Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Too Close For Comfort? Real Estate Addresses- Blackstone, Booz Allen Hamilton, The Libraries & Bryant Park

Here is a quick note, something to take stock of.  I invite readers to see what they can make of it.

At the end of last month I posted an article about how the private spy company Booz Allen Hamilton, regarded by experts as an “arm of the [United States] intelligence community,” with the “federal government as practically its sole client” was hired by the NYPL to overhaul its most important libraries in a scheme that entailed the sale and destruction of the Donnell, Mid-Mahattan and SIBL libraries and the central research stacks of the 42nd Street Central Research Library.

You should know, as background, that the U.S. contracts out the huge preponderance of its surveillance to private firms, and mainly to just a few firms with  Booz Allen Hamilton regarded as the colossus of those few.

In my article, (Snowden, Booz and the Dismantling of Libraries As We Know Them: Why Was A Private Government Spy Agency Hired to Take Apart New York's Most Important Libraries And Turn Them Into Something Else?- Sunday, October 30, 2016) I asked why a spy firm was hired in 2007 for a destructive reorganization of New York’s libraries when, only months before, in May of 2006, it was revealed that librarians had been fighting the federal government’s overreach of secretly taking PATRIOT Act surveillance into the libraries.  Subject to a perpetual gag order, it took years before what was going on was finally revealed to the public, and it was revealed only because the Connecticut librarians involved had finally won their fight.

In turning Noticing New York’s attention to the involvement of Booz and its motives in the dismantling of libraries I turned away, momentarily, away from Noticing New York’s previous major focus on the New York real estate industry’s push to plunder the libraries.

Perhaps I needn’t have: Here is an interesting connection that has surfaced linking the two.

A Noticing New York reader sent me information querying whether something the reader had found out wasn’t too close for comfort: That the spy firm Booz Allen Hamilton, like the NYPL’s prized 42nd Street Central Reference Library, is also located on Bryant Park.  It’s just across from the library.  As the park is not very big, that makes things very close.  Actually, the library itself is technically in Bryant Park, actually on and still part of that city-owned park land.  Something else many people don’t know: Most of the significantly diminished collection of books that are still at the 42nd Street Central Reference Library are actually under the park, in the park’s center connected by passageway underground.

Receiving the information I was able to make still one more important observation. . .

Because I had been paying attention to another thing, the Bryant Park real estate activity of Stephen Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group as the NYPL pursued its destructive Central Library Plan real estate plan, I noticed something else when Booz Allen Hamilton’s address (1095 6th Ave #25B, New York, NY 10036, aka 3 Bryant Park- occupying 12,000 square feet) was identified to me.  Blackstone (among many other things the world’s largest real estate investment firm) was Booz Allen Hamilton’s landlord. . . And Stephen Schwarzman?: He’s an NYPL trustee who was pushing for the destructive Central Library Plan.  (He is also the highest salaried man in America.)

For those who don’t know, Stephen Schwarzman’s name was put on the 42nd Street Central Reference Library (multiple times, five in all) in connection with the Central Library plan that removed its books and would have destroyed its research stacks.

Frankly, once I understood the importance of Booz in connection with the library dismantling, I  had already started researching for connections between Booz and other prime players in the library sell-offs, just as I had been looking out for connections between Blackstone and other principal players, like the connection between Blackstone and the NYC Comptroller’s office (we might hope that Scott Stringer has entirely terminated it) and Blackstone’s relationship with Senator Schumer, whose wife, Iris Weinshall, is now at the NYPL in charge of the NYPL’s continuing library real estate deals.

The potential possible connections between Booz and Blackstone were myriad, but not necessarily easy to find out about or discern if they were there.  Frankly, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I should do some simple address checking.  Now that the landlord/tenant real estate connection is identified, what does it mean?  It could actually mean a lot of things.  It could also, if you want to ascribe it simply to coincidence, mean nothing really.

