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MARCH 2005

NYC Comissioner Martha Hirst Advocates Pursuing Passion
Over Prestige

Factors in Career Choice: I think it chose me to tell you the truth! I came to New York in 1973, and I thought it was just going to be for my junior year in college. I was supposed to be an exchange-type student at NYU. And that was a turning point for me. I began to take courses in urban studies. I lived here and loved it, and ended up having a double major in urban studies and history. I then went on to get a master’s degree in urban planning and got the opportunity to go to work in the housing agency, Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). That interested me enormously because of some of the course work I had done in neighborhood planning and former Commissioner Nathan Leventhal, was about the most brilliant guy I’d ever met. I thought, ‘I don’t care what job I do, I’ve got to work with this guy for a while.’ That’s how it started, and I’m still here.

Obstacles: The biggest challenge I’ve had is coming here to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). That’s because it’s an octopus type of agency. We have four or five large aspects to the agency—real estate transactions, civil service administration, procurement—and we need to have each of them working well with all the other agencies and with each other. So I think that’s been my biggest challenge and yet it’s been the most rewarding too in that sense. When you see results like having people do better and grow more efficient in their work and work better as a team and accomplish some of our strategic objectives, it’s incredibly satisfying. Also, having a full time career and raising kids has been a big and very rewarding challenge. Certainly, being an available parent and being instructive and educating my children as a parent does. Luckily, they’re great kids so it has been easier than it otherwise would be.

Proudest Accomplishments: I think my proudest accomplishment was spearheading the effort for a landmark civil rights legislation, which was the gay rights bill enacted in 1986. Mayor Koch did a great job and we were directly and closely on it. I also spent time at the Department of Sanitation doing long-term waste planning and led an effort there to close the Fresh Kills Landfill. We had a five-year timetable, and we closed it in four years. There are also all sorts of things at DCAS. When the mayor came into office he turned the courthouse right behind City Hall into the headquarters for the Department of Education. Not only that, but he wanted a school on the ground floor so that the educators and bureaucrats and on the upper floors would be mindful of their mission every day seeing children come to school. I helped to design the school portion with some architects and designers. It was really important that it be dynamic, bright, beautiful and engaging. It gives me great pleasure to go over there and see kids every day.

Turning point: I think it was coming to New York. I lived in Greenwich Village and went to NYU. I remember the first night I was here I got up in the middle of the night and looked out the window. I was on the 13th floor. And I saw a woman—I’ll never forget this—riding her bicycle down the street with her dog in the basket. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning! And I thought, ‘this is a full time 24-7 kind of place that has loads to offer.’ New York is a great place to be a young person and to be a student of both urban issues and of life. The best of everybody is here.

Mentors: Professionally, Nathan Leventhal has been and continues to be a mentor, along with Mayor Koch  He was the first mayor I worked for and his definition of public service being a noble and honorable profession was something I took to heart. I thought he assembled a great team and really taught us a great deal about the way in which you serve the public. Also, the women in my family were a huge influence. Both my grandmothers and my mother had long careers in the nursing profession. One grandmother was a pediatric nurse and the other worked with elderly people. My mother was an oncology nurse. They had full time careers, were very dedicated to their work and were very instructive to me about the way you should lead a full and rewarding life while making significant professional commitments.

Advice: What advice would you give to young people today?

I would encourage any young person with a hint of an interest in cities or politics or government to try it. You work with a wide variety of the most interesting people and get a chance to really make a difference in neighborhoods and on a citywide basis. You can see the fruits of your labors whether you’re a budget person or a police officer or an analyst or even a press secretary. We hope to be able to continue to attract great young people to our work force and also encourage the professional development I would certainly encourage people to get into government.

I’ve heard Mayor Bloomberg give sound advice to young people. He says that young people should follow their passion and interest and not pay attention to what their title is going to be. If you find someone who is great to work with who you think you have a lot to learn from, pursue it.#



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