Like a lot of Queens residents, I’m pleased to hear that the new Hunters Point library is finally opening. After at least a decade of delay, and at a cost of more than $40 million, visitors are going to have a beautiful space for reading with amazing views of the East River in an elaborate concrete-and-glass piece of architecture.
But with over $200 million in unfunded capital needs for local Queens branches, my hope for the future is that we return some sanity to the way in which we allocate resources throughout our local branches of the Queens Public Library system.
The Hunters Point branch was conceived and funded during the disastrous Thomas Galante era. Galante served as the head of the library from 2005 until he was ultimately ousted in 2014 after Daily News and city investigations revealed that he had used library funds to spend lavishly on himself — over and above his $392,000 annual salary. Among other things, Galante splurged on meals, booze, concert tickets and furnishings for an office roof deck.
According to a fawning piece in The New York Times, the new library’s 22,000-square-foot interior allows for space to “spiral some 60 feet upward and outward from a shallow canyon-like lobby, unfolding in elevation as a sequence of tiered desks, book stacks and social spaces. The inside is mostly warm bamboo, with spectacular views.”
Galante, being a big spender, loved this library too. “We know the Hunters Point community deserves a world-class library,” he boasted in 2014. Elected officials representing Long Island City agreed with him.
I cannot take issue with a beautiful building, but I can gripe about how Galante ignored the rest of our borough’s libraries.
The same Times article that fawned over the new branch’s architecture failed to mention woeful funding to fix serious problems elsewhere, like failing HVAC systems, boilers and electrical systems and collapsing roofs.
There are 66 branches in the Queens Public Library system. When one looks back at the system’s total funding from 2007, the year the Hunters Point library was conceived, through 2017, when the majority of the project’s funding was budgeted, there are clearly huge disparities in the way our libraries were funded.
Library administrators readily admit that nearly all of the libraries throughout the system are in dire need of financial help, but based on the capital expenditures provided to me from Queens Library 43 of those 66 branches received less than 1% of total financial assistance from the system. During that same time, 47% of the systems capital budget was expended on only five branches, Hunters Point being one of them.
The South Ozone Park branch, which was closed this entire summer, is one of the long-neglected buildings. After a far too long wait with scaffolding up for two full years, waiting far too many months for work to begin, the library has finally gotten a new roof after the building’s ceiling nearly caved in.
Sure, Hunters Point is nice, but at what cost? A newly constructed public school in New York costs $800 per square foot to build; the Hunters Point library branch, on the other hand, cost $1,900 per square foot.
According to a recent Pew Research survey, 77% of all Americans age 16 and above say libraries provide them with resources they need. Moreover, the generation using libraries the most are not retired boomers, but instead overworked millennials, proving that the libraries will continue to play a significant role into the future.
There is no place in America more in need of great libraries than here in Queens, where people from across the world reside, looking to read in their native language and learn English while they’re at it.
So as I do look forward to taking in the grand views of Manhattan from Hunters Point’s starchitect-designed library windows on opening day, I also cannot wait to see Queens’ libraries get back to the regular business of serving regular people.
Crowley, a former councilwoman, sat on Council’s Library Committee from 2009 to 2017.