As it turns out the Bryant Park address, 1095 6th Ave #25B, New York, NY 10036, aka 3 Bryant Park, is being left behind by both Blackstone and Booz.. .

 . . . Blackstone sold the building, inking its deal in November 2014 (the Central Library Plan got substantially disrupted May 2014, partly through lawsuits in which Citizens Defending Libraries, of which I am a co-founder, was a plaintiff).

Booz is leaving the building (announced March 2016) to move across the street into 133 Avenue of the Americas (taking 23,000 square feet on the 28th floor, nearly doubling its presence), a Durst building, the Bank of America Tower, which is only a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building.  Technically the 1,200 foot tower is the fourth tallest building in New York City.  The building is another on the border of the park, looming over it.  It would be the third tallest building in the city except that another building crept in ahead to rank between it and the World Trade Center Tower: We have now built an ultra-tall 1,398 ft residential tower, 432 Park Avenue, one of the new unprecedentedly tall buildings claiming the skyline to cast long shadows on Central Park.

(The Durst tower is, however, about to be suffer another significant demotion that will make it seem to shrink by comparison.  Just down the block, going up next to Grand Central Terminal is the new One Vanderbilt tower, 1,501-foot-tall, being built where it will also tower over Bryant Park.)

It is impossible to say exactly what these coincidences may mean.  I present them here so that those who can do further research, or present information or insight they may already have, can do so. . . .

Does it concern you that the country’s largest private intelligence firm involved with a dismantling overhaul of NYC libraries sits so cheek by jowl close to the preeminent research library thus subject to its dictates, and, similarly, so close to Mid-Manhattan, Manhattan’s largest circulating library? . . .

 . . .  If it does then you are also likely to be creeped out by the fact that millions of books shipped out of the 42nd Street library implementing the plan Booz was hired for went to a site in New Jersey immediately adjacent to the Forrestal Campus, a complex which has stringent federal security requirements as a laboratory devoted to nuclear fusion and plasma physics research.-  Maybe the world of deep federal security has just become too omnipresent overall.

. . . . Whether coincidence or not, does it creep you out that the nation’s largest private spy corporation hired by the NYPL for a dismantling overhaul of our city libraries was simultaneously the tenant of Blackstone, the world’s largest real estate investment corporation (plus many other things) the head of which, Stephen Schwarzman, was on the board of the NYPL pushing for that same dismantling overhaul?

. . .   And then, as we become increasingly beleaguered by dominating big towers and their implications, there are those who will just be creeped out automatically to know that a corporation like Booz, the nation’s biggest private spy corporation, will be located in the third tallest office tower in the city.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Snowden, Booz and the Dismantling of Libraries As We Know Them: Why Was A Private Government Spy Agency Hired to Take Apart New York's Most Important Libraries And Turn Them Into Something Else?

This post will in a moment, I assure you, be about what has been a favorite topic for Noticing New York to keep returning to in recent years: The dismantling of libraries as the institutions we have traditionally relied on, but first. . . .

Oliver Stone’s new film “Snowden” is now out playing in the theaters.  It is a powerful, important, brilliant and spectacularly well-crafted film.  You’re likely to want to see it more than once.  It is also, to an amazing degree about relationships, the kind that can make this world work better and the kind of relationships that drag us into dank swamps.  Although the film can’t pass the Bechdel–Wallace test (a test which must involve two women talking- and there is only one important woman in the film) it may pass muster as a woman’s film in that Snowden’s girlfriend plays such a key role.  An extraordinary amount of what unfolds hinges on the intelligent management of the developing bonds of the couple’s relationship.  To balance that out, the film is also about male bonding, at least to the same extent that one might say the "The Godfather" is about that subject.

The film is, of course, centrally about Snowden’s disclosure, through carefully vetted news reporters, of the massive, illegal, very worrying over-surveillance of the US citizens and basically everybody else in the world as well.  The film should be viewed in tandem with the excellent “Citizen Four” that won the Academy Award last year for best documentary.  That’s especially recommended in a situation where sticking to the facts is so critical.

