Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Library Lovers Converge among Displaced Books, Battling Billionaires to Save the NYPL

Libraries Not Condos. Library card sign for Lady Liberty on Monday's action Books Not Billionaires

Billionaires and opponents converging on the NYPL on December 16th, 2013

Library Lovers come in all shapes and sizes.    My Mom spent years and years of her life exploring the libraries of Europe for clues about the iconography of an illuminated manuscript.  Throughout the middle ages, monasteries protected such manuscripts and the ideas they represented from marauding, invading armies.

chi rho page from the book of kells

Images such as the Chi Ro Page in the Book of Kells represented the idea of turning darkness into light.  Such books have always needed their protectors from ignorance and hostility toward the new ideas.  Today, instead of marauding armies, libraries and the books they hold face an equally destructive onslaught from developers and their brand of neoliberal urbanism.  

 Some of the greatest writers in history were librarians.  Reinaldo Arenas worked in the National Library in Cuba, where he found a freedom of ideas and a space to write before political pressures crashed down, and he spent years in prison for his writings. 


“I have always imagined paradise will be a kind of library,” noted the grandfather of magic realism, Jorge Luis Borges.  He confessed that he could not sleep unless he was surrounded by books.   Unable to separate himself from the stories he found in these books, he explained: “I am not sure that I exist, actually.  I am all the writers I have read, all the people  that I have met, all , all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited,” seemingly channeling Tennyson himself.   We are all parts of the places we have been.  Books and libraries are places where these stories start, take room, move from ideas to pen, paper, publication, and storage for the ages.  They thrive here, finding new devotees, sleep, and outlive us  age after age.  This was always the case on 42nd street.

Bottom quotation from the Tower of Babel and other images of Jorge Luis Borges and his beloved libraries of the imagination. 

Times Squareis a place where stories started Jimmy Breslin used to say.  It used to be lots of things.  When the city began whitewashing, sanitizing, privatizing, and cleaning up the square, I didn’t think it meant the library.  But such is the logic of neoliberal urbanism.  Sell off hospitals, shut down schools, and gut libraries to make room for a better business climate for condos and corporate control of public space.  Privatize profits and socialize losses. 

Yet, there are still stories growing from this space.  At least, they were yesterday   at 42nd Street and 5thFearing real books will be evicted from the NY Pubic Library, theatrical books would be converging at the library in hope of finding their way back home.  Their library supporters would  take part in a in theatrical improvisation as mock plutocrats try to displace the books, and the books alternately lament their fate and seek to stand their ground.   

This is  the site of some of my favorite moments  in New York.

We kicked off the largest protest in world history here on February 15, 2003, top.  And just this fall, we reminded the world that AIDS is not history when the NYPD put up an exhibit about AIDS activism.  Bottom photo by Peter Shapiro

Arriving by bike, I saw kids dressed as displaced books and their supporters carrying signs declaring:



These kids, several home schoolers, have been fighting for the libraries for months now. Their nemeses, the billionaires were also on hand peddling their lines about the benefits for the public of privatization of services and our public commons.

"Books not billionaires," they chanted.

My friend Michele, from the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library was there as well.  This administration has been tough on books. Recall the city destroyed this library during the raid at Zuccotti Park two years ago and activists fought back, suing the city.  Just a few months ago, the city agreed to settle, paying activists some $47,000.00 back for the damaged books, destroyed during the raid. Like the NYPL, the People’s Library represented the dissemination of knowledge into the public commons.  This is what the seems to oppose. Yet, Michelle reminded a reporter this is a place where scholars search for the clues through the stacks of the most accessible research library in the world. 

Michele Hardesty speaking above, her photo of books destroyed from the people's library, middle and suing the city with Norm Siegel below. 

Yet, today this space is under assault by a plan hatched by developers. The Central Library Plan, at enormous cost to New York City and its taxpayers, calls for the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library at 40th St. and 5th Avenue, the most heavily used library in the entire city. It would also irreparably damage the 42nd Street Research Library – one of the world’s great reference libraries and a historic landmark. The NYPL plans to demolish the 42nd Street Library’s historic seven-story book stacks, install a circulating library in their stead, and displace 1.5 million books to central New Jersey. The new circulating library would replace the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (at 34th and Madison), despite being less than one-third the size of the two existing libraries.

One of the library lovers carried this apt sign.

