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August 18th, 2008

PURE GOLD: JEFFERSON MARKET LIBRARY AND THE LITTLE OLD LADY WHO COULD.

by Ed Gold

Jefferson Market Library, one of the architectural gems of the nation, is in the process of being renovated, thanks to contributions from Speaker Chris Quinn of the City Council, State Sen. Tom Duane and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who have put together a $7 million package to ensure the structural integrity of this storied building.

Apparently, work is required on the facade, windows, roof and tower, with construction completion scheduled in the spring of2010.

This new effort brings back memories of a much darker period when the library’s very existence was threatened until a tiny, feisty woman–Ruth Wittenberg–got the city to reverse its disasterous policy: a decision by the trustees of the New York Public Library to shut down arguably the most important branch library in the city, one which doubled as an historic treasure.

The year was 1974. An accountant, Abe Beame, was mayor. He turned out to be a terrible bookkeeper, leaving the city facing bankruptcy.

The library trustees decided to shut down the building in November, insisting they had no other choice since Beams had slashed the Jefferson budget by $1.5 million.

The community responded speedily and on many fronts, in a campaign headed by one of the toughest and longest-serving preservationists. Wittenberg, always immodest, told the trustees and City Hall that they would not succeed in Greenwich Village.

Tables were set up in front of the library on Sixth Ave., manned by people from every section of the community. Protest supporters lined up daily to draft personal letters to the trustees, the mayor and other elected officials insisting they would not be allowed to turn Jefferson into a non-functional building.

“Save Our Libraries” rallies were held; there were candle-light vigils, and a number of important meetings between Village activists and those seeking to turn the lights off at Jefferson.

Three key Councilmembers–Carol Greitzer, Henry Stern and Bob Wagner–rallied behind the Village effort. Phil Gerard, the Jefferson librarian, and Ed Holgrem, the branch library director, made clear in their own way that they wanted the library to remain open, in effect taking issue with the people who paid their salaries.

A community delegation decided to take the case to John Zuccotti, then Beame’s chief of staff. This writer was part of the delegation. Zuccotti expressed sympathy but was tied to city policy. He noted how much he loved books and thanked us for coming.

Then Wittenberg led a delegation to meet with the trustees’ chair, Richard Couper, who clearly would have been much more comfortable around a country club pool than having to cope with a lot of street talk from an assortment of angry Villagers.

The delegation left him with a clear message: “Your decision to close our library is simply wrong-headed. We could be very good long-term allies in fighting to keep the library system healthy and functioning. But we could also be very irritating enemies. You’ll have to choose which path to take.”

Wittenberg was convinced that a vacant building would become a dead building; anti-social behavior would lead to broken windows and building walls featuring graffiti, not to mention the likelihood that the vacant building would become home to pigeons and rats.

As the November closing date approached, Wittenberg gathered a group of activists inside the library. She had also invited Couper to attend and as a courtesy he showed up.

When Couper arrived she made her pitch: “If you shut this building down some of us intend to hold a sit-in. You will have to bring the police in to remove us by force. Of course, we will have all the press here. It will be a great picture in the New York Times to see the police carrying out this little old lady.”

Couper was clearly not used to such talk. No one for sure knows what transpired behind the scenes. But we do know the library trustees met and changed their mind; they would not close down Jefferson Market Library after all.

An earlier crisis had occurred in 1960 when the Victorian Gothic-style building (once used as a courthouse) had been abandoned and was destined to be torn down by the city and replaced by an apartment house or a modern library.

But a united community, including all political factions; joined by cultural elites like the poet E.E.Cummings, the actor Maurice Evans; and strong leadership from activists like Margot Gayle, both Ruth and Philip Wittenberg, Greitzer and Tony Dapolito; appealed successfully to Planning Commissioner James Felt, who spared the building.

Fourteen years later, the 80-pound giant was the hero in the struggle to preserve this very special building.

Filed Under: Articles | Commentary | Community | New York | Politics

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