We saved the library once before; here we go again


By Carol Greitzer

“Yonduh is the castle of my fadduh.”

I somehow found myself recalling that Tony Curtis parody (from some movie I never saw) when I was walking up Sixth Ave., approaching the Jefferson Market Courthouse from the south. I looked upward, and even though I pass the site nearly every day, I was surprised anew both by the number of turrets and towers, and the variety of their sizes and shapes. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a tourist emerging from the subway or the PATH station. What a startling, but pleasant, experience it must be for them, expecting to see funky, trendy Greenwich Village, but instead encountering this apparently medieval castle incongruously set down in the heart of the city.

This building is not only a unique landmark, but it’s one that has a special meaning for Villagers, because we saved it from demolition. What’s more significant — we did it before there was a Landmarks Preservation Law, five years before the existence of a Landmarks Preservation Commission!

The community reacted en masse and unanimously to the news that the New York Public Library wanted to tear down the empty, run-down building and construct a modern brick box that would provide the Village with a bigger library as a replacement for the small Jackson Square branch. We all loved the idea of a larger branch, but not the proposed nondescript new building. So every organization got together to save our courthouse, under the leadership of Margot Gayle and Philip Wittenberg. Civic, political, fraternal, religious groups — we all got involved. My personal contribution was to dream up a children’s treasure hunt during the 1959 Christmas holiday season. I must confess, 46 years later, that I rigged the program so that after identifying a number of landmarks, the kids all agreed that the “castle” would make a super library. The publicity in The Villager and elsewhere also helped the cause.

Then in 1960 a mob of us — representatives of every Village organization — trooped down to a meeting in the huge office of James Felt, the chairman of the City Planning Commission. I was there as president of the then insurgent Village Independent Democrats, joining with the Tamawa Democrats, the Republican Club and others to plead our case. My recollection is that there were 40 or 50 people in the room, and everyone made a little speech. But the part I remember best was coming home in Tony Dapolito’s bakery truck with Ruth Wittenberg and the poet E.E. Cummings, who lived at Patchin Place. He was impressed by the theatricality of the event, and perhaps by our performances. “Do things like this go on often?” he asked.

At any rate, we saved the building, which was magnificently restored by architect Giorgio Cavaglieri. I remember the tours of the premises with pigeons flying overhead in the big courtroom known famously as the scene of Mae West’s appearance for “obscenity.” Also, about this time I was called into a meeting with the head of the Housing & Development Agency (Judge Milton Mollen) and Joe Papp, in the pre-Public Theater days when he was seeking an indoor venue for his Shakespeare Theater. In the tradition of the Equity Library Theater, Joe wondered whether the basement of the future Jefferson Library might be available. While I wished him well, I told them both about the existing plans and our expectations of having a great reference room occupying the unusual vaulted basement.

Yes, our community played a key role in creating this library, and we resent unwanted changes being thrust upon us without any input from library users. We were astounded at the news that library officials were planning to destroy our reference room, the very one that has functioned so beautifully all these years — but even more troublesome is the fact that the so-called plan they presented is incomplete. They will devote half the basement to some sort of teen facility, but have not as yet determined what will go into the basement’s other half. As to the reference room — well, that will go up to the second floor somewhere — they have not as yet determined where. What is more alarming is the fact that on more than one occasion, these officials carefully avoided referring to a reference “room.” All they would promise was that the reference “materials” would all be relocated. So instead of a secluded, relatively quiet room where people can do serious research, we may be left with reference “materials” housed near circulation shelves, subject to a constant stream of traffic.

Actually, some of the ideas make sense, like utilizing now wasted space on the main floor and freeing up the current checkout area and some back rooms on the second floor. Here’s where they might install whatever facility they have in mind for teenagers. (Parenthetically, several people have questioned the rationale behind this whole teenage concept. Library officials have targeted the 12-to-18-age group, which doesn’t make sense. The former are emerging from childhood; the latter are practically adults.) As for the existing reference room, a heavily used quiet refuge — as someone at a recent meeting shouted, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Several years ago, community board member Ed Gold reminds me, he served on what was a very effective branch library council, which met monthly under the aegis of Branch Libraries Director Ed Holmgren. This group dealt with budget issues and other matters, bringing up concerns of the individual branches, and reporting back to the communities. Many “friends of library” committees sprang up, becoming an effective lobbying group at budget time. These friends were also instrumental in forcing the N.Y.P.L. to change its fundraising appeals. For the first time, donors could specify where they wanted their money to go — either to the Research Library or to the Branches. Activists were the force that kept the libraries open when they were threatened with drastically curtailed hours. In fact, the Jefferson Market Library was once actually slated for a total shutdown!

This activist group has been disbanded, to be replaced by something called the Borough Advocacy Committee, which meets only twice a year. It took several days, and chats with several people before I could uncover this information. When I asked for a list of the committee members, the initial response was “No problem.” But a few hours later, “on advice of counsel,” I was told that “to protect their privacy,” the names could not be given out.

My argument that the library’s mission was supposed to facilitate access to information got me nowhere. Nor did my query as to how this “advocacy” group could function if no one knew who the members were.

So if there’s anyone out there who is serving as a library advocate, please, please make yourself known to us.

And please start advocating. Your help is needed — desperately.

Greitzer was city councilmember for the Village, Chelsea and Midtown from 1969-’91.