Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson, Now Poised To Additionally Become Head of Brooklyn Historical Society, Says “Following The Money [The Othmer Funds] Convinced Us History Is Too Precious To Be In The Hands Of Those Not Writing It.”

Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson is poised to take on new responsibilities holding her position as BPL head.  It will occur with a merger that will make the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights a junior subcomponent of the Brooklyn Public Library, which will now assume the role of the “parent institute” of the Historical Society.  This combination was announced by the BPL’s press release, February 27, 2020.

As the plans are solidifying, Ms. Johnson sat down in an interview to describe how the merger plan had come about, and why these plans will be good the BPL’s overall plans and partnership expansions and why it will be good for the history that people will remember.  “Our eye first landed on the Brooklyn Historical Society as an institution that we should attend more to when we were making plans for the consolidating shrinkage plans involving the shrink-and-sink sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library across the street and a few yards down” said Ms. Johnson.  The Brooklyn Heights Library was being replaced by a luxury tower as a result of the real estate deal that Ms. Johnson steered through the BPL.  It was once Brooklyn’s second biggest library, the Business, Career and Education Library and a federal depository library to boot.

Ms. Johnson said that when the BPL was selling that library it needed a small temporary library to replace it for a time until a planned reduced size library could be built under the luxury tower that was planned.  “We considered putting the small temporary library in the Brooklyn Historical Society,” said Ms. Johnson, “we actually talked to them about that.”  Johnson pointed out that the Brooklyn Historical Society is a library itself, which she said might have allowed them to argue the temporary arrangement involved a bigger aggregate book count.  Johnson pointed out that consolidating shrinkages like what the BPL was doing with the real estate deal sale of the Brooklyn Heights library, with its theoretically sending books and functions to the Grand Army Plaza BPL library, didn’t have to involve just an institutional consolidation of BPL or NYC libraries, like with the New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan.

“These consolidating shrinkages can also be inter-institutional,” said Ms. Johnson.  “That’s what we would have had if we had used Brooklyn Historical Society space for the interim library, and it is the kind of thing we are doing where we are moving the Brower Park Library into the Prospect Heights Children’s Museum to reduce the museum’s previously expanded space,” said Ms. Johnson.

Ms. Johnson, smiled, very pleased with herself, as she then got to the subject of the Othmer money, funds left to Brooklyn institutions by a quiet unassuming Brooklyn couple nobody knew had become superwealthy after they invested with their friend Warren Buffett.  Said Ms. Johnson:
We were talking to the Historical Society about these possibilities back when we were making plans in 2013.  Given the timing, we were almost forced to notice then, due to certain commonalities, something else we needed to think about.  The Historical Society was one of the institutions that was among those Brooklyn institutions famously benefitting, receiving millions of dollars, from the surprise bequests of Donald and Mildred Othmer.  2013 was also the mayoral election year when another such institution benefitting from such Othmer bequests was being shutdown: Long Island College Hospital.  With gifts during their lives and then thereafter from the wills of the two Othmers, Long Island Collage Hospital received a phenomenal endowment from the Othmers, more than $135 million.

It would have been impossible to reach that money and make better use of it- so the hospital could be turned into real estate transactions- were it not for that fact that Long Island College Hospital was convinced to merge with a series of other health institutions, first with Continuum Health Partners and then with SUNY Downstate Medical Center.  It involved intricate dealings, but this allowed the endowment funds to be posted as security, something the New York State Attorney General’s office was convinced to pre-approve, (as if they didn’t see what was coming), and
Voilà . . .   
“Real estate deals and no money sitting around going to waste in troublesome ways that might pull towards different priorities!” emphasized David Woloch a Brooklyn Public Library executive vice president and spokesperson who had joined Ms. Johnson to help her with her interview.  “Activists were actually helping to make sure that we didn’t let the connection go unnoticed,” said Mr. Woloch, “because the activists were pointing out the similarity of how libraries and hospitals were both public assets similarly up for sale.”

Ms. Johnson said that money that came into various Brooklyn institutions from the Othmers pre-9/11, in the later 1990s was almost totally unforeseen.  “It came out of nowhere,” said Ms. Johnson, “it was something of a `money bomb.’”   “And when a bomb hits your house throwing things into disarray,” said Ms. Johnson, “you want to do some cleaning up and vacuuming.”  The good thing though said Ms. Johnson is that, while the money came in unexpectedly, it has been a useful tool, a tracer, to spotlight institutions that might need “independence adjustments.”  “That’s certainly true with Historical Society,” which deals with “history,” which is “precious.”
Johnson mentioned that when David C. Chang, Polytechnic's president, learned that his engineering school was going to receive more than $175 million- nearly $200 million- from the Othmers he said: “We start from being one of the have-nots and go to being one of the very well-endowed schools.”  The blare of that unusual Brooklyn brightness has since been somewhat adjusted via Polytechnic's subsequent merger celebrated in 2014 with Manhattan-based NYU.

