The Rescue of the New York Public Library

The Rescue of the New York Public Library

The Rescue of the New York Public Library

Activists—and The Nation—thwarted NYPL trustees’ harebrained plans and restored democracy to this vital public institution.


Look! Books! The Tired Old Mid-Manhattan Library Gets a Crisp New Identity.” This Curbed headline, for a glowing piece by Justin Davidson, referred to a new circulating library in central Manhattan, renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library. Davidson celebrated the light-filled atrium, elegant staircase, rooftop terrace, and innovative children’s area. A famously decrepit and malodorous building has been utterly transformed.

A reader of Davidson’s piece could be forgiven for thinking that the Stavros Niarchos, a major branch of the New York Public Library, resulted from an act of benevolence by the NYPL trustees. That is hardly the case. The new library, which cost $200 million and occupies 180,000 square feet, owes its existence to two and a half years of tenacious activism against the NYPL, whose trustees, from 2007 to 2014, were bent on selling the property, on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, to real estate developers.

How did one of the world’s greatest libraries get into the real estate business? It’s a sordid case study of how corporate logic has penetrated nonprofit institutions, including large, urban public library systems.

In 2007, on the advice of the corporate consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (which was paid $2.7 million), the NYPL trustees quietly enacted a radical plan entailing, in the words of its then-COO, the “monetizing of non-core assets.” This amounted to selling NYPL property in central Manhattan so that the library could profit from the city’s real estate boom. Three popular libraries would be sold: the beloved Donnell on 53rd Street, the Mid-Manhattan, and the relatively new Science, Industry, and Business Library on Madison Avenue.

The trustees knew they had embarked on a risky course of action, one that would arouse public rage, so they proceeded in absolute secrecy. According to the minutes of one crucial trustee meeting in 2007 (a document that I obtained for my 2015 book Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library), the chair of the NYPL board, Catherine Marron, “reminded all in attendance of the importance of maintaining confidentiality.”

The secrecy held for four years as the plan crept forward. The Donnell—admired for its ambience, wide-ranging book collection, and performance space—was sold for a pittance; it is now a lackluster library in the basement of a luxury tower. But the 2008 recession made it difficult for the trustees to sell NYPL property, and in 2011 The Nation reported the full details of the Central Library Plan, under which the three libraries would be sold and the main building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue would undergo a $300 million renovation entailing the demolition of its historic book stacks and the removal of 3 million books.

Two and a half years of controversy followed the Nation report. An indefatigable group of citizens came together to save the libraries—independent scholars, freelance writers, professors, architects, historic preservationists, bookworms, and retired librarians. Their strategy combined activism and persuasion. Among many other things, they picketed the trustee meetings and the library’s annual fund-raising dinner; they arranged for thousands of e-mails to be sent to elected officials in New York City; and they filed two lawsuits against the plan. Their shrewdness and determination paid off when they persuaded mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio in the summer of 2013 to oppose the ­NYPL’s plan, which he did at a noisy press conference on the steps of the 42nd Street Library. Alarmed by the energy of the activist campaign, NYPL president Tony Marx, at the height of the row that year, signed a $25,000 contract with a lobbying group to mobilize construction unions, Teamsters, and clergy on behalf of the trustees’ ambitions. It was doomed to fail. In May 2014, Mayor de Blasio honored his campaign promise and canceled the plan to sell the Mid-Manhattan and renovate the main building. Instead of selling the library at 40th and Fifth, Marx’s task would now be to repair it.

While the activists and the mayor had saved the Mid-Manhattan and halted the demolition of the core of the 42nd Street Library, much was still lost. Norman Foster, the architect hired to renovate the latter building, kept the $9 million he was paid for a project that was never undertaken. The NYPL admitted, when it was over, that it had squandered $18 million on its ill-fated plan, but the true figure is certainly much higher. It was an unconscionable waste of funds by a library system that is perennially underfunded and whose infrastructure and staffing needs are vast.

The NYPL wars of 2011–2014 were about saving the libraries and preserving the books on the shelves. When the trustees hatched their plan in 2007, they mistakenly assumed that e-books would replace actual books. That faith impelled them to hastily remove 3 million volumes from the 42nd Street facility; those books were never returned to the stacks under the Rose Reading Room. It is appropriate that the new Stavros Niarchos Library has 400,000 books.

But the NYPL wars were also about preserving democracy at the library. For much of its long history, the institution was democratic both in its internal structure and its relationship with the public. But under Paul LeClerc, who led it from 1993 to 2011, the library’s trustees behaved more like high-handed corporate executives than keepers of a public trust. When I reported on the NYPL story, a number of the wealthy and influential trustees who had executed the plan to sell the libraries—and who held elevated positions in banking and finance—refused to speak with me and would not even share their résumés. That behavior runs counter to the values of a great public library system.

The NYPL’s most influential trustee is Stephen Schwarzman, cofounder of the private equity firm Blackstone, who gave $100 million to the library in 2008. He was a fierce advocate of the plan to gut the main building, which is named after him, and sell the three nearby libraries. After de Blasio canceled the plan, the NYPL trustees’ powerful executive committee met to cast a pro forma vote to officially terminate it. Only one member abstained from that vote: Schwarzman.

I had an opportunity to speak with him in early 2014, following a trustee meeting at the 42nd Street location. The event had just concluded, and the trustees were retreating to their cocktail hour in a grand old room. I asked him if the $9 million paid to the architect, Foster, had come from his $100 million gift. Schwarzman, a man famously enamored of micromanagement, looked down at his shoes and said, “I’m not sure how the library is spending my money.” He added, “Don’t be an adversary. The renovation [of the 42nd Street building] will be great.” The renovation soon went to the graveyard.

The NYPL has become somewhat more transparent since 2014, but it reflexively clings to secrecy. It has never shared the details of Schwarzman’s colossal gift and the ways in which it has been used. The pertinent question remains: How is the NYPL spending that $100 million? Today, New Yorkers have the midtown circulating library they deserve, the Stavros Niarchos; but they also deserve rudimentary information about the library’s most powerful benefactor.

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