It’s a balmy Thursday morning in the New Lots neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn, 70F (21C) and sunny on the last day of March. Small groups of middle-aged men banter outside bodegas and on stoops of the small, semi-detached brick houses that are common in the area. Mothers and grandmothers push strollers and watch over preschool children who hop and skip and revel in the unseasonable warmth. The sidewalks have awakened.
Street life in East New York is busy, but not always congenial. The district is one of the poorest in the city, with about half the residents living below the poverty line. It’s also one of the most segregated. Nearly 95% of residents are black or Latino, and only 1% are white. The area is also among the most violent neighborhoods in New York City, with especially high levels of homicide, felony assault, and sexual assault.
Social scientists sometimes call East New York socially isolated, because its peripheral location and limited public transit options restrict access to opportunities in other parts of the city, while people who don’t live there have little reason to visit and strong incentives to stay away. Conditions like these are bad for everyone, but research shows that they’re particularly treacherous for older, sick, and frail people, who are prone to hunkering down in their apartments.
Living in a place like East New York requires developing coping strategies, and for many residents, the more vulnerable older and younger ones in particular, the key is to find safe havens. And on this and every other Thursday morning this spring, many residents who might otherwise stay home alone will gather at the neighborhood’s most heavily used public amenity: the New Lots branch library.
Libraries are not the kinds of institutions that most social scientists, policymakers, and community leaders usually bring up when they discuss social capital and how to build it. But they offer something for everyone, regardless of whether they’re a citizen, a permanent resident, or even a convicted felon – and all of it for free. Doing research in New York City, I learned that libraries and their social infrastructure are essential not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for buffering all kinds of personal problems – including isolation and loneliness.
The extra services and programming they provide for older people are particularly important. As of 2016, more than 12 million Americans aged 65 and above live by themselves, and the ranks of those who are aging alone is growing steadily in much of the world. Although most people in this situation are socially active, the risk of isolation is formidable. In neighborhoods where crime is high or the social infrastructure is depleted, old people are more likely to stay home, alone, simply because they lack compelling places to go.
There are more people living alone than at any point in history. That’s worrisome because, as a large body of scientific research now shows, social isolation and loneliness can be as dangerous as more publicized health hazards, including obesity and smoking. And while these problems may be particularly acute in older people in struggling neighborhoods like East New York, they’re hardly confined to them.
Consider Denise, a fashion photographer in her late 30s whom I met in the Seward Park library children’s floor on a chilly April morning. She’s wearing jeans, a long black coat, and large tortoiseshell glasses. The children’s floor might not be a second home anymore, not since her daughter started preschool, but during her first few years of being a mother Denise was here almost every day.
“I live close,” she tells me. “We moved here six years ago. I didn’t think about what it would mean to live by a library, not at all. But this place has become very dear to me. So many good things have happened because we come here.” Denise stopped working when her daughter was born, but her husband, an attorney, didn’t. On the contrary, the demands on his time increased, and he worked well into the evening, leaving her in a small Manhattan apartment with a baby she loved intensely but also with a feeling of loneliness beyond anything she’d experienced before.
“I had a pretty bad case of postpartum depression,” she tells me. “There were days when getting out of the apartment was just a huge struggle. I suddenly went from working in this job I loved to spending all my time at home trying to take care of things that really matter but that I didn’t know how to do. I felt like I was in the trenches, you know? You can go crazy like that. I had to get out, but it was hard. And I didn’t know where to go.”
At first Denise tried taking the baby to coffee shops, hoping she’d nap or rest quietly while she went online or read. That didn’t happen. “I’d go to Starbucks and there would be all these people there working or having meetings. It’s a place for grownups, right? When the baby starts crying everyone turns around and stares at you. It’s like: ‘What are you doing here? Can’t you take her away?’ It’s definitely not kid-friendly.”
Denise had spent time in libraries as a child in California but hadn’t used the system much since moving to Manhattan. On one especially stressful day, though, she put her daughter in the stroller and brought her into the Seward Park library, just to see what was there. “An entire world opened up that day,” she remembers. “There were the books, of course. You can’t have a lot of them when you live in a small apartment, but here there are more than we could ever read. And then I discovered that there’s a whole social scene going on between everyone who comes here.”
I interviewed dozens of people about their memories of growing up in libraries and learned about all kinds of ways that the experience mattered: discovering an interest that they’d never have found without librarians. Feeling liberated, responsible, intelligent. Forging a new relationship, deepening an old one. Sensing, in some cases for the first time, that they belong.
Sharon Marcus grew up in a working-class family in Queens where money was tight and everyone was busy. “Home was not peaceful,” she recalls. “And the park, where I spent a lot of time, was rambunctious. There was never really any spot that you could just sit and be by yourself. I was an introvert, and I needed some time when I wasn’t gonna talk to anyone. I wanted to read for as long as I wanted, to be completely in charge of my time, my energy, how I was using my attention, where I was directing it, for how long. And the library was a place I could go and ignore people, but also know that I wasn’t alone.”
Marcus has vivid memories of the books she read in her branch library. It started with stories about ordinary kids in New York City living lives very different from hers, and in time she grew interested in books about female actors and film stars. “I remember finding a whole bunch of biographies of women who were queens and saints. Even now, I can physically see where this section was in the building. I was interested in queens because, well, why wouldn’t I be? They were like men who had done something.
