Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Our Public Assets Under Attack- A Calamity of the Commons Unfolding That We Must Act Collectively Against- How best To Express It?

Citizens Defending Libraries has held forums, three so far, about the sell-off of our public assets.  We have seen it in multiple ways, but over and over again the patterns are reminiscent of each other, recurring situations where the same play book seems to be the reference of those maneuvering to seize our public assets.  What appears below reflects the consensus reached at those forums that we should be taking collective action, standing together to oppose these seizures.

Among other things it was agreed we should have a joint letter to state what we have in common and what we join in demanding from out elected official and those who would run for office.

But how to express it?  We have been working on that.  This letter has been circulating and although it may benefit from some further refinement it has been very well-received.  What do you think?  Because it is time for everyone to be thinking about these things.
A Sign-On Letter of Support: We Stand Collectively Against The Sale of Public Assets- For Your Consideration
We sign this letter urging the protection of our public assets hoping that you as our elected officials will take our message to heart recognizing us as the public constituency to which you are properly accountable.

Our public assets, our public properties are under attack.  We believe the situation is increasingly dire.  That which endows the public realm and the public commons with its value and essential meaning is in jeopardy.  In deals that skew toward private profit at public expense, greed is exceeding itself as never before to push the envelope of what is conceivable everywhere we look.

Public parks and public buildings built on city-owned land. .  schools, colleges, libraries, fire houses, playgrounds, police stations, hospitals, housing, memorials . . these public assets are part of our New York  heritage, civic architecture and crucial infrastructure and resources that belong to everyone.  If city services are relocated, cut back or curtailed when city buildings are privatized, everyone loses, except the privileged few who arrive on the scene purporting to be our new “private partners.”

To acquaint yourself more fully with the spectrum of assets under attack look at the names of the groups signing this letter and consider the assets those groups were formed to protect.  Their statements about why they are signing this letter elucidate this crisis further.

Built by our forefathers with public funds and resources, assembled over decades, some more than a century ago, the basic amenities of the public realm that are at stake are increasingly irreplaceable.  The same rapidly escalating land values underlying these properties and the prime locations that put them squarely in the sights of the real estate industry virtually assures the impossibility of the public’s reacquiring such treasures ever again.  Similarly, the master craftsmanship and natural materials of the traditional architecture these assets feature will be increasingly costly and hard to obtain, or in anyway replicate.

Part of the problem is that we are in an era of increasing income and wealth inequality with the most affluent in our society lowering the taxes they pay.  Some may assert that a significant diminishment and elimination of the public realm must therefore be accepted as inevitable even as the city and its wealth continue to grow.  We, however, choose to view this new imbalance as temporary and subject to correction.

More insidious is how the growing political inequality and the power that flows from mounting economic disparities is being abused.  We witness the interests of money repeatedly prioritized over the rights of the voting electorate as potent influence is exercised to lay siege to our public properties.

We cannot let a privileged few with special access show up on the steps of government with plans to sell and privatize our assets, plundering their value.  Because these losses are so tragically permanent and long-term we must think in terms of the future, banding together to face the current assault and draw the line, doing everything we can to ensure our public assets are protected immediately.

Although the reasons for alarm should be obvious, we are concerned that the public servants we must  look to as guardians too frequently are not alert or responsive.  Outcry is essential when reorganizations under the rubric of “partnerships” convey responsibility for the provision of basic government functions, like public schools, parks and public libraries to those focused on private profit.  In these situations we find the public baited into accepting Faustian bargains premised on notions that the unacceptable be accepted.

Brutally inverted propositions perplex the public:
•    Your city can’t keep pace with the rampant development in your vicinity to provide the public school expansion now needed?  A developer will provide the public school if it can do whatever it wants with a historic district, turned over to it as ransom.

•    The city refuses libraries their traditional and appropriate level of funding?  You may be told that you can have a better library if the community consents to upzoning because libraries are openly discussed as nice “placating” gestures, tactics, to push through developers’ schemes.
In all these situations the private offerors’ incentive is to minimize public benefit while maximizing private profit.  Our new private gatekeepers benefit from withholding public benefit, particularly since dribbling benefits out in the smallest possible increments will allow them to return more often with new proposed “bargains.”  Even worse, the private sector is given an incentive to foment public crisis for private exploitation.

When the job of managing our public properties is captured by private interests with altered agendas, we see a dismaying shift of balance in the way these so-called “partners” manage things and the outcomes that result.  We get, for instance, the spectacle of hospitals expertly administered by top-talent professionals who skillfully deliver premium real estate deals while entrusted community health care facilities are steered into bankruptcy.

Over and over again we see a lack of transparency with the adoption of unnecessarily complicated governance structures and funding mechanisms, set-ups that seem best contrived to deflect accountability.

Reflect and you will probably recognize these aspects of commonly recurring modus operandi by those raiding public treasures:
•    Withhold funds claiming there’s no money for public assets or that what we publicly own can only be funded with self-cannibalizing sell-offs.

