Brooklyn Libraries Are Still In Shambles, and No One Knows How To Fix Them

The Temporary Cooling System in Brownsville's Library Branch. Photo: Invest in libraries
The Temporary Cooling System in Brownsville’s Library Branch. Photo: Invest in libraries

Last June, New York City’s public library system (comprising the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library) was awarded the largest funding increase in the mayor’s annual fiscal budget in the city’s history. The additional allocated $39 million for fiscal year 2016 was met with cheers from library officials, who also praised the de Blasio administration’s proposal of $300 million in capital funds for libraries to be rolled out over the next decade. But for many branches of the embattled public library system, which has for years struggled under threats of enormous budget slashes, de Blasio’s allotment might be too little too late.

Eroding ceilings, crumbling bathrooms and broken air-conditioning systems are all problems that many New York City librarians contend with on a daily basis. For a system that serves 37 million people a year and is the city’s only free and public center of knowledge and education, decaying infrastructure is not helped by a staggering budget deficit.

In Brooklyn alone, capital needs are a “problem that has been growing for a really long time, for decades,” according to David Woloch, Executive Vice President of the Brooklyn Public Library.

“We have about $300 million in unfunded needs, throughout our branches, and we get on average, about $20 million in capital funding from the mayor, from the City Council, Borough President. Last year we got about $18 million, this year we got about $16 million,” he says.

At the core of the BPL’s capital funding needs are the very buildings themselves. On average, BPL facilities are about sixty years old, and maintenance and preservation is costly, if not a constantly pressing endeavor for BPL employees.

“I think particularly in Brooklyn, there’s been an under investment in our physical plan. We have over one million-square-feet of building space, we have sixty branches, the average age is over sixty years old,  and they’re costly to maintain. Collectively, the powers-that-be for decades have not put as much money into them as is needed,” says Woloch.

And Woloch’s sentiments are hard to argue when peering into some of the more shabby facilities that pepper Brooklyn’s library landscape. A report called “Long Overdue: NYC’s $1 Billion Library Fine,” [PDF] published last April by the advocacy group Invest In Libraries, delves into some of the afflicted branches across New York City. The report uses images of branches in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bath Beach and Brownsville to put the BPL’s challenges in especially stark terms.

The report concluded that the Ulmer Park branch in Bath Beach “suffers from chronic leaks and water damage, particularly on the ceiling over the heavily used Chinese language section.” Long Overdue also lists the plight of Brownsville’s chronically broken air-conditioning system, which forces the branch to close down on hot summer days.

“The branch faces chronic HVAC issues and is routinely forced to close on hot days, even though four temporary chillers were brought in to replace the broken AC system,” the report says.

The Ceiling at the Ulmer Park Library. Photo: Invest in Libraries.
The Ceiling at the Ulmer Park Library. Photo: Invest in Libraries.

The consensus among library employees who serve under-privileged, poverty stricken neighborhoods like these is pretty much unanimous. Crumbling building infrastructure and oppressively hot summers spent without air-conditioning makes it harder for them to do their jobs.

Edwin Maxwell, a librarian at the New Lots branch in East New York, says he’s had to become a stand-in repairman and maintenance worker at times.

“Our job descriptions have become somewhat blurred, because we have to do a little of everything,” he says.

Budget cuts have turned the New Lots branch, which has used the same book shelves since it first opened in 1958, into a facility plagued by leaking ceilings, and one where Maxwell has to wear numerous professional hats.

“Sometimes we don’t have a custodian, so it comes to us doing it or closing a portion of the library… I do a little bit of everything, and I think that’s true of our staff and everyone who works for the library system at this point,” he says.

Maxwell walks around the New Lots branch intermittently pointing out all of the building’s structural decay. He gestures toward a staircase leading up to the library’s learning center, which he says transforms into a waterfall during torrential downpours. On rainy days, like the afternoon I visited, New Lot’s rooftop is draped with a thick, black tarp to insulate the cracked ceiling from further water damage.

“Our roof, it has cracks in it and that damages a lot of things. Every time it rains, water runs down onto the floor,” Maxwell says, adding that he’s had to remove most of the library’s signage because it was so badly water damaged.

The New Lots branch, which was given one of the Revson Foundation’s New York City Library of the Year Awards this year, is reeling not only because of building issues, but because of the services it can’t provide amid chronic leaks and decaying linoleum.

For Maxwell, and for the people in New Lots whom the library serves, the branch can be likened to “a life transformer.”  Maxwell says that “people come here to change the status of their lives.”

“People depend on us for literacy from birth, for their children through grade school and onto workplace development kind of stuff. Really all stages of their lives,” he says.

“When you don’t have the staff to cover that, when you have to cut back on most of those services–that’s what most people come to libraries for” Maxwell argues, reasoning that for the community of New Lots, the library is a kind of “one-stop-shop,” that people depend on for things like resume writing.

Faced with mounting capital challenges, the Brooklyn Public Library has recently tried a new method for revamping old libraries while at the same time making money from an outside source: real estate developers. It’s a controversial issue, and one that’s faced mounting pressure in the form of town hall meetings in the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, where that library branch was recently sold off to developer Hudson Inc. in a contentious deal.

In the case of the Brooklyn Heights branch on Cadman Plaza West, Brooklyn Community Board 2 approved the $52 million sale of the library to Hudson, which will build luxury condominiums on the former library site. The proceeds of the deal will fund BPL’s new outfitting of the Brooklyn Heights Branch directly beneath Hudson’s residential tower, in addition to operating costs of a few other BPL branches like the Walt Whitman branch, the Pacific branch, the Washington Irving branch and the Sunset Park branch.

Library officials, including BPL President Linda Johnson, spoke of the sale as a last ditch effort to preserve a branch that needed $9 million in air conditioning repairs alone. But some community watchdog groups, like Citizens Defending Libraries, are meeting provisions of the sale, like Hudson’s pledge to build affordable housing units in the neighborhood, with more than a hint of skepticism.

“You’re really not getting very much for these affordable housing deals, when you look at what’s being proposed for the Brooklyn Heights library, about half of the so called affordable units are really market-rate units, so it’s a very small return,” says Michael White, a Brooklyn Heights based attorney and co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries.

Although White’s group views library sales as a unilaterally bad thing, other community advocate groups, like Urban Librarians Unite, see things differently. For Christian Zabriskie, an organizer for Urban Librarians Unite, the selling of libraries to developers might not be ideal, but it’s at least something that veers toward a sustainable future.

“It’s not necessarily a good tactic but it is a pragmatic one. The libraries don’t really have any assets other than the buildings,” Zabriskie says of the Brooklyn Heights Branch in an email.

“The main thing that makes this sale interesting for me is the way it will generate revenue to repair other branches in lower income areas. The sale of this one library will benefit many. This will generate the greatest impact to library services for the most people with the resources currently available,” he says.

There hasn’t really been much agreement between library executives, activists,  librarians and politicians on how to procure streamlined funding for libraries after decades of budgetary shortcomings. The one thing that seems clear is the pronounced disagreement between all groups. Earlier this month, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams proposed funneling all of New York’s public library systems into the city’s Department of Education, a plan that would effectively make the issues less confined to the library system and more of a city government concern.

David Woloch of the BPL on the other hand, thinks selling libraries off might be the only way to go. Although he didn’t disclose any information regarding the sale of further library branches aside from some ongoing developments in Sunset Park, he remains adamant that the sale of the Brooklyn Heights branch represents a “game changer.” The deal allows the BPL to “attack this problem that we would never have been able to otherwise,” he says.

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster