Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Donnell's Replacement & $375 Cocktails

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.


citronyella said...

The fourth photo down reminds me of the emptiness at the heart of American culture today. "there is no there there." Possibly a quote from Gertrude Stein,but if I wanted to look it up in that library, I would be forced to google it, because there are no books there. Sad and Pitiful.

Mitch said...

Jeremiah - brilliant! Where can you publish this so the whole city will see it?

JM said...

We are well along the road to complete cultural decadence in the city. The end game here is the elimination of the past, of memory, of perspective, critical thinking and connection to what used to be known as reality. Bloomberg set out to create a fantasy world that 99% of us cannot live in, but only gawk at, uncomprehendingly. He largely succeeded. His successor is doing nothing to change the momentum his predecessor put in motion, but actually seems like a nonentity with no agenda or individual goals; those that might be there simply pale in the shadow of Bloomberg's audacity and hubris in destroying a city he never understood to make one he could, according to his out-of-towner and elitist attitudes.

The '80s were derided at the time for the conspicuous consumption of the nouveau riche, the Wall Street bros and real estate money grubbers. They were ultimately eclipsed by the go-go '90s leading into the tech bubble, where ostentation and its fellow traveler, mindlessness, overran what the '80s had not. Then we have the Bloomberg years, which still continue, even without his arrogant, entitled presence. They put the preceding periods to shame, setting new standards in superficiality, unoriginality, faux glamour and vapidity. It's not just here, of course; this has been happening to varying degrees in other cities throughout Europe and North America. But we live here. It's here that we suffer, and mourn, and try to keep a hold on what we've lost as its image begins to inevitably fade from our minds. And also appreciate those enclaves that have yet to die a glass and chrome death, and the neighbors who haven't been forced out by high rents (yet), and the dwindling number of mom and pops that somehow hang on and defy the odds.

A few years ago, I realized that a of times I had stopped looking when I walked around, moving with tunnel vision or only seeing those remnants of the familiar, blocking out the new condos and chain stores and empty storefronts. For some reason, recently, I started to see again. I'm appalled, but also heartened by some of what's there. There is a lot of history in New York, and it's hard to demolish all of it. The developers and city government have tried mightily, but the amazing thing is how much of it is still there, even with whole neighborhoods and areas having been, in effect, wiped out in terms of their former character.

We're fossils, at this point. Hypergentrification has made us that. But all of the history that's still there can keep us company. There's less of it than there used to be, and sometimes you have to reach back farther than your own lifespan to find it, but it's still there, quietly and knowingly providing a weary, yet stubborn, middle finger to what's come after it.

esquared™ said...

Hey, this is a a great place to catch a Pokémon and for a pokéstop.

Progress! Change! Embrace the change!

gluttonforlife said...

Le Yawn. God help us all.

Andrew Porter said...

Back in the 1950s and 60s, as a teen (or younger!) I used to go here to borrow LP recordings of electronic music. The Donnell was one of the few libraries that offered that. Back then the entire block consisted mostly of brownstones, which the Museum of Modern Art slowly gobbled up as it inexorably expanded. Then I came one day and the entire rest of the south side of the block was gone, replaced by an enormous excavation hole. They were building the CBS Building, on the east side of 6th Avenue from 52nd to 53rd Street. Somewhere, I've got photos of the hole, which went down 40 or 50 feet...

Unknown said...

this is the most depressing essay i have read. i wouldnt be caught dead in any of these places. expensive death.

Janine Nichols said...

Someday, hard to say how soon, the blank expanses of glass and stone and metal that increasingly line our sidewalks will be covered in graffiti and posters promoting resistance rather than the Live Nation schedule at Irving Plaza. Weeds and vines will encroach, animals will push in. I keep thinking about Louis Bunuel's film, The Exterminating Angel, specifically the appearance of several goats on the previously glorious winding staircase. This is me being hopeful!

James said...

I can't add much, save that I worked nearby during the last years of the library. My memories of the place go back to the mid-80's when it was one of the refuge buildings where you could read and nobody would bother you. It had a wonderful film department downstairs and that 50's enlightened municipal atmosphere that pervaded everything new at one time. The purpose then was to serve people. The purpose now is - well what? To fulfil the fundraising purposefulness of the NYPL, I suppose.

'Sad' is a mild form of what I have felt all along, from the time Mayor Mike declared that the building was "too expensive" to upgrade, tiny impovrished burg that New York is. It seemed incomprehensible, but then this is a city that decided to replace Penn Station with... well, you know.

Here's a memento - one of several I fortunately took, before it was too late. I'll be posting another one soon.

Memory (accurate memory) is probably the enemy of the developer.

Mitchel Cohen said...

Very good report, very depressing. We need to fight back NOW to save the Brooklyn Heights & Sunset Park libraries, among others.

