How Citizen Action Saved the New York Public Library

How Citizen Action Saved the New York Public Library

How Citizen Action Saved the New York Public Library

Grassroots activists thwarted a costly and destructive renovation scheme—but the NYPL still lacks effective governance.


One morning in the spring of 2010, while standing in line in the New York Public Library’s majestic Rose Reading Room, I was approached by a middle-aged librarian, a man I had known for years; we had common interests and would frequently chat while he was on duty. He read The Nation and knew I wrote for it. On this particular morning, he leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Our trustees are planning to sell the library across the street”—by which he meant the Mid-Manhattan Library, a decrepit facility on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. “It stinks,” he continued. “You should look into it.”

I was busy with other projects and let his tip go. But a year later, I received an assignment from this magazine to profile Anthony Marx, the New York Public Library’s incoming president. Early in my research, I quickly grasped what the librarian had tried to tell me a year earlier: The NYPL’s leadership—aided by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton—had conceived a wildly ambitious transformation plan. The grand library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue would undergo a massive renovation in which 3 million books would be removed from the historic stacks in the center of the building and sent to an off-site storage facility; the stacks would then be demolished, and a new, modern library (designed by the celebrated British architect Norman Foster) would be built in the space that, for a century, had held the books. Foster would create a library within a library, one that carried a heavy price tag: $300 million. To pay for this Central Library Plan (CLP), two nearby libraries that occupied prime real estate—the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library on 34th Street and Madison Avenue—would be sold. In a soaring Manhattan real-estate market, the NYPL (which is the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Ex Libris) would not be excluded from its share of the spoils.

But the CLP was a castle in the sky, developed—in absolute secrecy—in the heady, freewheeling years before the crash of 2008, when many American libraries and museums were hastily expanding their facilities. The NYPL, whose finances have been precarious since the late 1950s, had virtually no money of its own to invest in this real-estate and construction scheme; moreover, the sale of the two midtown libraries would not generate enough funds to cover the cost of the $300 million renovation project at 42nd Street. Taxpayer money would be required, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was ready to give it: $150 million in city funds. The library’s most powerful trustee, Stephen Schwarzman—chairman of the investment firm Blackstone, and now an adviser to President Trump—was also firmly committed to Foster’s renovation and was prepared to help pay for it.

When the public learned about a plan that Sam Roberts, the urban-affairs correspondent for The New York Times, called “radical,” dismay and fury ensued. Two thousand scholars and writers signed a petition urging its cancellation; two prominent architecture critics (the late Ada Louise Huxtable of The Wall Street Journal and Michael Kimmelman of the Times) published devastating critiques; and a small but determined group of activists began to coalesce, with the aim of saving both the 42nd Street and Mid-Manhattan libraries.

These citizens—bookworms, retired librarians, grassroots organizers, historic preservationists—worked indefatigably for nearly two years. They used innovative protest tactics and built a wide-ranging coalition against the NYPL. They also convinced Bill de Blasio, then campaigning for mayor, to oppose the CLP. When de Blasio took office, he honored his campaign promise and told the NYPL that it could not sell the Mid-Manhattan Library; he also put a stop to Foster’s plan for the 42nd Street building.

Days later, the NYPL admitted that its estimate of $300 million for Foster’s renovation was far too low. The real price tag was $500 million—a sum, according to library staff members, that might have bankrupted the fragile NYPL, which operates nearly 100 branch libraries in the city, many of them in need of extensive repairs. The aborted CLP had cost the library, by its estimate, $18 million; my own estimate is much higher. Foster kept $9 million for a renovation that was never undertaken.

A calamity was averted: The activists and Mayor de Blasio had saved one of the world’s greatest libraries. I narrated these events in my 2015 book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library.

Three and a half years after de Blasio’s intervention, and two years after the publication of my book, there are reasons for both optimism and concern about the overall direction of the NYPL.

The damage wrought by the CLP is strikingly evident on 53rd Street. Here, across from the Museum of Modern Art, at the base of a luxury hotel and apartment complex, is a new NYPL facility—compact, modern, soulless, cramped. For more than five decades, this was the site of the Donnell Library, adored by generations of New Yorkers for its wide-ranging collections, its congeniality, its quirkiness, and its community spirit. In 2007, during the first salvo of the CLP—undertaken four years before the full details of the plan were revealed—then–NYPL president Paul LeClerc sold the land beneath the Donnell to a hotel and travel company, Orient-Express Ltd. But the crash of 2008 wounded Orient-Express, and the Donnell Library sat empty for years. A new buyer, who was quick to see the property’s potential, was eventually found. The NYPL was paid $59 million for the land, just steps from MoMA. When the luxury tower was built, after the demolition of the Donnell, the penthouse apartment alone was advertised for $60 million, leading many observers to conclude that the NYPL had undersold the property.

