Wednesday, February 20, 2013

If Our Besieged Libraries Could Speak For Themselves: Maybe They Do! A Petition And Efforts To Save New York’s Libraries From Developer Deals

Wall of Brooklyn Heights Library reading: All that come here to seek treasure will not take away gold but the seeker after truth and instruction will find that which will enrich the mind and heart
Breaking news!  The Brooklyn Public Library has announced that (like the New York Public Library system administrating such services in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island) it's got libraries to sell!. .

. . . the libraries for sale we have been officially informed about (at this time- there are more we haven't been told about) are the local branch library and Career and Business library in its Brooklyn Heights building on the border of Brooklyn’s Downtown Central Business District, and the Pacific branch library at Pacific Street and 4th Avenue just yards away from the new deeply subsidized “Barclays” arena.

These two Brooklyn library sites both happen to be next to what are now Forest City Ratner-owned properties (acquired with government assistance and no bids).   Through its spokesperson, the BPL has asserted, in absolute terms, that it envisions it may sell the library property to Forest City Ratner in what it would foresee to be a “public-private partnership,” notwithstanding that Forest City Ratner has notorious expertise in abusing such relationships that are actually better described as developer-driven private-public partnerships where the private developers take over and privately exercise government functions.

Not disqualifying and then actually going into such a partnership with Forest City Ratner, of all possible choices, would be a curious choice to initiate (and model) what the Brooklyn Public Library describes in its (top-down designed) strategic plan as the future program for all its real estate: The BPL: “will leverage its over one million square feet of real estate by launching partnerships . . .”

“Leverage” is a clever, banker-ish sounding term, used here to mean nothing more than “sell,” even if it strives for the promising ring of being something more.  That's because system libraries are owned by the city (not the BPL), which takes any money whenever property is sold off.  It can't be helped (see "fungibility").  For the last several years Mayor Bloomberg has established a pretty good record of withholding city funds from the libraries even as usage is way up.  Some would say Bloomberg just doesn’t care about libraries.  Others would say he consciously decided to starve the system into submission, the kind that forces the sort of  “creative” thinking that results in sale of library real estate and shrinkage.

Chart from Center From Urban Future report showing sharp decline in funding against escalating use.   That bump in funding? Read on.
Those suspecting the latter would be inclined to observe (see chart) how the decline of city funding for libraries coincided with the adoption of the strategic plan to "leverage/sell" them even while usage was going way up.  In other words, a strategy of "demolition by neglect" with library system officials racing to allege that buildings are more deteriorated than is really true.  The greatest shame of such a plan is that it, even if it shakes loose a few real estate deals, maybe a few every year, it is a travesty to continually drive all libraries and the entire system into the ground financially.

If library real estate gets sold, some juicy real estate deals can get handed out to the always influential real estate industry, with profits that can be particularly sweet if those deals are handed out in the form of developer-driven private-public partnerships that preclude effective competitive bids to protect the public.           

The lure of sweet deals. . . Can libraries protect themselves?

If they could, they would no doubt do so with words.

There is something about the physicalization of words.  We associate it with libraries.

Libraries are not places like a politician’s rally where spoken words just wash over us, soon to disappear into the ether of broken and forgotten promises.  Words exist solidly in libraries with a sense of permanence and history.

We also associate the physicality of words with magic, with faith, commitment and with binding moral oaths, like the phylacteries worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers, containing parchment with verses from the Torah, or the carefully phrased inscriptions inside rings and lockets, the Bibles we swear upon before delivering legal testimony in court. . . . In much the same way we often inscribe our buildings with words, much as if those carved words will serve as talismans consecrating our hopes of how a space, a place or building will be used.

