By Samantha Samel & Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Literary Brooklynites convened at the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library on Monday evening as the Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, Inc. (FBHBL) celebrated their 20-year anniversary with a gala fundraiser. The featured speaker, Brooklyn author Evan Hughes, shared his expert knowledge of the borough's rich literary tradition, reading from his acclaimed book "Literary Brooklyn." "This neighborhood is undoubtedly the epicenter of literary Brooklyn," he told the audience.
The evening began with remarks by Neighborhood Library Supervisor Paula Menzies, Chief Librarian of the Brooklyn Public Library Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Deborah Hallen, president of FBHBL, and Kai Feder from the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.
Feder presented an official Proclamation by Markowitz declaring Monday “Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library 20th Anniversary Day” in Brooklyn. “What event is complete without a Marty Markowitz Proclamation?” Feder said.
Hallen told the Brooklyn Eagle she was thrilled with the recognition of the volunteer group’s 20 years of support for the Brooklyn Heights branch. “It’s really exciting; something like this doesn’t happen every year. This event has been very successful in terms of attendance, dignitaries and book sales.”
Over the years, non-profit FBHBL has raised funds to purchase books, buy a piano and have it tuned, fund the chess club and pay for regular programs and performances such as last winter’s African American History Recital.
Hughes began his discussion by introducing his book, which he called a "hybrid of literary biography and urban history." "Literary Brooklyn" traces the development of Brooklyn by following the histories of some of its greatest writers, among them Hart Crane, Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Norman Rosten and Henry Miller.
Hughes, a Fort Greene resident who has lived in Brooklyn since 1998, said that when he moved to the borough he was curious about its distinct literary tradition. He knew where Norman Mailer lived and where Hart Crane wrote “The Bridge,” but he wanted a comprehensive book that would piece these bits of history together. Since the book did not exist, Hughes resolved to write it himself, and found the Brooklyn Public Library to be a chief resource for his research.
"The Brooklyn Public Library in general was an outstanding resource for me when writing the book. Each of the branches has its own strengths; my interests often brought me here to the Brooklyn Heights branch," Hughes told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday. "Librarians have always been quiet heroes for me," he added.
Hughes spoke specifically about Norman Mailer, reading excerpts about the writer who lived much of his life in Brooklyn Heights. Hughes chose to highlight Mailer, he said, because of the writer's conviction that something important is always at stake in a book. Libraries, he noted, function with a similar standpoint.
He also spoke about Mailer's complex relationship with Brooklyn. "I always think of him as one who embraced the Brooklyn grit," said Hughes, describing Mailer’s move from the Flatbush of his youth – where Mailer grew up as a “nice Jewish boy” – to Crown Heights and its “alrightnik” Jews, and eventually Brooklyn Heights. Mailer was the ‘Brooklyn Kid,’” Hughes said.
Mailer’s home on Columbia Heights overlooking the Promenade was where he raised eight children, celebrated his fourth and sixth weddings, and lived with his sixth wife, Norris Church Mailer. The house was the scene of “huge parties” with fabulous guests like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and boxer Jose Torres. It was also where Mailer plotted his ill-starred run for mayor with fellow writer Jimmy Breslin, Hughes said.
Among the Monday event’s attendees were Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association; Assemblywoman Joan Millman; Councilmember Stephen Levin; illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky; retired librarian Deloris McCullough; literary translator Mary Hudson; library user Justine Swartz; and Irving Demsky, the oldest employee of the Brooklyn Public Library system at age 83.
“Tonight was a lovely event,” said Ms. Stanton. “I learned more about Norman Mailer’s history than I did before and bought a book.”
Assemblyman Millman told the Brooklyn Eagle, “I’m always pleased to support my branch. I spent many productive hours here while studying for my Masters in Library Science at Pratt.” She added, “Brooklyn Heights has a tremendous literary past that a lot of young residents don’t know about. Books like ‘Literary Brooklyn’ are very helpful.”
Mr. Demsky, a librarian for 36 years, the last 20 in the Brooklyn Heights branch, was asked how he kept so youthful. “Librarians keep your mind young and flexible,” he said. Retired librarian McCullough said she loved the celebration. “I saw people I knew 20 years ago.”
While supporters celebrated inside the Heights branch, a group of protestors unhappy with Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) controversial plans to sell the site of the Heights branch to a private developer confronted some of the attendees on the sidewalk outside.
“Please don’t allow your money to be used to sell and shrink public libraries,” was the message of the group Citizens Defending Libraries (http://citizensdefendinglibraries.blogspot.com/), which is urging a moratorium on all public library sales in New York City, including the Heights branch.
Faced with a broken air conditioner and other repairs which BPL says will total $9 million, in January BPL revealed its plans for the Heights branch and said the developer would be required to include a 20,000 sq. ft. library on the ground level of the new building. While the total square footage is smaller, Hallen says the “usable” floor space is roughly equivalent to the present branch.
The Business Library, however, will be moving to the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza – a site that some patrons, like Ms. Swartz, say is “far from its user base and inaccessible to the handicapped.”
Hallen said that FBHBL’s role is to be the best watchdog as possible for the Heights branch in the light of these tumultuous events. “The FBHBL, Inc.'s role is to ensure that we are never without a Brooklyn Heights Branch Library. Our aim is to also prevent any interruption or degradation of library services in the course of the possible sale and development of the site of the existing branch,” the Steering Committee’s position statement reads.