A Kind of Genius

Herb Sturz and Society's Toughest Problems


By Sam Roberts

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In A Kind of Genius, Sam Roberts offers a window onto Herb Sturz’s extraordinary life’s work. Sturz began his long career in social entrepreneurship by reforming the bail system and founding the Vera Institute of Justice. He served as New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Criminal Justice under Ed Koch and then as Chairman of the City Planning Commision. He moved on to establish affordable inner-city housing and programs for at-risk individuals. But Sturz has, to date, largely eschewed the public’s eye.

Roberts pays tribute to Sturz’s inspirational legacy of accomplishment. His initiatives have consistently provided solutions to our most challenging problems. Here, for the first time, his astonishing story is told in full.


For Mike and Will:
The future is theirs to define

Imagine that you’re a graduate student at Columbia Teachers College in 1953 majoring in American literature. You’ve advanced an unconventional interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s saga of poor and oppressed migrants during the Great Depression. In contrast to a decade’s worth of literary critics, you’ve embraced the book’s undervalued but lyrical inner chapters—those metaphorical ruminations on earth-gouging tractors and on devastating drought and especially the one about the indomitable land turtle’s precarious crossing of a treacherous Dust Bowl highway—chapters that endow with epic dimensions and greater purpose a novel that you’ve just audaciously claimed as your personal manifesto. The professor’s sole critique of your hand-written paper dismissively focuses on form rather than content: “Lines not parallel to top edge of paper.”
The young student was disappointed by his professor’s criticism, but not discouraged. He sought a second opinion directly from the source: John Steinbeck himself. He wasn’t just seeking vindication when he wrote to the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, although that would have been sweet. Above all, Herbert Sturz, the tenacious son of a New Jersey saloonkeeper, was constitutionally unable to accept dogma, from an English professor or any other so-called expert, and he was acutely curious about getting to the bottom of any intellectual argument. When Steinbeck answered Sturz, he did so in a poignant essay handwritten on a yellow legal pad, like the original 200,000-word manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath itself fourteen years ealier.
“You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and so they were—that they were pace changes and they were that, too, but the basic purpose was to hit the reader below the belt,” John Steinbeck wrote. “You are the first critical person who seems to have suspected that they had a purpose.”
Critics, Steinbeck continued, have a curious view of writing, an egomaniacal image of authors groping their way up the staircase of immortality. Writing, by itself, without any illusions of imperishability, is tough enough. “Most good writers I know,” Steinbeck concluded, “have no time for immortality.”
Herb Sturz embraced the great novelist’s response as inspiration, as a personal invitation to a lifelong odyssey through the labyrinthine corridors of power and as an opportunity to ameliorate poverty and injustice. It would inspire him not only to write but also to give voice, as Steinbeck had, to the voiceless, to couple the journalist’s probing curiosity and irreverence with the novelist’s utopian vision. Unlike Steinbeck, however, Sturz would help fashion happier endings than otherwise might have been.
“He was,” Sturz says of Steinbeck, “the first person to take me seriously,” and so, “I took myself a little more seriously, gained some self-confidence.”
Throughout his life, Herb Sturz has been taken seriously by commissioners, judges, mayors, presidents, publishers, philanthropists, scientists, by individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol, crime victims, convicts, bankers, builders and homeless people. Many of the people whose lives Sturz has altered were those with no grasp on power. Or they were people with power they didn’t know they had.
Largely as a supplicant seeking financial and political support, Sturz tinkered with, tweaked and finally helped revolutionize bail and other aspects of the criminal justice system, from the outside. As an innovator from inside, he turned government into a vehicle for reform. And, later, he returned to the private sector, first as a critic, then in the trenches again and finally in his most uncharacteristic role, as a benefactor, working for one of the richest men in the world. In every incarnation, he hewed to the same values, and was driven by the same strategy—to lead himself and lure others through imagination.