The Brooklyn Heights library, now so greedily eyed for a lucrative developer partnership that would shrink it, is inscribed (see picture above) with a pointed warning that seems as if it was presciently worded to ward off any ill-motivated real estate developer with the building in its sights:
All that come here to seek treasure will not take away gold but the seeker after truth and instruction will find that which will enrich the mind and heart
Foreground: The lion Patience , of Patience and Fortitude fame, in front of 42nd Street Research Library whose research stacks will be sacrificed.  Background:  Mid-Manhattan Library that will be sold in system shrinkage plans
In Manhattan, the Central Library Plan involving a consolidating shrinkage and sell-off of important Manhattan libraries is further along than the plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights libraries into a developer-driven private-public partnership.  Two of the four Manhattan libraries involved in that (never fully publicly revealed or discussed ) plan for consolidation, shrinkage and library real estate sell-off are the library's landmark main building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.and the Mid-Manhattan circulation and branch library across Fifth Avenue. . .

. . .As it so happens those libraries too might gain protection from the aspirational physical words surrounding them, so much so that a petition (now with more than 7000 signatures in less than two weeks) incorporates some of those words in making its case to protect the libraries:
“The knowledge of different literature frees one from the tyranny of a few”
          -Jose Marti
The quote is just one of many on a series of plaques on 41st Street’s Library Walk (the local street sign proclaims the street to be “Library Way”) that leads to the libraries from the east.

The library petition (click on link to go to the page where you can sign) is:
I should disclose that the petition was posted by wife when she became passionate about doing something about these library sales after attending the meeting where plans to sell off the Brooklyn Heights library site were described to the community for the first time.

There are many other plaques along Library Walk, including multiple others with quotes that are similarly appropriate in defending the value of libraries and providing the reasons they should be spared and protected from this attack by those who put other interests ahead of them.  (Click to enlarge any image below- And there is more of this article following the quotes and images.)
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
    Henry David Thoreau

“Information is light.  Information, itself, about anything, is light.”
    Tom Stoppard (Night and Day)
“Where the press is free and everyman able to read, all is safe.”
    Thomas Jefferson
“I want everyone to be smart.  As smart as they can be.   A world of ignorant people is just too dangerous to live in.”
    Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday)
“There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say,
On my heartstrings freedom sings
All day every day.

There are words like Liberty
That almost makes me cry,
If you had known what I know
You would know why.”
    Langston Hughes
“Truth exists. Only falsehood has to be invented.”
    George Braque
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
    Virginia Woolf
“...the reading of good books is like a conversation with the best men of past centuries—“
    René Descartes

“In the reading room in the New York Public Library
All sorts of souls were bent over silence reading the past,
Or the present, or maybe it was the future, patrons
Devoted to silence and the flowering of the imagination...”
    Richard Eberhart, (“Reading Room: The New York Public Library”)

Plaques like this are at the end and the beginning of Library Walk
Another brass insert into the sidewalk of Library Walk, a notice defending the line between private and public property, in this case for the private property owner's sake.
Just in case the libraries can’t actually speak with sufficient eloquence on their own behalf in this fashion, there are others have been speaking up for them.

Ada Louise Huxtable, famously the first architectural critic for the New York Times for whom that job was created, and Michael Kimmelman, who holds that Times position now, both wrote excoriations of the Central Library plan.   It was Ada Lousie Huxtable’s very last column, written for the Wall Street Journal, just weeks before her death:
•    Wall Street Journal: Undertaking Its Destruction, by Ada Louise Huxtable, December 3, 2012.
“There is no more important landmark building in New York than the New York Public Library, known to New Yorkers simply as the 42nd Street Library, one of the world's greatest research institutions. Completed in 1911 . . . . it is an architectural masterpiece. Yet it is about to undertake its own destruction. The library is on a fast track to demolish the seven floors of stacks just below the magnificent, two-block-long Rose Reading Room for a $300 million restructuring referred to as the Central Library Plan.”
•    New York Times: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.
“this potential Alamo of engineering, architecture and finance would be irresponsible. . . a not-uncommon phenomenon among cultural boards, a form of architectural Stockholm syndrome.”
There is another separate petition (currently over 1300 signatures) by the Committee to Save the New York Public Library that has been up for some time that specifically opposes the Central Library Plan against which Huxtable and Kimmelman directed ire:

