By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Brooklyn Heights Branch Library and its allied support organization, the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library Inc. have been much in the news lately, with the controversial proposal to sell the library property to a developer.
The Friends’ secretary, Deborah Hallen, agreed to discuss with this paper the history of the support organization, its role at the library, and her own roles at not only the library but in the community at large.
Long-time Brooklyn Heights residents may be familiar with Ms. Hallen from her career as a teacher at P.S. 8 in the Heights, where she started in 1987. In that role and as a long-time volunteer – at the Promenade garden; at the Children’s Room at the Brooklyn Family Justice Center’s Domestic Violence Unit; at Congregation B’nai Avraham; and at the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library – it seems Hallen is recognized almost wherever she goes in Brooklyn.
Before transferring to P.S. 8, Hallen taught second grade at P.S. 67 in the Ingersoll housing projects in Fort Greene. Her daughter Anna was born in 1984. “She stayed in the Teen Aid nursery for the high school students there,” Hallen said, adding that local grandmas would cuddle her. Her daughter Rachel was born in 1988, after Hallen had moved to P.S. 8 to work in her own neighborhood.
Hallen also happened to be boxer Mike Tyson’s science teacher in Brownsville back in 1977. “I jumped over a row of desks to pull him off another student,” she recalls.
In summer of 1993 Hallen became the first treasurer of the newly-formed Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library (FBHBL). “Our first big fundraiser was at Borough Hall in the spring of 1994,” she told this paper. “We made bookmarks, and famous authors and illustrators signed their autographs – Norman Mailer, Norman Rosten, the whole gang. We raised a lot of money that first year.”
Hallen eventually became president of the FBHBL group. During a year-long sabbatical from teaching, she appeared at the library every Wednesday to teach fingerplays to the kids. “When I went back to work, kids would see me in front of Cranberry’s and sing the fingerplays,” she laughed.
Hallen stepped down in 2001 as president of FBHBL after becoming UFT Chapter leader at P.S. 8, but remained on as a trustee, leaving the group of roughly five officers and 15 trustees. She retired from P.S. 8 in 2005, after 36 years as a New York City teacher, having been nominated twice as “Outstanding Teacher of the Year.”
Diana Prizeman – also well known in the Heights as owner of a local preschool, volunteer at P.S. 8 and reviewer of children’s books for this newspaper – was elected President of FBHBL in 2001 and led the group for more than a decade.
After 9/11/01, interest in FBHBL started to wane. Hallen said she was “grateful that Prizeman kept the group going.” Eventually, Hallen said, Ms. Prizeman decided she wanted to spend more time traveling and visiting her grandchildren.
“We met and jointly figured out how to reinvigorate the group,” Hallen said.
“We advertised a meeting on the Brooklyn Heights Blog, went to a PTA meeting at P.S. 8, talked to families who brought their children to the Babies and Toddler programs and started reenergizing,” she said. Hallen even recruited several new members while doing laundry in her building’s basement laundry room.
Hallen discussed the role of the all-volunteer FBHBL: “As a 501(c)(3) corporation, we have to abide by the Mission Statement,” she told this paper. “The mission is to support the branch.”
“Primarily, we raise money. We raised money to buy the piano, and pay to have it tuned. We purchase books and hold Friday book sales. We pay for the chess club and regular programs and performances. Most recently, we paid for the African American History Recital in February. We fund-raise for the ‘Support of Our Shelves’ every year.”
In January, FBHBL presented “Dedicated To Hart Crane,” a program about one of Brooklyn Heights’ best-known poets. FBHBL will celebrate their 20th anniversary with a Gala on October 21, honoring Evan Hughes, author of Literary Brooklyn.
Hallen said FBHBL raised roughly $ 7,000 in this Fiscal Year 2011-2012.
* * *
For years, the air conditioning system at the Brooklyn Heights branch had been failing during summer heat waves. Faced with a replacement cost in the millions and other repairs bringing the total to $9 million, in January financially-stretched BPL revealed that it aimed to sell the library’s valuable Heights’ real estate to a private developer who would include 20,000 sq. ft. library on the ground level.
BPL also confirmed that the Business Library, which shares the building with the Brooklyn Heights Branch, would be moved to the Central Library in Prospect Heights, as published in the BPL Strategic Plan of January 11, 2013.
“We were originally offered 15,000 sq. ft. but have been told in the RFP they’re offering 20,000 sq. ft. now,” Hallen said.
Hallen feels the 20,000 sq. ft. is probably equivalent to the “useful” floor space of the present branch (which does not include space belonging to the Business Library, such as the large ground-floor computer room). “Though we wish it could be larger,” she said.
