Key Brooklyn Library Squeezed by City Budget

Photo by: Norman Oder
Modest in appearance, the McKinley Park branch serves as the de facto library for Brooklyn's Chinese community.

The small McKinley Park branch in Dyker Heights bustles with immigrants but struggles to meet demand after years of cuts to the library system.

By: Norman Oder

Heading south from the N train's Fort Hamilton Parkway stop—where Borough Park edges into Sunset Park and Dyker Heights—several noteworthy buildings emerge: the new P.S. 310 elementary school; the venerable 24/7 produce emporium Three Guys from Brooklyn; and the old Fortway Theater, reincarnated as a giant Chinese supermarket called Good Fortune.

Across from Good Fortune stands a one-story brick bunker housing the McKinley Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). Despite its modest appearance, the branch ranks fourth in Brooklyn in terms of materials circulated—841,533 items in the last fiscal year—and, on a per square foot basis, surely the busiest. In fact, two years ago, it was the city's seventh-busiest public library building, not counting the research libraries in Manhattan.

As with the Queens Library behemoth in Flushing, tiny McKinley Park serves a striving community, many of them Chinese immigrants, hungry for information, entertainment, and, especially, an edge for their kids. The children's area is typically crammed. Moms check out stacks of books. There's a waiting list for BPL's First Five Years programs like Babies & Books and Toddler Time.

McKinley Park serves as the de facto library for Brooklyn's Chinese community, which is centered in Sunset Park to the north, but has significant presence around the library in Dyker Heights, and southeast in Bensonhurst and Homecrest/Sheepshead Bay as well.

McKinley Park, built in 1959 and renovated in 1995, occupies less than 7,500 square feet, less than half the size of the airy new library branch in Kensington. Its open-floor layout, with no set-aside quiet or collaborative spaces, make it tough to avoid hearing chattering kids or the beeps of the self-check system. (A few grouse.) The computers always seem busy, whether users pursue job search or even play games. The fluorescent lighting is not cutting-edge.

To Richard Reyes-Gavilan, BPL's Chief Librarian, McKinley Park is "the one glaring example of where our space does not meet the demand for services." That demand has grown as young families move into residences long occupied by older singles or couples whose children have departed, observes Brooklyn Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann.

"If the family's recently arrived, this is their first stop," says branch manager Maureen McCoy.

While BPL would like to significantly expand McKinley Park, that can't be a priority while the library struggles to maintain its operating budget, copes with capital challenges like faulty air conditioning, and contemplates the controversial sale of two branches in gentrified neighborhoods to raise funds.

Meanwhile, McKinley Park tries to make the most of a constrained space. The children's room focuses on English language materials, the understandable choice even for new immigrants. Teens glom onto manga, or graphic novels.

The adult section contains four shelves each of Chinese fiction and nonfiction; Chinese-language materials represent about 16 percent of total circulation. The assistant branch manager speaks Chinese, as do several part-timers, to help when translation's needed.

The branch offers a wide range of multilingual videos—not just Chinese but Italian, Hungarian, Japanese, and more. Indeed, the branch attracts a diverse crowd, including older neighbors, many of Italian descent, men in Hasidic garb and women in Muslim headscarves.

Still, the branch's one small meeting room, where tables share space with storage shelves, holds only 38 adults. McCoy cannot, for example, schedule a proposed program on how to trap, neuter, and release stray cats, because the sponsor typically draws more people. New visitors to the branch, she notes, often ask, "Where's the second floor?"

Libraries pinched

The city's three library systems (Brooklyn, Queens, New York) are in the midst of what is wearily called the "budget dance," in which Mayor Bloomberg proposes drastic cuts to the systems' operating budgets and the City Council restores most though usually not all the money.

"This is the biggest cut that we have to try to make up," says Brooklyn Council Member Vincent Gentile, whose district includes McKinley Park and who chairs the Council's library subcommittee. "I think the sentiment is there to [restore] it." The budget should be resolved within two weeks.