Most people have never heard of Herb Sturz, even though their lives have likely been touched in some way by his take on society’s toughest problems. For more than a half century, Sturz has been largely an unsung hero, a shrewd social engineer and social entrepreneur without a rigid ideological agenda. Armed instead with mastery of process and human nature, of means and motive, of intellect and emotional intelligence, Sturz has profoundly altered the public perception of fundamental issues, has improved the way things get done and made government work more smoothly. As if armed with a divining rod, he could find funding streams in the public and private sectors and combine them to power his visions. And he could intuitively discover and nurture hidden talents that other people rarely knew they had.
As he fostered change, the breadth of the challenges Sturz has tackled, the power of his ideas to reorder the nation’s agenda, the scope of his ability to replicate solutions across the United States and in countries as diverse as Chile, South Africa, Britain and Russia, are virtually without parallel. Peter Goldmark Jr., a former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has called Sturz “the best social engineer in America.”
Gara LaMarche, the president of the Atlantic Philanthropies, sees Sturz as the archetypal social entrepreneur and as living proof that “public policy is a realm where you can have a certain creativity, almost genius.”
Aryeh Neier, the president of George Soros’s Open Society Institute, says Sturz has made “an enormous difference assisting marginalized people.”
George Soros, the financier and global philanthropist, has attributed Sturz’s effectiveness to his ability to work with, rather than against, any given system. As Soros puts it, “People with ideas tend to be worn down. He makes the system achieve complete objectives.”
That’s because ideas, to Sturz, are only the beginning. He would never isolate himself in an ivory tower. The great vice of academicism, the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, “is that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking.”
One of Sturz’s underlying principles, according to Jack Rosenthal of the New York Times, one of his oldest friends and colleagues, is “using nonprofit, private and even governmental pilot programs and experiments to prove out remedies for wrongs—and using the proof to achieve government funding at scale.”
“Some people start with the position that government doesn’t work because they don’t want it to work,” Sturz says. “I had nine years in government. You can do an enormous amount. But to effect real change, why would you expect government to do it alone?”
Sturz’s record is laudable not solely on the basis of accomplishment, but also given the constraints of the times in which he achieved success. Describing the “almost languid” decade of the 1950s, David Halberstam wrote: “As younger people and segments of society who did not believe they had a fair share became empowered, pressure inevitably began to build against the entrenched political and social hierarchy. . . . One did not lightly challenge a system that seemed, on the whole, to be working so well.” Sturz challenged that system and not lightly. Not head first, perhaps, but strategically. And, considering the political and temperamental and ideological impediments aligned against him, by design or just because that was the way things were and always had been, the results he achieved are all the more astonishing. Even by the beginning of the 1960s, it was still tough to persuade policy makers, to say nothing of their constituents, that many Americans were being denied justice only because they were poor or that alcoholics deserved to be treated as victims not criminals. Those policy makers might have known their own jobs, to one degree or another, but few of them understood the system. Some wouldn’t even talk to one another. Sturz remembers Frank Hogan, the Manhattan district attorney in the 1960s, rarely meeting with judges and defense lawyers because he considered such contact “professionally inappropriate.”
It was also tough for people to admit that some of the nostrums that seemed so noble when they were embraced early on never lived up to their promise. Sturz succeeded, in part, because he recoiled at the facile and reflexive pat responses that doomed so many other good intentions. In a biting obituary for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the Brookings Institution wrote, “Taking refuge in pat, simple answers—decentralize, regulate, coordinate, spend more, spend less—seems unlikely to lead to a workable strategy.”