Ms. Johnson also described how things were faring at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, another institution given money from the $750 million estate of a Brooklyn Heights Othmer couple.  And she explained that people should watch for new connections between the BPL and the garden.

Ms. Johnson that, despite the infusion of the Othmer funds, the Botanic Garden’s basic trajectory, including shorter hours, higher user fees and its increasingly privatized closures for fashionable weddings (the BPL also advertises its spaces for fashionable weddings).  She noted that the Botantic Garden had been able to sell off its science research building that was on its outside perimeter.  At the same time, Ms. Johnson said that it is important that the Botantic Garden board has behaved in an amendable and basically welcoming way to the towers and proposed development that, with zoning change reversal, will be set up along its borders blocking sunlight.

Ms. Johnson noted that the BPL will be implementing a plan that gets “gets Oohs and Ahs” connecting the BPL’s Grand Army Plaza central library to the shadier and more pleasant Botantic Garden space.  The GAP library “will connect with Mount Prospect Park to create a Central Brooklyn green campus that includes the library, park and Botanical Gardens.”  Mount Prospect Park is a public park (with the second highest promontory in Brooklyn) which sits between the library and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  BPL's plan involves altering space within the library “dramatically opening up the exterior of the library” to facilitate a new restaurant space within the library building that would unfold to include outdoor café space in the park. 

“All in all,” said Ms. Johnson, “I think the infusions of the Othmer money to the institutions in Brooklyn have met the kind of response they deserve.”  Ms. Johnson acknowledged that not absolutely everyone agreed.  It’s known that Dr. Donald Othmer himself drafted much of the meticulous detail for the bequests in his own will and that of his wife Mildred’s.  Warren Buffett, the friend who handled their investments and made them wealthy told the Wall Street Journal, speaking about what happened with the depletion of the Othmers’ Long Island College Hospital endowment, that if the Othmer’s were alive, “I would think...they would feel betrayed.”
Johnson doesn’t see it that way:
We have something called the cy-près doctrine.  It’s a legal concept.  The concept basically recognizes how inappropriate, essentially impossible it is for dead people to rule from the grave.  The dead don’t know what is going to be what after they die.  Lots of things are going to be unexpected and unforeseen.  The cy-près doctrine dictates that instead of doing what dead people wanted, you should do what you know dead people would have wanted if they had known better.  For instance, do you think the library systems could ever be doing everything they are doing in terms of turning libraries into real estate deals, providing a venue for society weddings, exiling books, and cutting back to much shorter hours, if they had to do exactly what dead people who made the donations to set up the libraries wanted?
Johnson said this was an especially important concept when it came to how precious the possession of history is.  History, she maintains, is too far too precious not to be kept in the hands of those who are supposed to write it.  Ms. Johnson said that was why it was so important for the BPL and the Historical Society to combine into a single unit for historical record custody.  “The history of the last several decades is one that I am proud to be a part of,” said Ms. Johnson, “The overarching truth to that history is that it has been a history of the victories of privatization– I’ll remind you that it’s axiomatic that history is supposed to be written by the winners.”  Ms. Johnson said that as Churchill knew history is to be written by those that command the reins of power.  As Churchill is famously quoted: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Ms. Johnson said that it was relatively easy for the board of the BPL and the board of the Historical Society to reach agreement about the merger.  “We’re mostly all the same kind of people,” said Ms. Johnson, maybe there is one person on the BHS board who cares about the previous old fusty ideas that people used to promote about what history is, but basically, Ms. Johnson said the BHS board, like the BPL board, is a complement of the kind of people who know what needs to be written and preserved in terms of history: corporate lawyers (good at things like white collar defense for those charged with accounting fraud), mega-bankers and some real estate people.  “Nevertheless,” said Ms. Johnson, “we can improve through the merger and have better control; our BPL board composition is more refined and fine-tuned in terms of what it needs to be in ensuring everything reflects the private partnership goals and this to be respected.”

Ms. Johnson offered an example of what it means to be keeping things on track or not in terms of history that needs to be written.  Recently, Brooklyn For Peace donated its archives to the Historical Society,  over 25 linear feet of organizational records, event ephemera and recordings, and subject files dating back to 1983.  “This is the kind of history people want to write?” scoffed Johnson, Brooklyn For Peace has been around since 1983/1984— If history is supposed to be written by winners, how does that work?  We have more wars now than ever.  These people are real losers!  These space usurping records are prime candidates for culling.”
Similarly in the vein of what makes good historical fodder Ms. Johnson spoke of killing two Othmer birds with one stone: the BHS might also remove records that showed that there were once plans that the 500 beds of LICH were to have been used as a designated isolation hospital in the event of a pandemic.
Ms. Johnson said she could anticipate acquisition of the Historical Society would be a boon for all sorts of goals important to her.  She said the beautiful landmark building the BHS was in would be another great place for wedding and society events without her people eager to mingle at such events needing to Uber any further than Brooklyn Heights.  People would not have to go to Grand Army Plaza.  She noted that the New Times had already let the news out that the plan would start “with the eternal New York City preoccupation” of managing all the real estate dollars that could be involved.  Ms. Johnson noted how, in connection with the revealed merger, the BPL has pronounced itself to be “on a space grab,” but that the BPL had not yet decided to characterize this as actual space growth or part of its demonstration of its flexibility exercises allowing it to jettison space.  Mr. Woloch opined that the BPL could always go back and forth on these characterizations; that there was no need lock itself in respecting these things.  He noted that the BHS space might, for certain purposes and at certain times, be nominally cited as an ancillary part of the library space to be tucked nearby David Kramer’s luxury build replacing the Business, Career and Education library.