The new library, which cost the NYPL $20 million to build, opened in June 2016. “Finally! After eight bookless years,” wrote Justin Davidson, the architecture critic for New York magazine, “53rd Street has its library back—if that’s the right word for a sleek but shrunken pit fitted out with bleachers, bar stools, and a megascreen, plus a smattering of circulating volumes.” Davidson’s conclusion: “Neither architects nor librarians shaped this branch; a real-estate deal did, one that reserved the cream of the square footage for the hotel and condo above, and sloughed off the leftovers on the public.”

Nicole Gelinas of City Journal, one of the few journalists in New York who monitors public libraries, was dismayed by the absence of natural light and the limited number of books on the premises: just 20,000, “a mere 7 percent of the previous holdings.” For Gelinas, the Donnell debacle is “one of the worst decisions made by a local public institution in decades.”

Following the CLP’s cancellation in 2014, the library’s leadership has been substantially altered. Despite a stormy tenure, Marx remains as president, but two key internal strategists for the plan have departed. The Manhattan real-estate developer Marshall Rose, who did so much to conceive and execute the scheme, is no longer an active trustee; and David Offensend, the swaggering chief operating officer (and former investment banker) who was Rose’s principal staff collaborator, quietly resigned in early 2014, just as the controversy over the Foster plan was reaching its crescendo. Offensend’s replacement was Iris Weinshall, a former high-ranking administrator at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer.

A shrewd move by Marx and the trustees was the hiring of William Kelly, a literary scholar and former interim chancellor of CUNY, as the director of the research division in late 2015. Kelly is now the NYPL’s liaison to its critics, who have welcomed his arrival. Says the historian David Nasaw, who was a plaintiff in a lawsuit to halt the CLP: “Kelly has highlighted the importance of the research collections—and their maintenance, expansion, and accessibility—to the NYPL’s mission and, I think, convinced many of the trustees of his point of view.” (Some trustees view the research division as a money pit.) Kelly invited two vocal critics, the historian Joan Scott—who, with the Princeton historian Stanley Katz, ignited the NYPL wars with an online petition in 2012—and the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Annalyn Swan, to join a research advisory council devoted to the needs of writers and scholars. Scott and Swan have found Kelly a capable, open-minded interlocutor. “His appointment was one of our victories,” says Scott. “Of that I’m sure.”

The retention of the mid-Manhattan Library was a major victory for the critics, and a triumph for all New Yorkers who value public space in the heart of Manhattan. In late 2016, the library’s trustees approved a $200 million renovation plan for that decaying facility. Marx, who from 2011 to 2014 labored tirelessly to sell the Mid-Manhattan Library to real-estate developers, did a somersault and is now the principal booster for its new iteration: “We can finally give New York the central branch library it deserves,” he told The New York Times in November 2016. He promised to retain its substantial book collection, while also providing meeting spaces, a cafe, and a rooftop terrace. It will be, in his words, the “largest renovation” in the NYPL’s history; construction will begin soon. (When the Mid-Manhattan reopens in 2020, it will be renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library.)

Following a difficult period, the 42nd Street Library has been revitalized. I left the United States in 2014, a few weeks after finishing the reporting for Patience and Fortitude. On a visit this past April, I found the building humming with energy: The Rose Reading Room, closed for two and a half years’ worth of ceiling repairs, looked magnificent; small rooms that were vacant from 2011 to 2014 had become quiet study areas; attractive new signage was added; the sleepy Periodicals Room had been enlivened; and the exhibitions on display (“Latin America in Photographs,” “Love in Venice”) were captivating. Even the restrooms were clean, properly maintained, and well lit.

Still, troubles remain at 42nd Street. Says Charles Warren, the president of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (CSNYPL), whose members recently spearheaded a successful grassroots campaign to landmark the Rose Reading Room: “The real problem there is invisible. It is the uncertainty and delay in the delivery of books. Lately, this has improved some, and I know there are real efforts being made to address the problem, but it persists.” Marx, to his credit, has greatly expanded the space for books beneath Bryant Park, which has a capacious underground storage facility, but actually retrieving a volume from the NYPL’s collection can be a time-consuming, mystifying ordeal, as many researchers can attest.

Much of the drama surrounding Foster’s abandoned renovation plan concerned the fate of the old stacks at 42nd Street. When the CLP was canceled in 2014, Marx announced that the space would remain empty, prompting the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Levering Lewis to remark to The Wall Street Journal: “Stacks without books. Isn’t this pretty Kafkaesque?” But lately the NYPL, to a very limited extent, has been using the stacks to house books and other materials from the Mid-Manhattan Library, as staff members prepare that building for its overhaul.

A few months ago, City Councilman Daniel Garodnick questioned Marx about the future of the stacks at 42nd Street. Marx replied: “We have not ruled out any uses and will soon begin a process to examine several possibilities.” For some of the critics, it’s not a lost cause. “The stacks are still mostly empty,” says Nasaw. “But, though I have no concrete evidence, I don’t think this will be the case forever. This piece of midtown real estate is too valuable to stay empty.”