Despite what some might tell you, the film is far from glib about what are the views of those who probably have positions opposite to Snowden’s and it absolutely does acknowledge that knowing what actual terrorists might be up to is a seriously essential matter.  It does acknowledge that the government's surveillance equipment could be used to protect Americans.  It is therefore more devastating in its indictment when it points out that the country’s over-surveillance of the public is less likely to be about hyper-vigilance to prevent terrorism and more likely to be about other things, things such as military-industrial-surveillance complex boondoggle spending.*  There is also the problem of the secret unleveling of playing fields and for the benefit of whomever that may be.
(* If you want to consider this further, follow the money. . .  And there is a huge amount of money to follow.  The amount of money that flows through our military-industrial-surveillance complex, with all that implies, is mind boggling-especially if you consider that, statistically speaking, it is 82 times more likely for someone to be killed falling out of bed than by a terrorist.  The amounts and portions of our budgets that flow to the spy agencies is not transparent, with a significant amount of such spending in a so-called "black budget" component involving little oversight or check against potential waste.  Frontline’s "Top Secret America" while referring to the secret expenditure figures tells us: "Exactly how much money the NSA was spending in the years after 9/11 is one of the government's most closely guarded secrets. The agency's budget, like its work, is a state secret."  There are some sixteen or so different U.S. intelligence agencies.  The Guardian reported that, as of 2013, the government's "black budget" security agency spending had doubled over what was spent in 2001. But how precisely known these figures are has to be a guess as, for instance, the intricately related Pentagon's budget is very leaky and imprecise with trillions of dollars not properly accounted for on a recurring basis.  It is reported that the Pentagon controls 85% of the intelligence budget.  Budgets of other agencies, like the US Agency for International Development, are also leaky with amounts supposedly designated for other projects diverted to covert intelligence enterprises.  Then there have been the problems with off-budget spending with things like Iran-Contra arms sales or CIA drug trafficking generating unsupervised revenues.  In May of 2011 after the U.S. announced that it had killed Osama Bin Laden in a secret CIA-led operation- about which there are disputed stories- The National Priorities Project calculated that, as of that time, "in all, the U.S. government has spent more than $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security since the 9/11 attacks."  Point of reference: a "trillion" is one million millions.  Notably, there was a significant increase in this torrential spending right after 9/11.  The National Priorities Project calculated that as of that May 2011, in adjusted for inflation terms, the Pentagon base budget- exclusive of the $1.4 trillion spend on the Iraq and Afghan wars- increased 43%, spending on nuclear weapons increased 21% and spending on "Homeland Security" went up 301%.  Prior to 9/11 there had been appreciable decreases in our military-industrial-surveillance complex spending with there being talk of still further reductions due to the expected "peace dividend" flowing from the demise of the Soviet Union.  Total expenditure figures continue to escalate at a fast rate since those 2011 calculations were done: For instance, the $365.9 billion figure the National Priorities Project gave for Homeland Security spending then it now states to have surpassed a total of $708 billion since 9/11 and the total cost of the wars we have waged since 9/11, exclusive of what is spent on the Pentagon base budget now exceeds $1.721 trillion, and just in the year of 2016 we have already spent about $1.1 billion on Predator and Reaper drones.  Put this in perspective of the entire national budget.  Offering its own calculation, the Friends Committee on National Legislation calculates that of the $2.674 trillion “federal fund” budget, which is the spending supported by income taxes, estate taxes, and other general revenues- not the trust funds self-supported by dedicated revenue like Social Security- 37.5% is going to pay for the cost of current and past wars.  It's not clear whether their 37.5% figure includes surveillance expenditures.  The surveillance expenditures also flow through the economy in interesting ways.  Snowden revelations disclosed that security spending included the NSA's making huge payments to internet companies including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook under the Prism program.  If properly calculated, these payments just reimbursed those companies for the cost of compliance with government surveillance requirements.  If not then. . .- Yahoo has recently been prominently in the news for the over-surveillance it did for the NSA.  Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were similarly in the news for such surveillance.  Thoughts on this? New York Magazine quips: "Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were shocked that law enforcement was using a company called Geofeedia to track their users. Only they're allowed to do that!"  As the main body of this piece will go on to make clear one thing that is key to remember about U.S. surveillance spending is that most of it is directed through what is officially the private sector.)
What has the Snowden movie got to do with the dismantling of our libraries as we know them?   It will become clear as we proceed, but first I can give you a hint: It is worthwhile to remember that it was librarians who offered the first successful challenge to the massive illegal over-surveillance of the public.  And now we proceed. . .

