hadn’t interfered, I’d 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.


August 7, Saturday evening, at the Criminal Courts Building, 100 Centre Street in Manhattan.
“Hey! Steve Pokart!” a woman calls to a lawyer waiting on the courthouse steps. They exchange jocular greetings: both work for the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division, comrades in arms. But Stephen Pokart ’65 has years more experience than his colleague and is one of that rare breed: the career public defender. He has been a Legal Aid lawyer since 1974, and no one knows better than Pokart the rewards and frustrations of representing the poor in this vast city. Tonight he is pulling the night court shift, 4:30 p.m.to 12:30 a.m. It could be worse: the lobster shift runs till morning.

Two courtrooms are open tonight; by day 50 or 60 rooms are going. Painter Edward Hopper would have done justice to NYC night court: the somber judge staring into space, the shuffle of downcast and anxious prisoners, the overworked lawyers rushing between clients, and the bewildered onlookers in the benches, awaiting a loved one’s fate.

“Tonight there are about 300 people in the system,” says Pokart. It’s an average of 24 hours before a person taken into custody is arraigned before a judge; 48 hours is the legal limit. Felony defendants kept in on bail can be held a maximum of six days unless indicted by a grand jury.

He points out the metal basket of folders, each representing a case. “On an average shift, I’ll handle six or seven felonies and some misdemeanors. Many will be drug-related.” Most of his cases are plea-bargained. “I have to pick my battles carefully,” he says. Last year he went to trial twice, an acquittal on a murder case and a hung jury on a robbery 2.

There are usually four to five Legal Aid lawyers working a shift, plus other public defenders and a smattering of criminal lawyers in private practice. Tonight Judge Bradley’s on the bench. Pokart thinks well of Bradley, who he says is fair and doesn’t cave in to prosecutors’ inflated bail demands.

A door at the back of the courtroom opens, offering a bleak glimpse of the pens, where the prisoners are held. We barely sit down before Pokart whips open a case folder: no time to waste. He briskly assesses: Mr. S is charged with robbery third degree, for allegedly stealing a piece of jewelry from a man lying drunk on the street. There are two witnesses. Mr. S has three prior felony convictions, two for robbery. Pokart scribbles notes, jumps to his feet, and slips out back to a row of interview cells. There’s a heavy odor of sweat and anxiety. “Mr. S!” Pokart hollers, to be heard in the pens beyond, and soon a door opens and an attractive young man with an earnest demeanor enters the cell and sits down.

A metal grate separates lawyer and client. Pokart hands over his card, asks what happened, and scribbles more notes while Mr. S swears up and down he was only helping the old guy, didn’t take a thing. . . .

A fast talker, nimble with legal details, Pokart in short order reviews the circumstances and gives Mr. S a dose of reality, about those three priors, how things are going to look to the judge. “There will be bail set,” he warns, guessing an amount, and Mr. S clasps his head and moans softly. He’d hoped the fact that he has work putting up drywall, his best job ever, might help get him out that night. Now he’s stuck in jail, probably for months, perhaps for years.

Pokart hands the notice of appearance to the court officer, and now Mr. S is in line to see the judge. The case gets a yellow back, for felony; misdemeanors get blue backs. Pokart sits down, opens a fresh folder, speed-reading again.

Next case: Mr. J, charged with break-in and burglary in the third degree. A rod was stuck in the lock of a deli’s metal grate, and there was Mr. J, sitting curbside, in the middle of the night, when the police car pulled up. Mr. J has seven, or is it eight, priors, all felony convictions for burglary or possession of stolen property. A long list of aliases too. And he’s on parole. This does not bode well: high bail and the prospect of hard time loom. Out back, when Pokart cuts to the chase and urges full disclosure, to effectively represent him, Mr. J is forthcoming. He knows the legal drill, the terminology, and talks intelligently with Pokart about his prospects. “I can do two to four,” he says grimly. “I can’t do fifteen.” He squirts a packet of mustard on his sad-looking baloney sandwich. “Nothing good ever happens to me.” One ray of hope: Pokart will seek dismissal of the burglary in the third degree charge, since there’s no evidence of a completed felony.

The night court assembly line bumps along. Folders keep plopping into the basket; Pokart grabs his share. He darts between tasks: scanning files, advising junior colleagues, heading for the cells, taking his turn before the judge, tending to matters in the courtroom across the way.

His cases are going as well as he could expect. The judge dismisses Mr. J’s burglary in the third degree charge. And reduces Mr. S’s bail from $7,500 to $2,500 when Pokart stresses his client’s employment and points out weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.

Before he joined Legal Aid, Pokart was a stage director. During the Vietnam War he put on musical and variety shows for American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, traveling by helicopter from one site to another. His dramatic talents still serve him well: his voice rings out in the buzzing courtroom, he is always at ease before the judge, and he is masterful at sketching scenarios to engage his numbed-out, confused, frightened, beleaguered, sometimes hostile clients.

Pokart spent his first seven years with the Legal Aid Society working in the Juvenile Rights Division, “mostly abuse and neglect cases.” In 1978, he picked up the first felony case when the law changed to allow juveniles to be prosecuted as adults for serious crimes. He managed to get that case sent back to Family Court. But after a year or so, the judges wouldn’t go along. “Now it’s almost impossible to get the cases sent to family court, although the kids can often get probation in adult court.”

At 9:30 p.m. it’s time for dinner, and Pokart and his colleagues head for Mulberry Street in Little Italy, where they talk shop and compare the quality of pasta here to another neighborhood favorite.

Back in court, the cases roll on, and the spectators’ faces grow wearier. There’s scared Mr. H, 20, nabbed for drunk driving, his first offense. His big worry: getting his car back. Next in the booth: Ms. S, busted by an undercover cop for allegedly acting as middleman in a drug buy. “As God is my witness, I did not do it,” she pleads, while Pokart tries to focus her on the facts. Next comes Mr. P, accused of not paying for his meal at a restaurant. After delicate probing, through a Portuguese interpreter, it becomes clear to Pokart that his client is actively psychotic. This becomes a certainty when Pokart manages to elicit that the defendant used to run a company in Brazil that can make helicopter blades run backwards. Pokart promises to get the man out of jail. After Mr. P comes world-weary Mr. M, caught with a crack pipe, and even more discouraging, gaunt, hollow-eyed young Mr. V, who allegedly jumped a subway turnstile. The police found glassine packets of heroin in his pockets; he has a $60-a-day habit. Maybe the search evidence can be suppressed, maybe he will be sent to a residential treatment program he so far shows no interest in attending — or maybe this young man with multiple priors is bound for Rikers.

Steve Pokart will do his best to prevent that.