How the titan of New York business rallied bankers to rebuild the city
By Kathryn Wylde
March 21, 2017
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 was in touch with the priorities of the entire city.
He scheduled every Partnership board meeting in a different borough. At the first meeting in Brooklyn, one CEO announced that this was a location he preferred to fly over. David was not deterred.
David brought in newly elected President Ronald Reagan and impressed on him that a public-private partnership was something that business and government would do together, not one where the business community was going to take over government’s job. The only time David got upset with me was when I suggested that the banks were backing our housing initiatives because they were mandated to by the Community Reinvestment Act. He firmly responded, “You are wrong. We are doing it because it is the right thing, not because the government told us to.”
True, when the Partnership had its annual meeting at Rockefeller’s Pocantico Hills estate, there was a traffic jam of executive helicopters hovering over Tarrytown. David was, after all, New York royalty. But the unique respect in which he was held was not because of his wealth and power, but rather because of the way he consistently deployed these resources for the greater good of our city and all of its people.
When David finally stepped down as chairman of the Partnership in 1987, Arthur Barnes gave a speech in which he quoted a lyric from an old song: “If I never had a cent, I’d be rich as Rockefeller,” noting that David could have reached down to anyone in the city, but instead he always reached out in a spirit of humility and love.
Kathryn Wylde is President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City.