I was introduced to David Rockefeller in 1981 by labor leaders Harry Van Arsdale and Peter Brennan, who wanted New York’s banks to fund the rebuilding of burned-out city neighborhoods with housing for working people. They asked me to write a proposal to give David, who was then CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank. In a matter of months, I ended up as one of the first employees of the Partnership for New York City, responsible for managing a public-private initiative to build 30,000 new homes on vacant lots across the five boroughs.
Up to that point, I shared the stereotypical view of the Rockefellers as New York’s royalty. What I came to learn was that David, who died Monday at 101, was a gentleman, but not a patrician. His values were those that define the culture of New York: generosity, intellectual rigor, can-do spirit, everybody under one big tent.
In establishing the Partnership, David’s first instinct was to include leaders from business and labor, but union leaders turned him down, saying they had constituencies that would not understand. He knew it would take the power of the city’s corporate CEOs to help government deal with the many crises of the day (fiscal, public safety, education and exodus of its middle class, to name a few). But this was a group comprised exclusively of white men who did not reflect the diversity of the city, so David reached out to Harlem real estate executives George Brooker and Lloyd Dickens, Hunter College President Donna Shalala, Arthur Barnes of the New York Urban Coalition, Jewell Jackson McCabe of 100 Black Women and others who could ensure that the Partnership…
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