Gentile, along with Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, is pushing a measure to dedicate 2 percent of property tax revenues to libraries, thus removing the systems from the budget dance. That would require a change in the city charter.

For now, says BPL's Reyes-Gavilan, even in a best-case scenario, "We're looking at an ongoing struggle. We're down $15 million from 2008." That hit is felt significantly in budget areas like collections, which is why even super-busy McKinley Park experienced a dip in circulation last year.

"When the shoe pinches, it may be more expensive to buy foreign language material," adds Reyes-Gavilan, noting that the library still prioritizes materials in Chinese and Russian. The implementation of what's called "floating collections"—no book is anchored to a particular branch—mitigates some of the problem, making it easier to connect books and users.

McKinley Park is open 45 hours a week over six days; Beckmann says "our biggest request is people asking it be open seven days a week." (In more flush times in 2008, the library offered seven-day service.)

"If I had a wish list, I'd buy more multimedia," observes branch manager McCoy, citing videos and other resources in not just English and Chinese but also Hindi and even Japanese.

Despite a grateful public—on one day this reporter visited, McCoy was given a home remedy for her sore throat—McKinley Park lacks a Friends of the Library group, a common institution for advocacy and feedback in more settled suburban libraries. Of 58 branches, Brooklyn has about a dozen Friends groups. The Center for an Urban Future's January 2013 Branches of Opportunity report—which cited McKinley Park's astounding circulation—suggested the system would benefit from more Friends groups.

"Certainly, language is an issue," notes Reyes-Gavilan, adding that communication through signage and email with multilingual Friends and among Friends groups has its challenges. "It's something that we'll want to work out, because we need advocates."

Some branches face steeper challenges

"If I had a ton of money," muses McCoy, "I'd like to have a bigger building." So too would many people.

Upgrading or replacing McKinley Park is particularly challenging, however, because the branch is leased rather than owned by the city. "In an ideal world, we have all the money" to buy the site, rebuild and double the size of the building, says Reyes-Gavilan.

However, he adds, "In many cases, we can't talk about improvements, because all our money is going toward Band-Aids." BPL needs emergency repairs for air conditioner problems that recently shut down several branches. Other problems are pressing; for example, Gentile points out, "We have to invest $700,000 to put a new roof on the Dyker Branch."

Such capital challenges highlight the importance of BPL's plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights Library, adds David Woloch, the library's Executive VP for External Affairs. Not only would it eliminate the projected $10 million needed to get the branch functioning, the sale would deliver additional funds not only for a new branch in the base of a new tower, but for capital needs across the system.

Still, the plan has generated significant skepticism from those who fear the library and city will bend to a developer's interest. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Public Library, compared with Queens and Manhattan, has gotten far less in capital support from its elected officials, including Borough President Marty Markowitz, as noted in the Center for an Urban Future report.

Whatever the resolution in Brooklyn Heights, future BPL libraries are likely to be part of a larger building, rather than the standalone model in Kensington. Indeed, just yesterday, a City Council committee approved plans for a new tower in Fort Greene (BAM South) that will contain a new library. (The library's fit-out, however, will not be funded, as originally planned, by selling the Pacific branch, the borough's first Carnegie library, which Council Member Letitia James fought to save, though it's not clear how much library service would be maintained there.)

For now, in branches that have sufficient space, BPL aims to partner with organizations that can upgrade the space as part of a trade. For example, at the Central Library and in Sunset Park, the city's Department of Small Business Services paid to renovate areas for its Workforce1 program. In the Red Hook and Williamsburg branches, the nonprofit Spaceworks will renovate underutilized space to house artists.

BPL's even trying to rebound from Superstorm Sandy; when the one-story Gerritsen Beach branch reopens, the revamp will divide a large meeting room into three smaller, more flexible rooms. In McKinley Park, however, that opportunity doesn't yet exist.

To serve that branch's users, says Reyes-Gavilan, "We could use a standalone First Five Years area."A larger space, he adds, would provide space to conduct ESL, or even "have some community partners deliver their programs on our behalf."