Welcoming the World to New York
Gillian Sorensen plays `den mother' to the city's 35,000-member diplomatic community. INTERVIEW
NEW YORK — WHEN a construction crew's wrecking ball crashed through the bedroom wall of Thailand's Ambassador to the United Nations, Gillian Sorensen's office got the call. When a city fire hydrant burst, flooding the files of the Bulgarian mission to the United Nations, her office phone rang. Mrs. Sorensen, who takes such calls somewhat in stride after 12 years on the job, is the New York City Commissioner for the United Nations and Consular Corps. In effect, she is the city's ambassador to the largest diplomatic community in the world. Including family members, there are about 35,000 - the size of a small city.
Sorensen, her staff of 14, and a group of about 50 trained volunteers help visiting diplomats whittle down the barriers of differing law and language and custom in America's largest city.
In part, her office serves as friend and adviser. She has called on every one of the more than 500 new ambassadors to the UN since Mayor Edward Koch appointed her to the post in 1978. Each foreign consul also receives a personal welcome from someone in her office. They discuss practical matters such as housing, schools, and safety.
About one-third of the city's diplomatic corps turns over every year. Although the condominium trend has helped, finding a place to live remains one of the toughest challenges. The Commission offers to review leases and watches out for any scams. The office recently became aware of one landlady who seeks out diplomatic renters, charges them up to three months rent as a security deposit, and then declines to return it when the tenant finishes his tour of duty. ``That's clearly illegal, and we're going after her,'' says Sorensen.
Education is also a common concern for diplomatic families. Her office colleagues try to find the school and program that best meets their need. ``We can't work miracles, but we can try to help them feel satisfied that their child is in the right place,'' says Sorensen. ``These kids do wonderfully well in our schools.''
Occasionally there are crises. Indeed, a series of them, including a diplomat's suicide, led to the founding of the Commission's office in 1962. ``It became extremely clear that there were problems in this special community that were not being heard,'' says Sorensen.
Over the years she has tried to help diplomats whose governments have been toppled, wives of diplomats who have been abandoned by their husbands, and diplomats whose governments were in such dire straits that paychecks weren't sent to them for months at a time. (Usually the landlord is asked to extend the rent deadline. In the desperate case of Chad some years back, a short-term loan was arranged.)
MOST visiting diplomats are sophisticated and realistic, she says. But occasionally there is vulnerability, particularly with purchases. When a Japanese diplomat's wife who did not speak English unwittingly bought a set of encyclopedias from an aggressive salesman, the Commission managed to get the order canceled. Just a few days ago, in a case Sorensen says she can ``hardly believe,'' a UN staff member bought eight ``ivory and bronze'' statues for $50,000 from a Fifth Avenue store. In checking the statues' quality with a nearby auction house, she found they contained no ivory at all. A full refund was obtained.
Sorensen, a slender woman with brown hair, lively brown eyes, and a friendly manner, sees her role in large part as a mediator and educator. She spends a sizable chunk of time speaking to ``almost anybody who invites me,'' from rookie police officers to civic groups.
Fluent in French and discreet in manner, Sorensen seems in many ways a natural for her job. She grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., where her mother was a journalist and her father was a politician and lawyer. She worked for a time in television production and ``little by little'' got involved in Democratic politics, eventually working on Ed Koch's first mayoral campaign. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, she recently completed a seven-year board term on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her husband, Ted, is a lawyer and former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy.
One of her key aims is to counter the impression among some New Yorkers that visiting diplomats are a drain on the economy. Yes, diplomatic immunity precludes them from having to pay parking tickets and property taxes. But Sorensen argues that the total cost to New York, including the added security required, is only about $15 million a year compared to the $800 million in benefits diplomats spend while in the city. ``It is clearly a financial plus for New York,'' she insists.
From the beginning Sorensen has been on the lookout for added income that could be tapped. After a long debate, Washington finally agreed that New York was shouldering the cost of a national obligation to protect the visiting diplomats. As a result, since 1978 the US Treasury has reimbursed the city for $70 million in police costs. Also, after determining that water and sewage fees from diplomatic missions and residences would not amount to a tax, New York collected some $650,000 from the visiting diplomats. Such efforts, says Sorensen, have done much to ``defuse'' criticism of diplomats and of her office.
SOME complaints are valid, she says: the strong smell of spices wafting down the hallway from a diplomat's kitchen, to the refusal by an Indian family to admit an exterminator out of ``reverence for life.'' Usually, since the commission has already been of help to the visitors, gentle persuasion works. One of the most rewarding parts of her job, she says, is the communication links sometimes forged between diplomats and their neighborhoods. When tension sprang up between Soviets living in the Bronx and their neighbors, her office initiated a contact that led to invitations to receptions from both sides, an exchange of phone numbers, and what Sorensen calls ``a much more open and relaxed relationship.''
Some years ago, when a bomb at the Cuban mission to the UN shattered nearby windows, her office brought the police, Cuban officials, and neighbors together to discuss security. A long and heated discussion ended with an exchange of phone numbers and the lighter question of whether or not the Cubans would plant geraniums in the tree pits outside their mission as the rest of the block had done. They did.
Sorensen says she is firmly convinced that both the visiting diplomats and New Yorkers are much richer from their joint experience. ``The relationship is mutually beneficial,'' she says. ``The diplomatic presence here has a synergistic effect.''
Likewise, she says, most diplomats come to appreciate the freedom of expression, lifestyle, dress, and behavior they see. Many arrange for consulting or lecturing contracts as an excuse to return. ``They may disagree with our politics, but I think most of them leave New York with regret.''