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Cultural Capital

Politicians’ Hot Air Won’t Save NYC Public Libraries

The City Council greeted the prospect of $58 million in library cuts with a highly choreographed dog and pony show.

A dog and pony show actually doesn’t sound too bad, now that I think about it. (John McCarten / NYC Council Media Unit)

In Mayor Eric Adams's proposed executive budget for the 2025 fiscal year, funding for New York's public libraries was cut by $58 million. In a City Council hearing on Tuesday, the heads of the New York, Queens, and Brooklyn public library systems reiterated that those cuts will lead to a further full day reduction in library services, reducing the total number of days the majority of locations will be open to only five per week. In Brooklyn, Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson shared that it also means half as many young adult literacy classes, citizenship classes, and visits to senior centers and nursing homes, as well as fewer visits to children in hospitals. 

That's on top of the effects of the headline-making cuts from Adams's midyear Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) cuts, which, among other things, forced many of the city's libraries to get rid of Sunday service, double e-book waiting times, and scale back Teen Takeover events by a third. As Johnson said, "It is heartbreaking to think of people who will be deprived of our services." 

After the testimony of the three library heads, Mayor Adams's Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) commissioner Laurie Cumbo sat down, saying, "I could go on and on about the amazing work at the DCLA." And she did, beginning by talking entirely past the council's discussion with the library heads about the critical state of New York City's libraries (which haven't faced such dramatic cuts since the 2008 financial crisis, Johnson said). Cumbo instead began going on about the Bronx Zoo's 125th anniversary, and the stunning views at the Staten Island Chinese Scholar Gardens, and other City-funded things that make Eric Adams "proud of his record of support" for New York's cultural institutions. None of it explained why the mayor seeks to slash library funding.

And the whole hearing was pretty florid, if you ask me, with City Council Finance Committee Chair Justin Brannan muttering "wild" to himself as he, Cultural Affairs Committee Chair Carlina Rivera and the library heads agreed boisterously with each other. Later, Brannan took a break from half-trying to get Cumbo to account for the administration's insistence on further reducing her department's budget and refusal to fill vacant positions by humblebragging about his music career, with Cumbo obligingly complimenting him on his guitar skills.

So if everyone present, from Cumbo, who attends the Met Gala as Mayor Adams's cultural czar (she got engaged there in 2022), to Brannan, wearing a T-shirt that read "Culture For All", to the the chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee, all seemed to agree so vehemently how central New York's libraries and other publicly funded cultural institutions are to city life, we can only hope that the final budget won't be quite as merciless as Mayor Adams proposed.

I won't do that. (Photo: John McCarten / NYC Council Media Unit)

When Brannan and Rivera finally lightly pushed back on Cumbo regarding the mayor's refusal to restore the funding cuts from his PEG, and Cumbo's "flowery prose," she provided paper-thin excuses: That other City agencies like the Department of Education support cultural institutions and that DCLA is the largest cultural agency of any city in the country. (Uh yeah, it's supposed to be. We're the largest city in the country.) When Manhattan Councilmember Gale Brewer pressed Cumbo on public housing for artists in the city, saying "I want to hear that you have some buildings you've identified, and there should be other examples," and, "next time can we get a list?" Cumbo replied that she was "continuing to have conversations and meaningful conversations" about that. Cumbo and the committee chairs didn't let Brewer's interruption of the grandstanding and thanking each other for each others' dedication and advocacy slide, though: "I hope to come back to the next hearing and my rating with councilmember Brewer goes from okay to better." 

"That's all we can all ask for," Rivera joked.

But aside from Brewer, it was only during public testimony, when representatives from library workers' unions sat down to speak, that the hearing took on a tone of urgency. "The mayor never allowed the libraries to recover the staff we've lost since the pandemic," insisted Leonard Paul, president of Local 374, a union that represents these "quasi-public employees." "Since February of 2020 we've lost 234 full-time union positions," Paul said, calling the cuts "a travesty to our libraries." 

"We do not have children's librarians to provide the programs every neighborhood child needs, or custodians to make sure the facilities are as clean as they ought to be," Paul said, as he begged the council to "save our libraries." 

Other representatives from cultural institutions followed, like Lucy Sexton from the Cultural Advocacy Coalition, who began by saying, "Let's be clear, culture is in crisis." Sexton reminded the council that other agencies, such as the Department of Education, that provide funding to cultural institutions were also cutting those cultural budgets under the PEG, and said that she knew, as a teacher in Su Casa, that such programs were sometimes the only points of contact senior New Yorkers make in a week, and they're already stretched too thin, and that the "dollars we do get are so late that many organizations are forced to close." 

Fran Garber-Cohen, the president of Regina Opera, put it even more frankly: "We are letting people down because of the funding cuts. Please help."

In a joint statement, the city's library heads called this whole routine the "budget dance." That's an accurate characterization of Tuesday's hearing, a largely choreographed waste of everyone's time. If all involved agree that the city relies on these programs, then perhaps they should treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

When the library heads finished their testimony, they chuckled with the council members about Brewer's obstinacy—"Gale's giving out money," Brannan quipped at Brewer's insistence that the libraries get the budget restoration they requested. He concluded, "I think it's clear that you're preaching to the choir here." I'm not sure they were. "But it's important the City knows what's at stake," he concluded. I'm not sure they do.

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