As the “Snowden” film nears its climax, the hitherto unknown Snowden is introduced on television screens around the world explaining that he is a employee of Booz Allen Hamilton a private firm contracted with the NSA.

Snowden’s revelations published beginning in June of 2013 acquainted many of us for the first time with the firm of Booz Allen Hamilton and what they do.  Within days we heard this on NPR’s “All Things Considered”:
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in the U.S., the leaks have put a spotlight on the company Edward Snowden worked for. Booz Allen Hamilton is one of the largest private contractors that does intelligence work for the government. Its share of the work keeps getting bigger, and as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, that worries some government watchdogs.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: When you think of government cyber spying, it's easy to think of government employees of the CIA, FBI, NSA, the National Security Agency staring into computer screens, ferreting out foreign or domestic threats in nondescript office buildings. That's all actually true, except for the government employee part. These days, those employees are more likely than ever to work for government contractors.

    * * *

SULLIVAN: Booz Allen Hamilton is one of the largest government contractors in the country. It has 25,000 employees, nearly six billion in annual revenue and, for the most part, one customer: the federal government. Top officials familiar with the company told NPR that almost two-thirds of its work is now focused on intelligence- and defense-related contracts.

JAY STANLEY
[a senior policy analyst for the ACLU who focuses on technology and government.]: Booz Allen Hamilton is really an arm of the intelligence community.

They live on substantial government contracts. They have been involved with some of the most controversial federal surveillance programs in recent years. They have actually lobbied for increased information sharing. And if you look at their leadership and their staff, they are heavily made up of former military and intelligence officers.

    * * * *

SULLIVAN: . . . . The company is considered one of the most trusted government contractors specializing in cybersecurity and technical support. Company records say 76 percent of employees have government security clearances.
(See: Booz Allen Hamilton A Major Player In Intelligence Community, by Laura Sullivan, June 10, 2013.)

A few days after this “All Things Considered” piece ran, Bloomberg Businessweek had a cover story proclaiming Booz Allen Hamilton the most profitable spy company:  Booz Allen, the World's Most Profitable Spy Organization- How a consulting firm turned itself into the world's most profitable spy organization, by Drake Bennett and Michael Riley, June 21, 2013.  Essentially, although technically a private publicly traded company, Booz Allen is virtually indistinguishable from our government itself when it comes to surveillance, with as Bloomberg Businessweek said, the "federal government as practically its sole client."  The government's surveillance work is now carried out predominantly through `private' spy organizations like Booz: "About 70 percent of the 2013 U.S. intelligence budget is contracted out, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis."

The Bloomberg Businessweek article describes "a classic public-private revolving door" between those officially working directly for the government and those working for these private companies (at higher salaries):
Name a retired senior official from the NSA or the CIA or the various military intelligence branches, and there's a good chance he works for a contractor-most likely Booz Allen. Name a senior intelligence official serving in the government, and there's a good chance he used to work for Booz Allen.
More specifically, from the reporting at that time, here are some of those on the “roster of intelligence community heavyweights who work there” and vice versa:
    •    Mike McConnell- Booz Allen’s Vice Chairman, was (coming straight from the private sector) President George W. Bush's director of national intelligence and, before that, director of the NSA.