As Brownstoner notes, important to the “timeline for the merger,” will be necessary that the BPL and BHS are currently having discussions “with the City of New York regarding funding necessary for combining the institutions.”  This is obviously important with respect to Othmer endowment funds has BHS converts into joining the city’s family of libraries and its tradition of creatively underfunding them.

Ms. Johnson said that there would be no “sweeping changes,” respecting the BHS mission, but that she was particularly eager to take on and engage in a “rebranding” for the BHS with a new “less  fusty-sounding” name to proclaim the BPL’s ambition for everyone to understand that the institution would be democratically opened up.  “It used to be even more fusty-sounding,” said Ms. Johnson, “The Long Island Historical Society.” Ms. Johnson said, “when we took the Business and Career Library out of Brooklyn’s downtown, we updated the name; we now call it a `center,’ the `Business Career Center’; we dropped the fusty-sounding `L-word.”  Johnson said “center” sounded modern and distinguished it from the “Commons,” the “Leon Levy Information Commons” that it is above and from which it will be otherwise indistinguishable.

Johnson said the “rebranding” should also make use of some more of the naming rights that the private partnership building the BPL has been engaged with allows, like the BPL’s partnering with the Nets and the Barclays Center celebrated at its last gala in May 2019 where the Nets and Barclay’s center were honored.  “If we put the name `Barclays’ on the landmark Brooklyn Heights building that rules out calling it another ‘center’; you can’t have two ‘Barclays Centers,’ in Brooklyn” said Johnson, “but we might call it something like the ‘Barclays Historical Information Outlet,’ then it would be distinguished and not fusty-sounding at all.”

Ms. Johnson said that she wanted to point out the overall pattern of convergences that she said the merger of the BHS into the BPL was just a one incidental part of: Libraries are also being subjected to consolidating shrinkages while the library is also essentially merging with private sector interests though its private-public partnerships.  She described the converging as going in the direction of a “supremacy singularity.”  Ms. Johnson proudly pointed out to how this convergence even extended to her own personal life and how she was now living in her own personal partnership with Forest City Ratner’s Bruce Ratner, a personal partnership that paralleled the BPL Barclays/Nets partnership.

Ms. Johnson opined that Bruce Ratner was a great man who had contributed mightily to the history of Brooklyn.  She said that people had actually called the struggle that Bruce Ratner’s won to bring Atlantic Yards and the Barclays Center to Brooklyn the second “Battle For Brooklyn.”  Ms. Johnson said there was too much Brooklyn history that the Brooklyn Historical Society had not covered adequately.  She said that this would start to be remedied in a year’s time when the merged BHS would mount a major exhibition of the writings that Churchill created about what a great man he was.  “It is time that people realized Churchill’s intimate connections with Brooklyn,” said Ms. Johnson.  His mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American, a Brooklynite born in 1854 just blocks away from the landmark BHS building, 197 Amity Street, in 1854.  She said the exhibit would be in two parts, the second part drawing parallels between Churchill as a great wartime leader and Bruce Ratner fighting to bring the future to Brooklyn. 

Ms. Johnson said that the exhibit was slated to open in a year, on the first of April 2021, which was why it was being announced today, April 1st 2020.
PS: The shrunk-and-sunk library space that will be in the David Kramer’s luxury building at the sight of the former Business, Career and Education Library is next to and part of the same zoning lot, real estate development parcel as Forest City Ratner’s One Pierrepont Plaza. The underground BPL library parts can connect to the underground Ratner building parts.  The BHS has its own underground parts that are just a few feet away underground from the Ratner building.  The Ratner organization has been excellently adept at acquiring, through political machinations, private ownership of public streets adjacent to its properties.  The Ratner organization is now looking at doing that for the street between it and the BHS building.  If it succeeds (and it may join the buildings with an underground tunnel), it would put the air and development rights to the BHS building in play as part of the Ratner development and zoning parcel.

1 comment:

dwinocour said...

Linda Johnson has no interest in preservation of historical institutions. Maybe she should consult with the owners of Grand Prospect Hall on how to make the BHS a better place for wedding receptions. Somebody put the brakes on this project.