By Nathan Tankus, a student and research assistant at the University of Ottawa. You can follow him on Twitter at @NathanTankus
Libraries (along with post offices) have been a central part of urban planning for over a century. Orthodox urban economics is all about taking a central urban area as given, and then calculating “optimal” rental values in the areas surrounding this center. Of course, the center of an urban area isn’t “given” or naturally occurring; they are designed and planned. Public facilities such as libraries helped generate central areas. In this context it is no coincidence wealthy benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie took interest in planning and constructing public libraries (Van Slyck 1991). The areas around public libraries gained customers and “locational rent” (in the language of the seminal economic geographer Von Thünen). Even though these institutions have become less important for land values and foot traffic, their presence helped generate these neighborhoods.
Now that these buildings have “done their jobs” (in FIRE sector terms) they can do one more thing for finance and real estate: be killed for private sector fun and profit. This is precisely what is taking place in New York City. The problem for FIRE is getting these privatizations to happen. Luckily for them, the financial crisis solved this problem. By generating budget shortfalls for state and local governments, the financial crisis has given people like mayor Bloomberg the opportunity to make cuts to popular social services like libraries. Why is FIRE interested in budget cuts? Because they reduce money needed for maintenance and thus make the library system appear too large for the city to handle (they also reduce public services, thus making them less popular). The Brooklyn Public Library, for example, has “a $230 million backlog of deferred maintenance, barely dented by the $15 million annual allotment of capital funding.”
Our billionaire Mayor is now trying to deliver a death blow to the public library system. In his budget for Fiscal year 2014 “the Administration is proposing a $193 million subsidy for the systems, which is a 35 percent reduction from the Fiscal 2013 Adopted Budget.” Unsurprisingly, the number one impact highlighted by the mayor is “branch closings”. According to Albor Ruiz writing in the New York Daily News, “More than 60 libraries will have to close their doors and there will be massive layoffs resulting in disastrous cuts to hours and services.” At this point in the negotiations, the final cuts may end up being somewhat less severe. However even a cut half or a third as large as this one would be devastating.
This process has been going on for years. Last year the Mayor took similar steps. To quote last year’s report, “For Fiscal 2013, the Administration is proposing a $206 million subsidy for the systems, which is a 31 percent reduction from the Fiscal 2012 Adopted Budget.” These reductions aren’t limited to libraries: city budgeting has radically changed since the crisis. Every year around this time (in the middle of the year) the mayor proposes a slew of major cuts. These are called “Programs to Eliminate the Gap” (or PEGs). The City Council will sometimes restore some of these funds temporarily for one year out of discretionary funds in the adopted budget that were previously saved for special programs and new initiatives. However, each time they take these steps, the push to fill these gaps with cuts of some fashion intensify and the groups receiving funds have to plan on major cuts in the next budget.
Many argue that the ability of the City Council to resist cuts at the beginning of the fiscal year is limited. While there is some truth to this, I’m skeptical. Current democratic frontrunner for mayor Christine Quinn is speaker of the Council. She also received $800,000 from real estate interests according to New York Public Interest Research Group as of 3 months ago (I’m sure much more has poured in since then). All the other candidates have received significant sums from real estate interests, but Quinn is far and away the favorite. Given this context, why should she do more than make token efforts to resist cuts that push lucrative real estate into her backers’ pockets?
When the public sector divests itself of physical space en masse, the ability for it to regain control is substantially decreased. If an upswing in municipal finances occurs in the future, the enormous amounts of money it takes to purchase and develop real estate (especially in New York) for public use makes rolling back any sell-offs nearly impossible. Additionally, harming the quality of research libraries in New York has a substantial impact on the regional economy since researchers from all over the world come here to access them.
On a more personal note, the New York Public Library has been indispensable for my research (including research I’ve done for this site). Public libraries are essentially the only organization that provide access to journals (both digital and physical) for those without an academic affiliation. Even for those with Academic affiliations, they have a fantastic collection of books and will even digitize selected pages and send them to you at no cost. Destroying public libraries and schools is not only a great boon to the FIRE sector, it also greatly harms are ability to resist and articulately criticize dominant narratives and conventional wisdom. As Orwell famously wrote in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.
Van Slyck, Abigail A. ‘The Utmost Amount of Effectiv [sic] Accommodation': Andrew Carnegie and the Reform of the American Library.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (1991): 359-383.