“The current branch is 15,000 square feet, plus the auditorium,” she said. The Business Library takes up roughly 13,000 sq. ft.; the auditorium measures under 2,000 sq. ft. Some of the library’s current floor space is inefficiently allocated to corridors and subdivided areas; the new floor plan will be more open, requiring less staff and less office and storage space. It will also include a multipurpose room that can function as an auditorium or be reconfigured as needed, she said.
Including the basement and sub-basement (both originally built as air raid shelters) the entire building is 60,000 sq. ft. Of this, the basements account for roughly half the square footage.
After a confrontational public meeting featuring speaker Josh Nachowitz, VP of Government & Community Relations at BPL, a broader Community Advisory Committee (CAC) was put together which included representatives from community groups and elected officials. (Hallen sits on the CAC, representing FBHBL.) Hallen also formed a smaller Steering Committee to plan together before the CAC. Besides Hallen, other members include a member of the Brooklyn Heights Association, two attorneys, a librarian and will soon add an architect.
The CAC may be enlarged to include the Fulton Ferry Association and the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance, as well as representatives from Cadman Towers, Concord Village and Farragut Houses, Hallen said.
While Hallen is personally opposed to the library building’s sale -– she has memories of her children learning to read and paint there -– as a steward of the FBHBL, she may not oppose it. Hallen focuses on the possibility that the funds from the sale just might flow back into BPL’s coffers, to the benefit of all the libraries.
She sees FBHBL’s role as being the best watchdog for the branch as possible. “The FBHBL, Inc.'s role is to insure 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.
The statement continues: “It is imperative that access to the public library is maintained in the face of logistical challenges, and that library service continues to be provided seamlessly to our community. Moreover, in keeping with the stated goals of the BPL, the FBHBL expects to exercise oversight and to provide meaningful input into the size and nature of any replacement facility.”
FBHBL especially wants to avoid a major mistake made by the Donnell branch – “decommissioning the library before we find the interim library space,” Hallen said.
The Steering Committee has also corresponded with BPL’s Nachowitz regarding the requirements of the branch’s interim site.“A bookmobile “would not be an acceptable solution. … We expect to have an air conditioned store front of at least 10,000 square feet to accommodate all users: nannies with their charges, seniors, and the plethora of lunchtime visitors from Court Street offices.”
Their letter lists the number of toddlers and nannies that fill the children’s room every afternoon as well as the tally of teens and adult users. It describes how the adult users of computers on the second floor overflow into the Business Library, filling those computers as well.
“We would need at least two dozen computer stations in any temporary quarter,” the letter states.
FBHBL also told Nachowitz that “Court Street workers need and love to use the space on their lunch hour. Then too, we have preschool children who come with their classes to look at books. We need auditorium space for the piano, and to hold community events.”
Hallen noticed at a meeting last week that the requirement for an interim site had not been included in a draft RFP (Request for Proposal) brought before the CAC. “Oh, right, it’s supposed to be in there,” BPL’s representative said.
“If I weren’t sitting there,” Hallen shuddered. “All of those people -- all of the electeds sent their chiefs of staff. Nobody said, ‘Where’s the interim library?’ but me.”
* * *
Hallen’s role at FBHBL is informed by a deep sense of service. On March 12, 2013 she was awarded the Woman of the Year Award from Congregation B’nai Avraham at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.
Steeped in the Orthodox Jewish faith, Hallen is a lifetime member of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers, the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah. She attends the Women’s Torah class at B’nai Avraham.
Hallen represented another Brooklyn Heights synagogue, Congregation. Mt. Sinai, on the Promenade with clergy on the 10th Anniversary of September 11. “Rabbi Potasnik had to go to Ground Zero, and asked me to represent him,” she said. “He gave me a beautiful poem to read.”
Hallen is married to Paul O. Zelinsky, the Caldecott Award winning children’s book illustrator; Hallen is a musician.
“I first found the Heights when I was the harpsichordist for a Heights chamber ensemble,” she said. Besides harpsichord, Hallen also plays piano, flute, dulcimer and djemba, the large, goblet-shaped drum from West Africa.
Hallen said that their daughter Anna, now grown, brought her the djemba as a birthday present while in Ghana, and carried it from the airplane on her back. “You have to understand, she’s five foot two,” she said.
Traditionally, the djemba is played only by men. “I’ve been known to bring it to the Village,” Hallen said. “I go to Washington Square Park, totally disguised. I’ve had my picture taken by dozens of touists.
“One time a group of women was whispering. When I asked them what they were saying, they told me in astonishment, ‘You are the only woman ever allowed to join the group!’”
Djembe comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace."