Since the days of former president Paul LeClerc, the trustees of the New York Public Library have done everything in their robber baron powers to sell off or compromise the value of the institution as a research library open to those who would use it for serious purposes. At one point the current NYPL president Anthony Marx said that their aim was to make the institution more democratic, but unlike other high caliber research libraries, it was already a temple of democracy open to anyone from anywhere who wished to read, to research, to learn, to create. Two examples are a housewife and writer who used its collections to turn out The Feminine Mystique, and a journalist who produced The Power Broker, an exposé of development run amok. Maybe those are the kinds of users and truth-bearers the trustees decided to squash or hamper in favor of encouraging noisy tourists who disrupt those using the library’s materials.
Trustees also used the library’s finances as a rationale, but they undercut their own argument when they hatched, in off-the-record sessions, a plan to pay British starchitect Sir Norman Foster $9 million for a design scheme that would have gutted the structure of the building, including the steel stacks holding books. Sir Norman’s plan did result in its research collection being off-loaded to a storage facility in New Jersey. Fortunately that plan failed, although the off-loaded materials have yet to be returned and bare stacks abound in public rooms. It is surely not an accident that the most influential trustees of the NYPL are real estate tycoons and financiers. They drove the sale and destruction of the much-used East 50s branch, the Donnell Library, at a fire sale price of $59 million. After the branch was demolished, a penthouse in the tower being constructed on the site sold for $60 million. How clueless can these trustees really be and who are they serving?
In much-more measured prose than demonstrated in the above paragraphs, Scott Sherman uncovered this story for The Nation. His spare and elegant book Patience and Fortitude Power Real Estate and the Fight to Save A Public Library would be the rewarding experience of an evening’s reading if one could concentrate on the fact that the Foster/Central Library Plan was quashed when Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to fund it. However, the trustees involved are still active. Equally important, the book is revelatory of the capture of the boards of nearly every civic organization in the city by financial and real estate profiteers who know only cronyism and financial gain and are capable of nothing else. Happily, Sherman portrays many interesting and constructive New Yorkers in Patience and Fortitude. These labor tirelessly in the light for public good and not in closed session. One pivotal player in the defeat of the Central Library plan was a young member of the state assembly named Micah Kellner who chaired the Assembly’s library committee and was also running for New York City Council. In late June, 2013 he held an 8-hour public hearing that inspired a closer look at the plan. It galvanized and unified its opponents and led to lawsuits by distinguished scholars. A month after the hearing, Kellner’s career was effectively destroyed. The N.Y. Times reported that four years earlier a junior staff member had charged Kellner with verbal sexual harassment. Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver (his own troubles surfacing) claimed that he had only just learned of the 2009 episode and a similar alleged incident that had occurred in 2011. Kellner, who is openly bi-sexual as well as a husband and father, lost his bid for the City Council. Sexual harassment, especially if it is actually proven, is indefensible, but the timing of the career-killing charges is interesting. Power is not power unless it is exercised. But perhaps there are Higher Powers. A few weeks after the Central Library Plan was abandoned in May 2014, a section of the Rose Reading Room ceiling collapsed. Normal wear to the steel trusses that supported it was blamed. Repairs continue and the huge expanse is still shuttered. But what greater, un-doable damage might have been done if the trustees had been allowed to rip out the steel trusses altogether? How many oligarch-ready condos might have been built like the ones that are going up where the popular, democratic Donnell Library once stood? It’s too late for patience. Now urgency and fortitude are called for, along with Distrust of trustees. What do you think? Please comment in the box below.