Thursday, May 29, 2008

Requiem for a Library

I note with great sadness that the Donnell Library is immanently scheduled to close, to be reborn in a few years as the basement of a new luxury hotel which will rise from its ruins. Now, I am not a very sentimental person, especially when it comes to New York City landmarks. I haven’t lived in the city for a dozen years, and with housing prices and my income being what they are, it doesn’t seem too likely that I will ever be returning. That’s fine. You take Manhattan. I am content to live in my New York City, in the book I am writing, which is about my New York City, the city of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Whatever happened after that is really of purely academic interest. Those of you who live in the city now, feel free to do whatever you want with the city, which becomes a little less familiar with every visit. All are gone, the old familiar faces.

And I guess what you are doing to the Donnell Library is what you New Yorkers are doing to public venue after public venue to my former home, turning them into handmaidens for avarice, with public life surviving on crumbs and sufferance from extravagant wealth. The New York Public Library, as Rob pointed out a few months ago, has stopped touting its magnificent reference collection to convince young people that video games are really cool. I guess a forty story luxury condo on top of the 42nd street library would have the usual rationale the library bureaucrats give in these situations; we are strapped for funds, this new building would be a great benefice, just think of what this money could do to improve the stacks!!

Oh, I guess you’ve heard this before, but the shuttering of the Donnell before the forces of greed is for me a particularly hard blow. Because it was front of the Donnell Library, that, on a gloriously sunny July morning in 1989, that I first met my wife, Jane, in a blind-date we had arranged through a dating service, and she was an image of radiant loveliness then, and is an image of loveliness now. And for many years before that, I had been a patron. And Jane, in one of a series of odd jobs she found on moving to New York City as a teenager, spent several years working there as a clerk. The library was always a heterogeneous meeting place, serving the riffraff who wanted to rest their weary feet, cineastes after the latest art film, retired matrons meeting to chat, and the occasional patron wanting to find a book. It was a wonderfully cluttered, unpretentious library. Now, as everyone in the city knows, if you want to read a book, you go to the nearest Barnes and Nobles.

53rd Street just aint what it used to be. In the old days the Rockefellers knew how to buy elegance, which was what they bought in the original MoMa. Now the Museum of Modern Art has become a bloated cumbersome monument to itself. All of my old familiar cheap eateries have gone as well. (I must say I like the new Folk Art Museum, though.) As I said, New York City, isn’t my home anymore, and in a real sense, I ain’t got no home in this world, anymore. Rochester is just a place to hang my hat, if I had a hat to hang. Its nice enough, but I have no sentimental attachment to it at all. Tear down or put up any building you like. It means nothing to me. But there was a time when the Donnell Library was to me what Jerusalem was to Dante, a portal to hidden realms and true love. Now I feel as outraged as Dante might have felt if the saints in heaven had told him that they needed to expand, so they allowed a thirteenth century Florentine developer to build a luxury tower on top of the highest level of paradise. Yes, it might be a bit inconvenient, and it blocks the view of God, the stars, and the planets, but think of the revenue stream. Anyway, if anyone should now ask me, tell me, where did you meet your wife, the answer will be, “oh, I don’t know, the place doesn’t exist anymore."


Helen said...

A very beautiful and sad reminiscence on the late Donnell.

I totally agree with you about the on-going sellout of public amenities in NYC in favor of privatization. The ethos that made NY NY has vanished; it isn't people-friendly anymore. Instead it's wealth-friendly; basically, watch out if you do not have wealth, the City says; we don't want you here!

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