And if it was one thing to get government grants in the heady early years of the Great Society when the reform credo buzzed through the nation, it was quite another barely a few years later, by which point reformers’ disillusionment was captured by a wry poster in a welfare office that instructed: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Or, two decades later, when Sturz was faced with wringing support for social programs from the Reagan administration, whose goal was to shrink the government and whose hard-heartedness in achieving that agenda seemed best summed up by the Department of Agriculture’s reclassification of ketchup as a vegetable. Or, during the Clinton years, persuading policy makers that it cost money to move people from welfare to work but that the results were attainable and measurable, and again during the Bush administration when he successfully leveraged private dollars to win government investment in an after-school program. Sturz fought on, regardless, tailoring his strategy, but not his principles.
As his long-time friend Robert Hood sees it, Sturz never fails to “fight the good fight even when nobody is watching.”
Because not many people were watching and because Sturz typically preferred it that way, “he is well known in certain elite circles, but he has no public profile,” says Gara LaMarche. “Herb, in that sense, has a very quiet impact on people. Virtually all the beneficiaries of his vision haven’t heard of Herb Sturz and probably never will.”
But it is perhaps Sturz’s best attribute that he is, as a friend, Jay L. Kriegel, who first recruited him to John V. Lindsay’s mayoral team of outsiders, points out, willing to take risks on projects with little chance of return. Kriegel may have summed it up best at Sturz’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration in 2006. “Herb,” he said, “is not afraid to fail.”
And fail he did, sometimes, just because the challenge he faced demanded that somebody do something—almost anything—and because no one else was brash enough to try. “Part of me thinks I can do it,” Sturz says. “The other part thinks the only real failure is not trying.”
In many arenas, Sturz has not only succeeded but succeeded wildly, igniting a nationwide reformation of costly and unjust bail practices, transforming a faceless court system into one that cared not merely about processing people but also about the victims of crime, sparking a physical and spiritual renaissance of Times Square, creating a pioneering community court and serving citizens without any real clout or constituency.
Gara LaMarche calls him “the good Robert Moses,” the benignant twin of the storied Power Broker, one who “dreamed projects up and willed them into being”—without any of Moses’s institutional muscle or unbridled obsessions, or his unforgiving single-mindedness. “He is not a manager,” LaMarche says. “He is not a fundraiser.”
In retelling the history of The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro a decade ago wrote that “to really show political power, you had to show the effect of power on the powerless.” That is what Herb Sturz is all about. His is not a story about the ancillary impact of power on the powerless. It is about empowering the powerless—and, more often than not, by working with government rather than, as Moses did, flaunting the power liberally invested in him by government.
Reared in the optimistic can-do spirit of the New Deal, Sturz was nonetheless chastened by the failings of the Great Society to deliver on the great expectations harbored by many. His legacy would not be a New Deal or a Great Society. But it would, nonetheless, fundamentally alter how much of society—all over America and beyond— viewed and dealt with people who were alcoholics, drug addicted, arrested but presumed innocent, convicted but unready for release, homeless, jobless and retired but still able to serve. The projects that became Sturz’s progeny not only changed perceptions, they profoundly affected countless lives.
The essential vehicle of Herb Sturz’s intellectual ferment is the Vera Institute. At thirty, Sturz became its first executive director. By the time Vera celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary in 2006, its progeny evoked a biblical family tree. A bail project begat a summons project, which begat the Bowery Project and Project Renewal. Vera pioneered the first ambulatory methadone program in the nation for die-hard drug addicts and, directly or indirectly, inspired the Addiction Research Treatment Corporation, the Victim Service Agency (which became Victim Services and then Safe Horizon), the Legal Action Center, Mobilization for Youth Legal Services, Pioneer Messenger Corporation, Wildcat Service Corporation, the Neighborhood Youth Diversion Corporation, the Manhattan Court Employment Project, La Bodega de la Familia, the Harlem Defender Service, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) and the Center for Employment Opportunities—and Sturz himself launched the City Volunteer Corps, the Midtown Community Court, Red Hook Community Justice Center, the Center for Court Innovation, The After-School Corporation and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods.
“They are not Vera’s children,” Sturz’s friend Jack Rosenthal says. “They’re Herb’s children.”