    Anthony W. Marx: Reconsider the $350 million plan to remake NYC's landmark central library

A new Center For An Urban Future report just out this January makes clear how usage of the city’s libraries is way up even as they are being defunded and having to keep shorter hours.
•    Center For An Urban Future:  Report - Branches of Opportunity, by David Giles, January 2013
[Libraries] “have experienced a 40 percent spike in the number of people attending programs and a 59 percent increase in circulation over the past decade”
The report, which eloquently describes in detail why New Yorkers are flocking to libraries, tells us that despite cutbacks “New York’s three systems all experienced higher program attendance levels than any other system except Toronto.”   It also tells us that we fund our libraries at a level where we keep our libraries open less than Detroit- Detroit is nearly bankrupt; we are a wealthy, growing city.
Chart from the Independent Budget Office- Adjustments for inflation (per the Urban Future report) show downturn in starkest relief.  The 2009 bump?  Keep reading
The New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) pointed out how underfunding by Mayor Bloomberg is jeopardizing the system’s libraries.
•    New York City Independent Budget Office:  Funding Cuts Could Shelve Many Library Branches, by Kate Maher and Doug Turetsky, April 13, 2011 
“The funding fall-off is already taking a toll on the city’s three library systems, particularly the systems in Brooklyn and Queens.” . . .“more than three dozen branch libraries may be closed.”
The IBO warned that Mayor Bloomberg was on a course to bring the already waning city funding for New York’s three library systems to its “lowest level since the 1990s.”

Aside from the kudos Bloomberg may get from real estate developer friends, our powerful mayor has struck out on a lonely course in his agenda to defund the libraries: The IBO pointed out that the city’s 59 community boards ranked library services their “third highest budget concern” (rising up from number seven in the face of the Bloomberg cuts and “Brooklyn’s community boards ranked libraries their top priority.”

The bump up in that graph?  Remember that 2009 was a city election year. . . In fact, 2009 was that same election year when Bloomberg spent more than $105 million of his personal funds in direct campaign expenditures to overturn City Charter term limits and run for his third term as mayor.  (That’s not to mention more than a half billion Bloomberg spent from his personal fortune to exert his influence and win the election in other ways.)  Both the mayor and City Council members were running for new and extended terms in that election.

Libraries are not expensive either in absolute terms or relative to other things or their substantial benefit to communities.  Information coming from The Albert Shanker Institute about libraries across the U.S. makes this clear.
•    The Albert Shanker Institute:  The High Cost Of Closing Public Libraries, by Matthew Di Carlo, April 18, 2011
In fiscal year 2008 (again, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), there were roughly 9,300 public libraries in the U.S., with a total cost of around 10.7 billion dollars. That figure represents roughly 0.4 percent – four tenths of one percent – of all state and local government expenditures. On a per capita basis, this is about 35 dollars per person.
Look at the figures in the Center For An Urban Future report: $274 million for operations?  That’s far less than Bloomberg gave out of his personal funds to Johns Hopkins in January.  Overall, he has now given $1.1 billion to Johns Hopkins as of this year.

That Shanker Institute article also makes the point that state- and local-level analyses “have found that for every dollar we spent on public libraries, the public realizes about 3-5 dollars in benefits.”

NYC’s budget is over $50 billion a year.  The Donnell Library one-shot sale, with all its disruptions to the system and the community, grossed only $67.4 million in July 2011 (for which you don’t see a bump up in spending).  As a percentage of the city’s budget that involves decimal places of a single percentage point (.235%).

From the Center For an Urban Future Report: More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined.  But we are subsidizing those other institutions, (including glaring examples like Yankee Stadium and the “Barclays” arena) much more deeply!

To sum up and to restate the reason for the petition to save the libraries, ensuring that libraries be properly funded rather than sold off for development:
Mayor Bloomberg is defunding New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity.  It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.
Once again, here is that petition you can sign:
Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction 

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