I've been doing a series of reports on the Bloomberg-deBlasio "public-private partnerships" that took down the Donnell public library and that are threatening to do the same to other libraries around the city. The City sold the old Donnell for $67 million, and they tore it down and built a huge skyscraper condo worth at least $1 billion, a playground for the rich and for foreign sheikdoms. Then, finally they built a much much much smaller library in the basement. I was at the opening -- and the protest outside! -- and filed the report for WBAI. You can check out this one and the others at my website:

Unknown said...

That's back when Moondog used to preside over the Avenue of the Americas at 54th Street!

Susan Bernofsky said...

Keep in mind that after selling the library building for $67 million, NYPL had to SPEND about one third of that to construct the replacement mini-library in the basement (plus whatever it cost to establish and operate the replacement library several blocks away in the intervening 8 years). The library's gain from this sale was minimal. The loss to the public: enormous.

If you want to help keep other public libraries from going the way of the Donnell, follow the group SaveNYPL on Facebook or at A second group active in this fight is Citizens Defending Libraries in Brooklyn.

Unknown said...

This is insane and mind-blowing. I agree with Mitch Golden. This whole city needs to read about this mess. SMH...I miss the Donnell Library and used to go there all the time when I worked for Time Inc.

Unknown said...

The library looks like an Apple Store with a high end restaurant. They will probably have industry parties and events there for celebrities and the rich. NYC is not for the lower and middle class. This is a clear sign. Madness!!!

Unknown said...

This is so sad and makes me ashamed to be a native NYer.

John K said...

So many great posts! And I love Jeremiah's original post too (and this blog)! In addition to the High Line viewing stairs, what the blond-wood stadium seating reminds me of is Rem Koolhaas's Prada Store in SoHo, which, when it opened, occasioned a lot of oohing and aahing at the design. (It was innovative for a New York retailer.) But who could afford those excessively priced, tiny-framed clothes? They were geared towards the city's--and the globe's--financial elites. It seems that the mindset behind that company and store have now taken over the political consciousness of Washington's, New York's and so many cities' and nation's leaders.

I remember going on a field trip to Donnell Library with the children I worked with at East Side Community School in the East Village, back in 1996. They were amazed by the library's collections, and I believe as part of their tour they got to see its extensive video holdings. It was a library for them and all New Yorkers. What has been dropped down in its place, begrudgingly, is an entertainment space for no one. The people behind this glittering monstrosity don't want there to be a public Commons. They don't want knowledge to circulate easily. They have contempt for the idea of society as we've known it. This is a monument to their thinking, a vacuous, neoliberal cave, and it's sickening. Keep in mind that Donnell was going to be the prelude to the utter destruction of the New York Public Library's Research branch and the Midtown branch across the street. Thankfully, that was stopped in its tracks. For now.

The "public-private" partnerships are a hallmark of neoliberalism. Why have the government provide the public good when you can farm out the responsibilities to a private corporation, which will then reap public funds for whatever it does or doesn't do? And unlike government officials, you can't "fire" or "recall" or "vote out" the private companies that are running amok with our tax dollars. But then so much is animated by neoliberal thinking these days. I used to think that Bloomberg was the arch neoliberal, but deBlasio has turned out to be emblematic of that ideology's total emptiness. He talks multiculturalism, progressive politics, etc., but instead we get everything Bloombergian, but on steroids. And to think, the billionaire class claimed this man was a "Sandinista." What a farce!

Unknown said...

You nailed it. And the great comments as well did too. Sometimes I think it must just be me and then read this post and the comments and say right this is off. Went in last week and had much the same impression and felt uneasy even before entering, there is a steel grate in front that felt like unstable and the rest of the experience was much the same. I did use the water fountain which was quite tasty and then walked out.

step45 said...

I don't trust NYPL. Remember the ridiculous plans they had for the main branch in Fifth & 42?

Pat said...

We were encouraged to go to Donnell to do our research papers in high school. It was a step up from the local library we cut our teeth in yet it was not as intimidating as the 42th Street & 5th Avenue library we went to in college which was truly daunting for me when I first saw it. Donnell was right in the middle, helpful, cozy, and I loved visiting that neighborhood. Perhaps by now most high school kids research their papers on-line, or worse, buy them from some nerd in India or China. Reflecting back on lost libraries, I remember the newspaper collection in the West 40's which was combined with the patents collection. I seem to remember institutional green walls and giant sinks in the restrooms with those marble walls between the stalls. Unless I have it mixed up with something else, it was in any case just completely drab and utilitarian, and that made it lovable. And you could hear a pin drop. All kinds of people came to work there, struggling students like me, genuine researchers, and the usual crazy seekers of the grail on some private quest who habituate libraries and other places that are free to the public. We were all in it together.

jimmoore said...

I remember attending a performance by The American Mime Theatre in the auditorium. It was a wonderful space and the show was 'free'. Where is this kind of activity held now? So sad! 😅