Part I
The Outsider

Chapter 1
Herbert Jay Sturz, the youngest of three brothers, was born in 1930 and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, a gritty oil-refining town on New York and Newark bays west of Staten Island. Bayonne, he recalled years later, “was a mix between immigrant Slavs and Poles and guys who worked at the refineries. A strong Catholic population. A less strong Jewish population.” It was a working-class town that produced middleweight Ernie “The Rock” Durando, the heavyweight Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner (said to have been an inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa) and mob enforcer Harold “K.O.” Konigsberg.
“I was on the fringes,” Sturz says of his childhood. “I never knew poverty.”
When his father, Jacob, was nineteen, in 1908, he arrived at Ellis Island from what was then Austria-Hungary. He worked first as a house painter but then was drafted into the U.S. Army as an interpreter during World War I. Herb’s mother, Ida, was born in the United States, the daughter of Samuel and Annie Meirowitz. Her father had also left Austria-Hungary. He came to Grand Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan around 1885 as a boy of fifteen. His first job was as a street sweeper. Neither of Herb’s parents got beyond high school. After the war, his father and his uncle opened in Bayonne the Avenue F Saloon, which Sturz says was “literally on the wrong side of the tracks.” Not yet a teenager, Herb worked behind the bar dispensing Three Feathers rye and beer to patrons who availed themselves of the pickled tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, onions and other staples that constituted the proverbial free lunch. Foreshadowing his later obsession with quantifying the results of experiments in social engineering, he would calibrate the precise angle at which to hold a glass and release the tap to produce the smallest head on a beer. He sometimes worked in the afternoons after delivering the Bayonne Times door to door and was mesmerized by leaving daylight and fresh air for the hypnotic boozy duskiness of the bar.
Jacob Sturz also started what his youngest son would call “an elementary sort of foreign exchange service”—shipping packages of food, clothing and cash from immigrants to their relatives in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. His father’s passion was Hungarian music, but his personality rarely reflected its vibrancy and intensity. Sturz remembers him displaying strong emotion only once, when he wept on learning that relatives in Europe had been exterminated in the Holocaust. He adored his family but reveled more in their personas than their accomplishments. He never asked to see his sons’ report cards from Horace Mann Elementary School or Bayonne High. He told Herb that he loved him best when his face was dirty, and he took particular pride when he saw nine-year-old Herb, sitting on the stoop of their house, as Joe the garbage man greeted the boy by name from his passing truck.
“It was a wonderful acceptance,” Sturz recalls. “He never cared about how well I did in school or anything like that. It was much more elemental and, I think, it gave me whatever sense of security I had in my life. It helped a lot. I didn’t know it at the time.” About the same time, Herb persuaded his mother to take him to the apartment building in Manhattan where Mel Ott, the manager of his beloved New York Giants, lived. The Giants had lost the World Series to the Yankees when Herb was six and again when he was seven. Even then, he was rooting for the underdogs.
As a kid, Sturz was more bully than sissy, tall for his age and usually in charge of choosing up sides for stickball—displaying some of the same skills, but with less of the diplomacy (he remembers saying “awful things” like “He’s too fat” or “We don’t want him”) that would serve him well in later years. In 1944, he delivered an original essay titled “One America” to his eighth-grade assembly (befitting Bayonne’s bifurcated culture, his speech was sandwiched between a classical overture and a song titled “The Riveter”).
To prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, he attended Hebrew School four afternoons a week, an obligation that interfered with his bartending and hanging out at after-school ball games. He learned to read Hebrew aloud but without understanding the meaning of the words. “In retrospect, a good thing is that I didn’t understand Hebrew or have the wit to try to learn what I was reading,” Sturz says. “So I didn’t know about the negative things I was studying in Hebrew with respect to prejudice, that women are inferior to men, about sin and guilt. All that passed me by. I went to Hebrew School because I had to. It would have been unthinkable not to have gone. But I never thought of myself as religious.” As an adult, he would fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, but otherwise didn’t hew to tradition. “I’m Jewish when Jews are under attack,” he says.
In the fall of his senior year at Bayonne High, Princeton University was courting Herb with the promise of a tennis scholarship. One day, however, when he was playing in the finals of a tournament, something started going wrong: He kept dropping the racket after hitting the ball. “Everyone drops a racket occasionally,” he remembers. “I assumed it was nothing.” But by January, he would also have trouble squeezing the scoop in the ice cream parlor where he worked after school as a soda jerk.
