The new 53rd Street Library opened recently, replacing the beloved Donnell library. Sleek, stark, and only one-third the size of the old Donnell, the new space is true to the architect’s original fantasy rendering, a bizarre scenario in which people sit on designer bleacher seats, staring blankly into space, not reading books.
Library entrance beyond the Baccarat and its guard
The entire library is bizarre. There are not many books, though there is plenty of vast empty space that could hold them (Justin Davidson calls it a "perfect haven for checking stock prices and Twitter"), and the glossy wood floor is conspicuously loud underfoot, booming with every step. But the ampitheater that ushers guests inside has got to be the strangest part.
As it leads you down into the subterranean space, it blatantly recalls the High Line's "10th Avenue Square," where people sit on wooden steps and look out at traffic. On the right-hand wall is a metal mesh screen that brings to mind the skin of the New Museum on the Bowery.
There are no books on display here. (Books "smell like old people," after all.) People mostly chat and check their Facebook feeds. The steps are oddly placed and feel precarious, making you cling to the handrail as you go.
The people sitting on these steps are compelled to watch an unavoidably large video screen placed in front of them, where flashing scenes of New York City include several shots of luxury towers, built or under construction.
To watch people watching this, in a library that replaced a library that was destroyed so a luxury tower could rise, is to participate in a surreal nightmare of modern neoliberal urbanization.
As I sat there, watching people passively watch the screen, I remembered one of the last times I was inside the old Donnell. It was a very different scene.
Back in 2007 the library hosted a Municipal Art Society discussion entitled “Is New York Losing Its Soul?” Tickets for the event quickly sold out and people loitered outside the library hoping for scalpers. Inside, the audience was restless, ready to be whipped into a froth. We’d been living in Bloomberg’s New York for five years, and we were not happy.
The moderator, Clyde Haberman of the Times, started off by saying there was an implied "yes" to the question of the night, New York is losing its soul. You feel it, he said “under the relentless bulldozer of homogenization…as you see one small shop, one small restaurant after another just basically ground down and replaced by--does it have to be one more bank? Does it have to be one more Duane Reade or CVS? People on the Upper West Side are nearly in revolt, but they won't revolt because they'll just go to Starbucks and take care of that.” After an enthusiastic round of applause, he continued, crediting the soul loss to “an administration that has yet to meet a developer to whom it wishes to say no.”
That administration was Bloomberg’s, a crew of businessmen and socialites hell-bent on turning Manhattan, and much of the city, into what the mayor liked to call a “luxury product.” Most of us didn’t understand it then, but he was using zoning, branding, eminent domain, and corporate welfare to reconstruct New York for the very wealthy.
Empty space, no books
Just one year after the Donnell Library hosted that discussion on the loss of New York’s soul, it became a victim of the same phenomenon.
Built in 1955 and still the second busiest branch of the New York Public Library, the popular Donnell had long been a center of culture, featuring films, concerts, lectures, and readings by poets such as Marianne Moore. They had a great music library. A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh doll lived there, sitting in his threadbare fur in a bulletproof, climate-controlled glass cube. Like that Pooh and other well-loved velveteens, the Donnell was on the scruffy side, a fact that made it friendly—and vulnerable to those who insist that everything must be shiny and new. Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, seemed to be suffering from status anxiety when he told the Times, “We’re very conscious of the quality of design that is presently on that street. We’re not going to be the poor, shabby neighbor anymore.”
A tragic symbol of the city’s shift from public to private, community to corporate, socialist to neoliberal, the Donnell was shuttered in 2008, sold off to help fund an ill-conceived, glitzy renovation of the library’s Main Branch on Fifth Avenue (itself renamed that year after billionaire donor Stephen Schwarzman, a man who “had become,” wrote The New Yorker, “the designated villain of an era on Wall Street—an era of rapacious capitalists and heedless self-indulgence").
The Donnell sat empty until 2011 when, against public protest, it was demolished to make room for a 50-story, $403 million combination hotel and condo tower. Opened in 2015, the Baccarat Hotel & Residences New York boasts rooms that rent for $899 and suites for $18,000 per night, a restaurant that caters to “Eurotrash, oligarch wannabes, and hedge-funders (New York Post), and “a boutique store selling crystal with price tags up to $10,000” (Wall Street Journal), all topped by a $60 million penthouse where “the master bedroom is large enough to house two New York studio apartments” (Forbes) -- and where the tenants (who are probably never home) have their own private library.
It probably has more books in it than the public library in Baccarat's basement.
Baccarat bar and lounge
After I toured the new library, I went upstairs to explore the Baccarat.
The second-floor bar and lounge is open to the public. The place is decked out. People sit in leather seats surrounded by their shopping bags and check their Facebook feeds. They talk about money and real estate. They talk about the far-flung places they've traveled and what everything costs. "Do you know they serve a dish for $64,000? For that much money, I want endless orgasms with my dinner."
The Baccarat bar doesn't serve anything that expensive, but they do their part. They have specialty cocktails and premium cocktails, which are not cheap, along with one "super premium" cocktail known as "Le Roi."
It costs $375.
To get the Le Roi, you have to order in advance so that Baccarat can fashion a custom-made glass to pour it into. In goes the most expensive gin in the world, Nolet's Reserve, which sells for $700 a bottle. This is mixed with Grey Goose VX and Lillet Rose. You then get the exclusive privilege of drinking the cocktail from the custom-made glass--which, by the way, you apparently can't take with you. This is not McDonald's, where you're encouraged to "collect them all."
For $375, I'd at least want to bring home the souvenir glass.
In his review of the new library, Times critic David Dunlap noted parenthetically that there is a “column to be written about secretive plutocrats buying investment aeries in the sky while public institutions are relegated to basements. Some other day.”
I hope that day comes soon. The way the 53rd Street Library is set up, it seems doomed to fail as a library. How long before we hear reports of "under-utilization" and the place is closed? Which, let's be honest, may well have been the plan all along.