    •    James Clapper- President Obama's top intelligence adviser-is a former Booz Allen executive.  He is also the one who lied before Congress about the extent to which the government was actually collecting surveillance data on the American public.

    •    Joan Dempsey- A former CIA deputy director works for Booz Allen and has called it the "shadow IC" (for intelligence community).
In 2008 Booz Allen, as Bloomberg Businessweek phrases it, Booz: "became a pure government contractor, publicly traded and majority-owned by private equity firm Carlyle Group."

The Carlyle Group was shifting its significant military-industrial-surveillance complex, involving things like munitions used in Afghanistan, more into the ownership of surveillance organizations.  Carlyle bought a number of other intelligence companies, including, for instance, in 2003, Carlyle bought QinetiQ, a British company with Pentagon contracts that used to be the Defense Intelligence research unit of the British military (reputedly the inspiration for James Bond's Q), but which was privatized and perhaps sold way too cheaply in the early part of the George W. Bush administration.

The Carlyle Group has been nick-named "The Ex-Presidents' Club" and called "one of the world's largest and most secretive investment funds."

More specifically, from the reporting at that time, the Carlyle Group has close ties to the Bush family, including as investors.  Carlyle employees have included:
    •    George Herbert Walker Bush- Former U.S. President and also a former head of the CIA.

    •    George W. Bush- Former U.S. President during 9/11 and the launching of ensuing surveillance under the PATRIOT act and the one who led us into the Afghan and Iraq wars.

    •    Frank Carlucci- the firm's chairman, was Ronald Reagan's defense secretary and a former deputy director of the CIA.

    •    James Baker- Former U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury under G. H. W. Bush and White House Chief of Staff to Reagan and G. H. W. Bush.  Baker was also chief legal adviser for George W. Bush during the 2000 election overseeing the Florida recount battle which wound up with Supreme Court decision installing Bush as president. 
    •    John Major- Former British Prime Minister (succeeded by Tony Blair).
The list goes on.  Baker and Carlucci are among the partners investing in Carlyle. And, until 9/11 Bin laden Family members were also important investors in the Carlyle Group.

Tim Shorrock, author of “Spies for Hire- The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing,” raises a basic question, opining that it is "an extremely dangerous trend" to allow sensitive operations, "in some cases operations we shouldn't even be doing," such as prisoner interrogations (torture like at Abu Ghraib prison) and renditions, to "become profit centers" in the American system of capitalism.

Does all of this seem so terrible that you almost feel like somebody really ought to stop you from reading about it any further?

Now to the dismantling of libraries. . . 

. . .  Scott Sherman’s 2015 bookPatience and Fortitude- Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library revealed that in 2007 the New York Public Library hired Booz Allen Hamilton to advise and help oversee a "radical overhaul at the NYPL involving real estate sales, consolidation and fund-raising." Sherman says that "in consultation with with Booz Allen" the NYPL made the decision to sell three major libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the Donnell Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL).   In addition, the plan involved gutting the research stacks of the NYPL's 42nd Street Central Reference Library which held three million books, most of, and what was once the core of, its research collection.

The four libraries thus being dismantled were the four most important central destination libraries in Manhattan. SIBL was a state of the art library just completed in 1996 and the Central Reference Library has last been expanded in 2002.

While Sherman's mention of Booz Allen Hamiltion being hired describes the firm as "a gargantuan consulting firm that derives much of its revenue from U.S. military and intelligence agencies," he did not follow up on the implications of that passing statement.

Mr. Sherman's book was the culmination of work he had done writing series of articles about the library destruction that appeared in The Nation.  In the last of those articles, (The Hidden History of New York City's Central Library Plan- Why did one of the world's greatest libraries adopt a $300 million transformation without any real public debate? August 28, 2013) he expressed some anxious concern about what Booz was up to, but neglected to identify Booz as a spy agency, instead identifying it to readers of The Nation in alternative, if related, terms:
Finally, what was the role of Booz Allen Hamilton—the gargantuan consulting firm whose tentacles reach into the defense, energy, transportation and financial service sectors—which was hired by the NYPL in 2007 to formulate what became known inside the trustee meetings as “the strategy”?
If librarians were the first to successfully stand up and oppose the intelligence overreaching and if Booz Allen Hamilton “is really an arm of the intelligence community” involved with the federal government’s “most controversial federal surveillance programs in recent years” then why was Booz Allen Hamilton hired to help reorganize the New York Public Library's most important libraries?