The NYPL has stepped up its efforts to renovate the branch libraries in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. (Brooklyn and Queens have their own library systems.) Marx has raised money to that end, and the de Blasio administration has allocated more resources than the previous mayor did. An NYPL spokesman told me that the library is working assiduously to rebuild and renovate facilities in “high-needs” neighborhoods: Hunts Point in the Bronx, and Port Richmond on Staten Island.

One afternoon in April, I went to see a few neighborhood libraries in Manhattan, starting with the Washington Heights branch on West 160th Street. I had visited this library with Marx in 2011; at that time, the entire facility was lackluster, and I was surprised to find, on the top floor, a large vacant apartment full of cobwebs, dust, and debris. In the first half of the 20th century, a custodian had lived there with his family, but the money was never found to renovate it. The apartment had been empty for half a century—wasted space above a bustling library in a densely populated neighborhood.

Today, the library has been transformed by a gut renovation. There’s a gleaming new elevator, new restrooms, comfortable seating areas, and a modest but well-chosen collection of books. There were six computers in 2011; now there are 72. Most strikingly, the old custodian’s apartment is now a bright and airy young-adult room, with attractive blue-and-gray carpeting, plenty of books on sturdy shelves, and new furniture.

My next stop was the Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side, which, for a long time, was a gloomy and dilapidated place. But here, too, change is apparent: I noticed new computers and work spaces, a tidy public-meeting room in the basement, and a wide selection of magazines, journals, and newspapers. Every seat was occupied. This library is also thriving.

My final destination was the Tompkins Square Library on East 10th Street. It was a joyless visit. The -building—which evokes the 1970s, when the NYPL nearly went bankrupt—feels cramped, neglected, and forgotten. I was struck by the frayed, dismal black carpet and the shabby tables and chairs. The lighting is poor, which makes reading difficult, and with only three desktop computers, the Tompkins Square Library can hardly meet the needs of the digital age. Staff members told me that conditions at the NYPL’s branch libraries in the Bronx are far worse. Some lack proper heat in winter.

Apropos of transparency at the NYPL, there has been some movement in the right direction. Weinshall, the current chief operating officer, is less enamored of secrecy than was her predecessor. Under pressure from library activists, Weinshall released to the public, in early 2016, a trove of planning documents pertaining to the renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library. (She declined to be interviewed for this article.)

A revealing case study of the NYPL’s post-CLP openness concerns the Inwood branch in Upper Manhattan, where a controversy is under way. The de Blasio administration, the NYPL, and the Robin Hood Foundation—“Wall Street’s favorite charity,” according to philanthropy expert David Callahan—have quietly forged a plan to demolish the library, after which a developer will erect a new tower in its place. A new library will be built on the ground floor, beneath units of affordable housing. But activists are skeptical. Says Jeffrey Wollock, a historian and longtime Inwood resident, “The process has been undemocratic, unduly rushed and pressurized, misleading and vague, with no consideration of possible alternatives.”

The NYPL needs effective government regulation, but oversight seems unlikely. Shortly after the CLP was canceled, in May 2014, top city officials had an opportunity to appoint astute, sharp-eyed watchdogs to the library’s board of trustees, but they failed to do so. The mayor, the comptroller, and the speaker of the City Council are ex-officio trustees, and each appoints a representative to the board. (Mayor Bloomberg had appointed his sister, Marjorie Tiven.) The comptroller, Scott Stringer, and the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, appointed weak, undistinguished representatives. Mayor de Blasio, who decisively halted the CLP, allowed his appointment to go unfilled for three and a half years; such are the vagaries of political power. Finally, in May of this year, de Blasio selected Jill Bright, who spent most of her career as an executive at Condé Nast. (Bright also declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The message is dishearteningly clear: Despite the fiascoes and failures at the NYPL between 2007 and 2014, the political leadership of New York City is allowing the library, which is partly funded by taxpayers, to regulate itself.

If the city won’t provide adequate oversight of the NYPL, then citizens will have to do it themselves. It won’t be a short-term project, nor will it be effortless. “The promise of greater openness in this institution,” says the CSNYPL’s Warren, “runs counter to a deeply embedded corporate culture.” I asked Princeton’s Katz, a leader of the coalition to save the NYPL, to reflect on his activism. “The governance of the NYPL needs to be changed,” he told me, “but there is little chance that any significant change is being contemplated. It was incompetence and arrogance that created the CLP crisis, and the underlying circumstances which permitted that near-debacle have not been eliminated.”

But Katz is far from dispirited. “We saved the stacks for the moment; we preserved the primary function—research—for the 42nd Street building; and we got the renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library that we advocated for,” he says. “That is a lot, and it shows what citizen power can do, even in the New York City of the mega-wealthy. I feel good and proud every time I walk into the Rose Reading Room.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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