“I don’t know how they organized that section but it was basically about women who had achieved things. I devoured it.”
The library became even more important to Marcus when she entered adolescence. “I was shy, but [the librarians] never made me feel weird. Nobody treated me like I was special or super-smart, either. They were just neutral. And that, I think, was a real gift. It made the library a space of permission, not encouragement that pushed you in a certain direction, where you feel like people are watching you and like giving their approval, but just freedom to pursue what you want.”
No other place in Marcus’s life worked that way: not home, where her parents monitored her choices; not synagogue, where she felt intense moral pressure but no sense of belonging; not school, where teachers and staff were quick to judge. The library, she learned, could accommodate nearly all of her interests, especially if she left her neighborhood and visited the main Queens library or the stunning central library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
“I remember going there to do a big research paper in high school,” she explains. “It was before the internet, and finding things took so much more effort … I realized that there were all these things I wanted to understand about how the world worked, and that here I could find the answers through books and reading.”
She remains a regular, to this day, though now that she’s the Orlando Harriman professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, finding time for public library visits isn’t as easy as it was when she was a kid.
Jelani Cobb, who grew up in Hollis, Queens, during the 1970s, also believes that the most important part of his education happened in his neighborhood library. His father, who migrated from southern Georgia, was an electrician who started working at age nine and had only a third-grade education; his mother, from Alabama, had a high school degree.
“They’d take a great deal of pride in reading the newspaper every single day,” he says, “going to the library, taking out books and so on, supplementing what they didn’t get as kids.”
Cobb remembers getting his first library card at about nine years old at the public library on 204th Street and Hollis Avenue.
“I said I wanted to get a library card. I think if you were old enough to sign your name you could get a card. And she gave me the thing! I signed my name and the card was mine!”
One of the first books he took out was about Thomas Edison, and it reported that as a child Edison read a one-foot stack of books each week. “I set out to do the same thing, and of course, I don’t think I did it,” Cobb recalls. “But that sparked a lifelong habit of spending many hours reading, which is amazing. And I remember being fascinated by the idea that as a young person, you could go to this place and read anything that you wanted. All these things were on the shelves! It was almost kind of like, ‘Do people know about this?’”
Cobb spent a lot of time alone in the library, exploring politics, art, and literature, and sometimes delving into controversial topics that he’d grown curious about during conversations at home or in church (he was raised Catholic). The library, he says, helped him become his own person, free to question authority and think for himself. Today, those are skills that he uses often. He’s a staff writer for the New Yorker and a professor of journalism at Columbia.
Cobb’s mother died in 2011, and he wanted to do something to honor her love for the library and his memory of the time they spent there together. “The year she passed away, I purchased a computer at our branch of the Queens library, the one where she’d taken me to get my first library card. I put a little plaque on it that says ‘For Mary Cobb’. I thought it would be a contribution to a place that my mother felt was valuable. And I felt like it was the right thing to do because it was so central for both of us. I mean, everything I do started from being able to read all those books when I was nine or 10.”
Social infrastructure provides the setting and context for social participation, and the library is among the most critical forms of social infrastructure that we have. It’s also one of the most undervalued.
In recent years, modest declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led some critics to argue that the library is no longer serving its historical function as a place for public education and social uplift. Elected officials with other spending priorities argue that 21st-century libraries no longer need the resources they once commanded because on the internet most content is free. Architects and designers eager to erect new temples of knowledge say libraries should be repurposed for a world where books are digitized and so much public culture is online.
Many public libraries do need renovations, particularly the neighborhood branches. But the problem libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them or take out books. On the contrary: so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.
According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans aged 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community”. In many neighborhoods the risk of such closures is palpable, because both local library buildings and the systems that sustain them are underfunded and overrun.
In New York City, library circulation is up, program attendance is up, program sessions are up, and the average number of hours that people spend in libraries is up too. But New York City doesn’t have an exceptionally busy library culture, nor is it a national leader.
Those distinctions belong to other places. Seattle leads the nation in annual circulation per capita, while Columbus has the highest level of program attendance: five of every 10,000 residents participate in library activities there each year.
New York City also ranks low in per capita government spending for the system. The New York public library receives $32 for every resident, on par with Austin and Chicago but less than one-third of the San Francisco public library, which gets $101 per resident.
Urban library systems in the United States have long been public-private partnerships, and city governments have long relied on philanthropists to fund much of the library’s work. Still, it’s hard to understand why most cities give so little public support to their libraries. According to recent reports from the Pew Research Center, more than 90% of Americans see their library as “very” or “somewhat” important to their community, and in the past decade “every other major institution (government, churches, banks, corporations) has fallen in public esteem except libraries, the military, and first responders”.
Despite this support, in recent years cities and suburbs across the United States have cut funding for libraries, and in some cases closed them altogether, because political officials often view them as luxuries, not necessities. When hard times come, their budgets get trimmed first.
Today, we may have every reason to feel atomized and alienated, distrustful and afraid. But some places have the power to bring us together, and social bonding happens in thousands of libraries throughout the year.
Our communities are full of children whose future, like Cobb’s and Marcus’s, will be formed in the places where they go to learn about themselves and the world they’ll inherit. They deserve palaces. Whether they get them is up to us.
Palaces for the People: How To Build a More Equal and United Society by Eric Klinenberg is published by Bodley Head
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