He had contracted polio. “I had been the captain of the high school tennis team, and we were among the best in the state. I ran track and played other sports. So polio caused me for the first time to think about the fact that I was not immortal.” The disease would leave him with a weakened right hand, abruptly ending his affair with tournament tennis and instilling a new discipline and perspective on life’s capriciousness. “My family thought that I was going to die. I had to drop out of high school. I received my diploma, but I never went back.”
His terrified family reached beyond conventional medicine to practitioners of Jewish Science, a movement that, like Christian Science, emphasized prayer and divine healing. Honey and horseradish were administered; and every day, Sturz chanted the invocation “God is filling my body with health and strength.” Sturz’s bout with polio infused him with an abiding compassion. (Comparing social entrepreneurs with business entrepreneurs and people employed in “caring professions,” Harvard’s Lynn Barendsen has found that all three groups considered that they had been outsiders in their early lives, but only among the social entrepreneurs had many experienced some form of trauma at an early age.) Confined to his home for six months, Sturz also honed a tactical skill that would serve him well later: He taught himself mental chess and eventually could calculate a half dozen moves—and their implications—in advance.
In 1948, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, at Madison. Both of his brothers had gone there after his mother had met, and been impressed by, a former Wisconsin instructor, Lionel Trilling, on a train. “Wisconsin is the place to go,” Ida Sturz was told by Trilling, who, by then, was a professor at Columbia, where Herb would go to graduate school. Wisconsin’s program of integrated liberal studies, inspired by Alexander Meiklejohn, the civil liberties advocate, was a major influence on Sturz. “It carried forward in the way I think, the way I connect ideas,” he says. “You didn’t take a course in English, per se. It was Greek and Roman culture, then on to Medieval and Renaissance culture, then transitioning to the study of industrial society. You looked at literature and economics or history through an integrated lens. It helped me realize how ideas and fields relate to one another, how means lead to ends, how, in order to get from A to B, you had to go to A second and A third—aware in the process that things change.”
As one of the first students in the integrated curriculum, Sturz majored in philosophy. “I figured that I could read history and literature on my own, but I wouldn’t try to think on my own,” he recalls. “Probably that’s why I wanted to go into philosophy. Perhaps it was a kind of one-upmanship.”
No philosopher inspired Sturz more than John Dewey. “He was idealistic, analytic and pragmatic,” Sturz recalled in a discussion years later with Wisconsin students. “Human Nature and Conduct, I devoured. I practically underlined the entire book and filled the margins of the page with my scribblings. I learned about the thrust and flow of ideas, facts and relationships.” As a disciple of Dewey, he embraced the inseparable bond between human nature and conduct and of the guiding principle that “arriving at one goal is the starting point for another.” Ends don’t exist without means. Ends change in the course of achieving them. “I learned quickly how the world interrelates even before I read Howards End with its two-word invocation: ‘Only connect.’ I began to connect.” For Sturz, “Only connect” became a mantra.
Sturz connected seemingly disparate ideas not theoretically, but practically, embracing William James’s definition of the pragmatist as one who
turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth.
Inspired by James and Dewey, Sturz inevitably plunged into politics. He demonstrated against compulsory enrollment in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and, with several friends, infiltrated a Young Republicans Club, which then voted to censure the state’s junior senator, Joseph McCarthy. He also helped a congregation of Unitarians—including one graduate student he was enamored with—build a stone church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a Wisconsin native, outside Madison.
During what he describes as “that period of my life where I wanted to experience stuff” firsthand, one Thanks-giving when he was short of money for the bus ticket home to New Jersey, he rode to Chicago, where he checked into a flophouse but recalls “not having enough guts to get under the covers.” On another visit, he talked his way into sleeping overnight at a city jail. One summer, he worked as an attendant in a mental hospital run by Quakers in California—refusing, though, to sign a loyalty oath, which was a condition of getting paid (he waived his salary). Appalled by the use of punishment as therapy, he was handed a negative reference from the American Friends Service Committee for publishing a graphic critique of the treatment, which included using rolled-up newspaper comics pages as gags to prevent patients from biting their tongues during grand mal convulsions. He sat in a cold tub and wore a straitjacket to experience the cruel and terrifying claustrophobia that patients felt.


On Sale
Mar 3, 2009
Page Count
464 pages

Sam Roberts

About the Author

Sam Roberts is an urban affairs correspondent and Metro Matters columnist for the New York Times and, as such, has become something of the face and voice for the city at large. He is the author of numerous books, including The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. Sam is frequently heard on NPR.

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