•    Manufacture crisis conditions and present false choices, seeking to promote “TINA” narratives (“There Is No Alternative”).  This can include overestimating and inflating repair and maintenance costs while so-called “solutions” are rushed forward.

•    Underestimate the value of what the public owns.  This way assets (e.g. Donnell Library) can be disposed of at far less than true value benefitting developers and escaping accountability to the public.

•    Do top-down designed deals that the public will be the last to know about, part of a general effort to eliminate the public from discussions to the maximum extent possible.

•    Stack decision-making boards with people who are unsympathetic to those served by the targeted assets.

•    Do deals calibrated to be benefit .01% while frequently, opportunistically, taking advantage of income inequality to target assets that have more value to the less politically powerful and less advantaged.

•    Dismiss alternatives to protect and preserve the assets.  (Includes obfuscating and ignoring facts).
The way in which we see our public assets attacked are obvious symptoms of another major necessary conversation that looms in the background.  When assets the public clearly cherishes and would chose to pay for are targeted for transfers catering to private objectives we know that we must recognize the root causes for this neglect of the public will. Money in politics, election and campaign finance reform must be addressed.  Still, it is essential that our public assets be protected now without these more encompassing, albeit related, battles having to be won first.  In fact, we cannot let these conversions of public capital into even more private gain additionally fuel the imbalance and inequity being fought.

We believe that it is important to view all these many attacks on our public assets as being all of a whole.  All of these lop-sided deals should receive collective scrutiny.  The often common and repeated stratagems employed against the public should be looked at on an integrated basis, which includes noting that there is a high frequency of overlap among the players and political operatives that present them to us.

We request your support and your statements of allegiance.  Most of all we request that you take action that is observable as effective.  Not only are we reaching out, we will also be watching.

All who represent us and are charged with protecting our interests need to roundly and soundly agree that this era of putting the public’s property on the auction block is an era who’s time has passed.  It was never sustainable in the first place. Whenever deals like these present themselves we must recognize them for the cheats and swindles that they are, greet them as dead on arrival and pack them off with the quick funerals they deserve.


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NOTE:  Some of what appears below may may show up and factor in to signatures sign-on statements.

Here are some example of assets under attack:
•    Parks- We speak of trees cut down for Fashion Week tents or Yankee Stadium parking garages, Central Park subjected to the creep of long shadows from “stash” pads stacked a mile high, park space handed over for commercialization and development

•    Public Housing- How can it be proposed that playgrounds used by children in public housing should be sacrificed to build luxury housing?

•    Public Schools-
    •    The attraction of maximizing any public school site’s development potential is not an excuse to uproot the eco-system of well-functioning schools intending to transform their real estate, after extended disruption, into mixed-use competitions between school space and luxury apartment extravaganzas.
    •    The devil is met in the details when it comes to private charter schools commandeering the assets of public schools, but efforts to tilt the playing field are a stark cautionary tale when private investors manipulate behind the scenes.
•    Our Hospitals- Hospitals are health care, not real estate deals.  Hospitals are basic city infrastructure.  Real estate development has its place and it grows the city, but when hospitals are converted to real estate deals we have a grown city without the infrastructure to tend to the growing population.  Everybody gets sick, old, and needs care in the event of accidents.

•    Our Libraries- Is there a better example of disregard for public assets from a private sector unleashed than the notions now afoot about drastically shrinking our libraries while underfunding them and getting rid of the books and librarians?

•    Our Public Spaces- Are the attractions of private ownership so great and privatization’s supposed virtues so remarkable that the continued existence of truly public spaces and public places, including, but not limited to public plazas, streets, avenues and sidewalks are now in jeopardy creating with their demise free speech issues and issues of basic liberty as private ownership trumps individual freedoms?

•    Our Light and Air- Our Views- At some point density must have its limits.  We need space to breath.  There are times when we need to see the sky and feel the sun.  When we don’t recognize this our city becomes unlivable.  And we lose something profound, when for example, the press for over-development creatively side-steps regulation so that even such classic vistas as our views of the Brooklyn Bridge succumb.

•    Historic Districts and Landmarks- Landmarks and history give us our bearings, reference points reminding of who we are, where we are headed, yet we watch as developers manipulate to wrest such recognized treasures from the public.

•    The Public Spirit of Our Institutions- Our museums and cultural institutions are publicly supported and yet, more and more we find them not supporting us as they erect ever higher pay-walls and engage in questionable conduct shilling for real estate developers or adopt grandiosely insensitive schemes.  And it is to be remembered that sometimes the way that public assets are taken over is by taking over, like the Brooklyn Public Library or the NYPL, the public institutions that own and manage them.

•    Our Environment- Like the light and air we hope to find all around us, the environment surrounding us benefits beings broadly, equally and universally and yet for the private profit of a very few individuals we perilously skirt the edge of calamity suffering toxic usurpations of our water, our air, our climate with, for example, hydraulic fracturing where with induced earthquakes even the stability of the ground beneath our feet is sacrificed.
Please contact Citizens Defending Libraries with respect to the above, participating in our next forum or taking further colection with respect to the above: 718 (area code) 834.6184. 

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