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A New New Lots Library: East New York Residents Help Design the Building to Next Occupy the Ancestral Burial Ground

Standing left, Daryle Ward Cherry, senior project associate for Hester Street and standing right, Catherine Green, Founder and Executive Director of Arts East NY. Photo: Ian Lyn

By Maitefa Angaza

     It’s official! The New Lots Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system is on the way to becoming a new jewel in the family crown. A combined $26 million – $20M from Mayor De Blasio and $6M from Councilwoman Inez Barron – will go into a complete renovation and possible outright rebuild. Over the course of two neighborhood meetings more than 100 East New York residents jammed the library to make their preferences known at two “Help Design Your New Library” gatherings The second and final meeting was held on Monday, December 17th and it was clear from the creative energy and ideas in the branch’s meeting hall, that this will be a state-of-the art facility. 

     David Woloch, Executive Vice President of External Affairs for the Brooklyn Public Library, was one of the speakers. He said the library system does not always see this level of community engagement. 

     “This is a huge project” he said. “We have 59 branches throughout the borough. This is one of the busiest, one of the largest, and the turn-out here shows the interest and concern and love for this library. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redo this building.”

     The architect for the project will be chosen in 2020 and the community’s suggestions will inform the design from the ground up. The design and construction will be start in 2021 and the library will close for two years.

     Facilitating the process of community engagement in and outside of these public meetings are Arts East New York (AENY) a multidisciplinary art organization and performance space with a community beautification mission, and Hester Street, an urban planning, design and development nonprofit “that works to ensure neighborhoods are shaped by the people who live in them.” 

Catherine Green, founder and executive director of AENY and Daryle Ward Cherry, senior project associate at Hester Street were happily observant of the community taking on the invitation to help nurture this brainchild. 

Cherry of Hester Street said, “Thank you for coming and sharing your thoughts on how to make this space reflective of the community. To make sure the programs that are offered are needed and are priorities for this community. So that this branch is really informed by feedback from the community.”     

“We love this community and I’m so excited to see all of your faces!” said Green. “We’ve been doing a lot of work trying to get to everyone we can get to in the East New York community, to make sure that we had your ideas, that you were at the first session,” said Green. 

Council Member Inez Barron was present and beaming. Her office allocated $6 million dollars for the Heritage Center that will have a home in the new library.

“This is historic!” she said. “We are located on what was an African Burial Ground and when they decided to reinter the remains of those whites who were here, they took them up and put them across the street, they had all kinds of beautiful markers. And if you read the Brooklyn Eagle from those days, it says that the bones of the Blacks were left bleaching on the side of the road. 

“So we want to make sure that our history is recorded, that it is not discarded, which is why we have renamed the park, ‘Sankofa Park,’ which means that you can go back and claim that which is important to you and bring it forward, celebrate it and include it in whatever it is that you’re doing going forward.”

Residents then gathered at five large tables to discuss how the suggestions from the first meeting and to suggest new ideas of their own. Equipped with large charts, stickers and a facilitator at each table, they set out to build this world. Teens were in a room upstairs discussing those things physical and material, as well as service-related and social, that will enhance the library’s existing positives while manifesting the new vision. So, from the Entrance/Reception area to the General Reading area, Community/Performance Room, the Teen and Children’s Spaces, the Adult Learning Center and the Cultural/History Space, teams were asked: “How do you want to see this space designed? 

Suggestions from the first meeting were: a digital bulletin board, digital signage/wayfinding and charging stations. Furniture options included lounging chairs, tables for eating and hanging out, lockable storage and moveable furniture. For the library environment, choices were bright colors or soft colors, bright lights or natural, soft light, quiet space, loud space, enclosed space, open space soft floors or hard floors. Initial Culture/History Space initial options were an art gallery, history timeline, and permanent art display. Other suggestions were gender-neutral bathrooms, stroller- parking, water fountains with bottle refills and ADA push buttons to enter the multiple spaces.  

Eleanor Pinckney, a 30-year East New York resident, made a point to be there and summed up the rationale behind the enthusiastic turn-out.

“Libraries are important. People need to be able to read. They need to understand their future, they need to have a place to research, and they need to have a place to think and for community spaces. Libraries add character, I think, to the community.”

 Part 2 next week features ideas and comments from community members.

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