This plan was created through a closed process with no public input, and has been condemned by leading architecture critics.
Kim Velsey notes in the Observer:
Is the city is making bad—or at least short-sighted—deals in exchange for a little cash right now? As The New York Times, which examined the sudden spate of sales argues: the decision to sell certain properties and keep others is being driven by the logic of developers, not the virtues and the problems of the library branches and schools themselves.
And when private, rather than public interest dictates the city’s real estate decisions, that’s a real cause for concern, even if those sales will ultimately benefit the public, as the city claims.

"The designs [for the new circulating library which will replace the 42nd Street stacks] have all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall... what results is an awkward, cramped, banal pastiche of tiers facing claustrophobia-inducing windows, built around a space-wasting atrium with a curved staircase more suited to a Las Vegas hotel.

“...A new Mid-Manhattan branch should cost a fraction of gutting the stacks and could produce much better architecture."

In her last column before she died, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

"The current Central Library Plan was conceived internally, using commercial consultants known for doing the numbers and moving the pieces around for organizational change and the best bottom line. It has the approval of Mr. Marx and his predecessor, Paul LeClerc, under whom it took shape, and a 60-member board of successful business leaders with a few writers and scholars for literary embellishment. Commercial consultants are generally clueless about nonquantifiable architectural and cultural values. And so, apparently, are most of the 60 trustees. There is an obvious paucity of architectural historians and structural experts among them.

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library's original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don't 'update" a masterpiece.'

....Sell the surplus Fifth Avenue property at 34th Street. Keep the Mid-Manhattan building; the location is perfect. Let Foster+Partners loose on the Mid-Manhattan building; the results will be spectacular, and probably no more costly than the extravagant and destructive plan the library has chosen."

Kim Velsey continues in The Observer.

“The public has been generous to private developers—particularly in the case of Barclays, with city and state subsidies granted on the basis that their developments would be enriching the entire community, rather than just the developer. If that’s the case, why is it that the local public library by Barclay’s can’t afford to stay in its long-time home? What can we expect of even more public-private partnerships that transfer public property to the private sector, relocating to inferior spaces on property that was once theirs in exchange for a one-time windfall?”

While my friend Ron was there as the aptly titled  book, all that’s solid melts into air, written by CUNY luminary Marshall Berman.  The book recalls the devastating implications of developer generated plans on New York's streets and very consciousness.   Ron was one of many, including friends from Billionaires for Bush, Occupy Wall Street, Lower East Side Collective, Committee to Save the Public Library, and Lower East Side Collective, joining us.  

 Peddling their lines, the billionaires were the most vociferous.   

“I think we can all agree that what the average New Yorker needs is another block of luxury condos that they can't afford to live in, not a library that serves everyone equally,” noted a billionaire dubbing herself Ivory Leagy.   “If we can get our hands on the libraries, just think of the possibilities for future acquisition.  I've always loved the Statue of Liberty--why not put it up for sale to the highest bidder?  America's huddled billionaires are yearning to breathe free! If I can afford it, I should be able to build myself a luxury penthouse in the crown...That's the American way, isn't it?”

For the billionaires, libraries are creeping socialism.  “Did you know that anyone who lives in New York can become a "member" of the public library for FREE?”  Ivy Leagey continued.  “This is an affront to anyone who supports uncontrolled capitalism.  Sending these books to New Jersey is a first step towards ending dependence on free book loans.  What are we teaching little Sally when we allow her to "check out" a book for free?  That knowledge is free and should be shared?  Balderdash!”

“I don’t want to go to New Jersey, I moaned, shuddering in the cold with a placard featuring the cover of the 1962  edition of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird.  A symbol of a struggle against the ignorance of the Jim Crow era South and the struggle to create something better, one case at a time, the book is represents solidarity in a social struggle. “I wanted you to see what real courage is,” Atticus explains to his son after he took care of an aging friend who had just passed in the novel.  Yet, she kept going, even when she knew her illness was taking over.  “[I]stead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  Its when you know that you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway.  And you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win but sometimes you do.”  And there is certainly a guarantee to lose if you do not try to fight.  Hopefully, the struggle for the libraries is not such a fight.  But it might be.

“Could we maybe just go back home and out of the cold?” I asked one billionaire on hand, who was escorting the books out into the cold away from the library steps.

Billionaires and books.
Photo by Alex Vitale

 “NYPL wants to sell off the Mid-Manhattan Library, one of the country's busiest and most popular library branches?” I explained to another passer-by.  “A luxury tower would go up where these books once lived.  Plus, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” I implored, noting the moral of the book I was dressed as.    

