It was a bitterly cold and achingly beautiful November morning on Governors Island. The occasion was the ceremonial planting of the 800,000th tree out of a goal of one million being installed across the city, and the star of the show, gold-painted shovel in hand, was Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the woman at the edge of the photo op was in some ways more interesting. The imaginative rebuilding of the long-orphaned island in the harbor would not have happened without her.
That has been the underappreciated dynamic behind a lot of the advances in city life these past twelve years. Patti Harris was at Bloomberg’s side during nearly every public appearance he’s made as mayor, and in those settings she was a Jackie Kennedy–like presence—elegantly dressed, unfailingly pleasant, and allergic to interviews. Inside Bloombergworld, though, Harris’s power has always been up-front and far-reaching. She enlarged the part of his brain that sees culture as more than simply a tourist attraction. In the first term, Harris pushed the mayor to use his own money to make up for government funding cuts to arts programs, which eventually paid political dividends. She has been the driving force behind dramatic reinventions and rehabilitations, raising the quality of design in public spaces all across the city from High Bridge in the Bronx to the High Line in Chelsea to the St. George Theatre on Staten Island.
Harris has also shaped the architecture of government itself (for better and for worse: her support was pivotal to Bloomberg’s decision to run for a third term). “Commissioners, deputy mayors, judicial appointments—Patti interviewed anybody we were considering hiring, and if she didn’t approve, they didn’t get hired. She has been his chief of staff not just in City Hall but all across the government,” a former top Bloomberg aide says. “And if you wanted to know what Mike was really thinking, you asked Patti.”