How a retired intellectual property lawyer became NYC’s transportation commissioner.
“Have I flunked retirement?” jokes Henry “Hank” Gutman C’72, responding to recent New York media grumblings about a 70-year-old “outsider” with “little experience” in the field taking over a critical city agency.
Postponing retirement pleasures like sailing and playing tennis with his family in Nantucket, Gutman in February was named commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, a $1.3 billion annual operation with about 6,000 employees. A surprising choice for such a big job, he was tapped by a longtime admirer, Mayor Bill de Blasio, to replace Polly Trottenberg, who’d left to join the Biden administration as Pete Buttigieg’s deputy in the US Department of Transportation.
Now Gutman’s daunting mission—and he only has until the end of the year (and the mayor’s term) to shape it—is to help make the city’s streets safer and more accommodating for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation users. His city-rethinking “to-dos” include adding multiple miles of new bike lanes and boulevards and 20,000 secure slots to lock up those two-wheelers. He’s also being pressed to speed up bus service with exclusive lanes and aims to alter the way goods move through the city. And he’s pushing to make permanent the new car-free outdoor gathering zones and sidewalk dining locations that popped up during the pandemic.
“As an unexpected byproduct of the pandemic, we’ve discovered alternate uses of the streets with long-term benefits and can tap into stimulus money and infrastructure money to help us maximize our efforts,” Gutman says. “Thousands of people have transitioned to healthy, pollution-free bike commuting. So now we have to make their rides safer with better planned lanes and give them more places to secure their bikes.
“Why should Rome and Paris be the only cities praised for outdoor dining with great food? New York now has that, too. And why can’t we also adopt the European model for moving goods around town in small pedal carts and electric vehicles that don’t clog up the streets, pollute, and disrupt life in the poorer neighborhoods?”
Gutman is an unlikely choice to solve these urban concerns. He made his mark as the chief intellectual property lawyer at the firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, tussling over the ownership rights to “microprocessor design, software programs, network interface cards, monoclonal antibodies, stereo isomers” and more in litigation that took him before the US Supreme Court and around the world. But he believes the problem-solving and storytelling skills he learned in his past career will help guide him in his new one. “I think it helps to be an outsider,” he says. “I’m someone who will ask the hard questions and not take the bureaucratic ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ as an answer.”
It’s an ideology and second calling that’s been gnawing at him since his freshman year at Penn, when he participated in a College Hall sit-in to protest the gentrification of University City. “It was an altogether tumultuous time of social and political upheaval,” he recalls. “The Vietnam War was a major concern, of course. I thought I would go to law school”—Harvard as it turned out—“and then use that knowledge to be a public service do-gooder, maybe get into politics. But then I got seduced by Wall Street, fell like Zelig into all these amazing opportunities with clients like CBS, Intel, Verizon, Apple, and Lotus. Now I’ve finally come full circle … with my first paid government job since I was a law clerk in 1976.”
For 20 years, Gutman, a longtime Brooklyn Heights resident, has been voluntarily beating the drum, doing pro bono legal work and otherwise helping clear the way for the redevelopment of the borough’s downtrodden waterfront into the now impressive 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by the globally renowned Michael Van Valkenburgh (who also designed Penn Park). That’s where then-New York City Councilman de Blasio first saw Gutman in action, confidently unsnarling bureaucratic red tape, chasing off corrupt players, and working the room at neighborhood meetings.
Seven years ago, de Blasio began asking Gutman to take on more civic-minded roles—first as the unpaid chair for the nonprofit development corporation steering the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a gig Gutman still retains. More recently, he participated on the mayor’s expert panel helping to salvage the crumbling Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. That’s where Gutman started to understand the machinations at the Department of Transportation.
Those de Blasio appointments came during an auspicious time for Gutman, who was already into overtime at his law firm despite a mandate that partners retire at age 62. (He managed to squeeze out an extra two years to complete a huge global fraud case.) “There’s one good thing about a forced exit in your early sixties—you still have the energy and enthusiasm to start another career,” he says, adding that his 100-year-old father, William Gutman ChE’42 “has wisely counseled: ‘The angel of death has a hard time hitting a moving target.’ I think those are words to live by. We all know stories of people who retire and do nothing and end up dying soon after. So why go there, when there’s always stuff to do?”
Under his leadership and thanks to a “great CEO and management team,” the Brooklyn Navy Yard has doubled occupancy under Gutman’s watch to “bring quality manufacturing and creative jobs to the city when people said it was impossible,” he says. More than 500 tenants, collectively representing about 12,000 jobs, are spread over 300-plus acres, and businesses range “from the largest rooftop soil-based farm in North America to the leading maker of body armor for the military … [to] the oldest continually operating spirits distiller in New York,” Gutman says. He also touted an on-site STEAM high school “where kids study in what looks like a place of business and then get summer jobs at actual businesses in the yard,” as well as a graduate film school program that collaborates with Steiner Studios, one of the earliest tenants of the Navy Yard and the largest film and TV production facility outside of Los Angeles.
At his appointment, de Blasio hailed Gutman as “a visionary leader whose decades of civic life in this city have made New York City fairer, better, and more accessible.”
As for the ticking clock of accomplishing his goals before a new mayor is elected in November and sworn in on January 1, Gutman is thriving on it.
“Some might view this job as a lame-duck appointment. I see it as having a tight timetable for getting things done,” he says. “Some things we can get done in a year, others we’ll get underway or will be long-range projects where we have a good plan in place. So whoever the next mayor is will hopefully find it attractive and finish the work. A sense of urgency can be beneficial if you use it properly. At this stage of my career, it gives me the opportunity to make a contribution—hopefully a lasting contribution.
“There’s a whole different kind of satisfaction in helping to create things that make a difference in people’s lives and things that will outlive you. They won’t remember you, but it doesn’t matter. The satisfaction you get is from the doing.”
—Jonathan Takiff C’68