“Luxury Housing is a Right,” the billionaire plutocrat chimed in. “If people want books, they should just buy their own. Or I'll tell you what-- it's the holidays season, so I'll buy everyone here the book of their choice if they'll just stop all this fuss about preserving the library. How's that sound? You get a book, I get a luxury condo: it's a win/win.”

I don’t want your blood money, I retorted, rejecting his offer.

I have a book for you, he continued.  Fahrenheit $451 million.

While the street theater was staged, the plans for the library are real.  Today, the New York Public Library is in peril.

“Real estate should not be driving decisions about the New York Public Library,” another library lover explained to a reporter. “This plan would take the busiest branch in New York City and replace it with a shadow of itself. Libraries have tight budgets everywhere.  They cannot start seeing their real estate as capital to see.   We have to draw a line.”

Some reporters seemed skeptical of our argument, seemingly defending the move and logic of austerity propelling it. 

“That’s short sighted thinking,” I noted.  “New York needs these resources.  They bring us social and economic development.  The point to our past and future.  We have to reject the claim that the city cannot afford these resources.  This should not be book of laughter and forgetting," I concluded, referring to the Kundera novel of censorship in Eastern Europe I was now dressed as. “I hope New York is not forgetting, its past or selling out its future with this short sighted plan.” 

“What do you think of the public library’s plan to move some of the books into a storage area under Bryant Park?”

The original plan was to ship all of the 3 to 3.5 million books in the 42nd Street stacks to NJ,” another
 libray lover interjected, quoting from the "NEGATIVE IMPACTS ON THE RESEARCH 
COLLECTIOS" section of the CSNYPL fact sheet.  “After all the protests when the plan was first released, the NYPL announced in the summer of 2012 that it would build additional storage for 1.5 million books 
under Bryant Park.  This is obviously an improvement over the original plan, but it still means that over half of the books in the stacks will go to NJ - somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million books.”
“Libraries are more than books, these are public commons, community spaces where people of all walks of life share their experiences,” I followed.  “These are community spaces where people of all generations and backgrounds teach and are taught. Old people come for air conditioning.  That’s a New York tradition. These are also spaces for exploration.  It is not the books one is searching for.  It is the book to the left and right that you stumble upon or that the librarian suggested or you found that you are looking for.   These are spaces for more than entertainment; they help us expand, who we are, while enriching our cities cultural capital.”

Some of the Lovers passed out flyers declaring:

Real-Estate Interests Shouldn’t Drive Library Policy.

The New York Public Library is in peril. Plans are afoot to exile much of its legendary research holdings to storage in New Jersey.

Why? So the nearby Mid-Manhattan Branch, one of the country’s busiest libraries, can be sold to billionaire real-estate developers and replaced with a luxury tower. A much smaller Mid-Manhattan library would then be crammed into the space made available by evicting the research collection from the legendary research stacks.

“We don’t want to go to Jersey!” cry the books, as they are chased from the library by rich developers. “This plan would take the busiest branch in New York City and replace it with a shadow of itself. Libraries everywhere have tight budgets, but if you sell them off now, they are gone forever.”

Speak up for the libraries you love!

This Books Not Billionaires Flash Mob brought to you by
Library Lovers League
Twitter @LibraryLoversNY

Looking forward to 2014, the Library Lovers hope to stop this crazy, developer driven “renovation”, beating back the transformation of New York’s cultural history. To this end, we look to Mayor elect Bill DeBlasio, to halt this plan.   He said he would do so on the campaign.

 “I am calling on the City to halt the New York Public Library’s plans at the Central Library, and for a thorough, independent cost audit and review of the proposed project…” he explained. “This review should evaluate the complete financial risks associated with the current plan, and seriously consider alternative ways to use City funds to ensure the preservation of the NYPL’s valuable collection stored at the Central Library and preserve the Mid-Manhattan branch as a functioning library.”

As of today, Library Lovers League via Susan Bernofsky, that  Bill de Blasio has already removed from YouTube the video of himself railing against the gut renovation of the NYPL stacks area; fortunately the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries snagged the video for their own video channel before it was too late.

 Thank you to the Interface Archive, the Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, the Billionaires for Bush, the Committee to Save the NYPL, and other supports of books not billionaires. 

Diane Green Lent. 

No comments:

Post a Comment