One might expect that the intelligence community's reaction to being thwarted by librarians pushing back to resist the PATRIOT Act might have been a little like the intelligence community's reaction to Edward Snowden's questioning the scope of their surveillance.  What was the intelligence community's reaction to Snowden?  If you have been following it, it was harsh, but one example was Richard C. Schaeffer's reaction to Snowden at New York County Lawyers Association, "Government Surveillance and Privacy Have We Reached a Tipping Point," held June 11, 2015 . . .

“My opinion is one day Edward Snowden will rot in hell,” said Mr. Schaeffer.  The conference with panelists representing the spectrum of opinion involved the dissection of complicated and intricate national security law questions in what is normally fairly genteel `lawyer speak' so Schaeffer's remark really stood out and generated comment.  According to his bio Mr. Schaeffer, having moved on to become a V.P. of  Emerging Technologies & Markets at KEYW, was a former Senior Executive with the National Security Agency (NSA) with over 40 years total U.S. Government service, including 15 years as a member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service.

"Rot in hell" is the reaction after Snowden's revelations prompted all three branches to change course and, at least ostensibly, rein in the unchecked overreach on the collection of data on U.S. citizens?  Some of what was going on has already been ruled illegal by the judiciary and perhaps more will be in the future.  The Fourth Estate, the press, also became less quiescent and began doing a better job of covering these issues. Prior to Snowden's revelations all three branches of government (and with its quiescence much of the press) had blessed what was happening and the Executive Branch had publicly lied to Congress about the extent to which such collection was going on and because members of Congress there listening knew they were being lied to there was complicity in that lie to the American people.  It was only when there was transparency so that the public knew, that the three branches of government became accountable and changed course.

It is odd to think of calling for Snowden to "rot in hell," when you consider everything that Snowden had to give up in his life, and the extreme risk he subjected himself to, by coming forward with his revelations.  At the conference it was noted that, when it came to "motives" on the part of Snowden, venal motives did not apply: Money?- No, Power?- No, Career?- No. .  Even peculiar ideology?- No!.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, the motives of people in the intelligence community do show up far too often as "money, money, money" and "career, career, career."  That's something one could say the privatization of spying for profit is all about.

In the Bloomberg Businessweek article about Booz Allen, Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, spoke about the way people in the industry are milking the revolving door for profit saying: "You have to have a well-developed sense of patriotism to turn that money down."  The article asserts that Snowden is an "anomaly":
What he did with that information-copying it, getting it to the press, and publicly identifying himself as the leaker-cost him his job and potentially his freedom, all for what appear so far to be idealistic motives. The more common temptation would be to use knowledge, legally and perhaps not even consciously, to generate more business.
Richard Shaeffer can be linked to Booz Allen through INSA, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.  It was attendees of an INSA conference who in June of 2013 were reported to have been overheard saying that both Glen Greenwald and Edward Snowden should be disappeared.  See: INSA – How Money and Power Corrupts National Security, by Tim Shorrock, June 9, 2013.

More temperately, Mr. Shaeffer also said at the conference that he endorsed reactions to Mr. Snowden's revelations expressed by Robert S. Litt.  Although when he attended, Mr. Litt was General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence he was participating in the discussion only in a personal capacity for educational purposes and not in his official capacity or for attribution of his remarks in such official capacity.

Mr. Litt said that while other people had changed their minds about what should be surveiled he hadn't and what he said indicated that he was thinking more constructively about how to go forward.  He averred that because of what he viewed as the serious damage of the Snowden leaks there was a need to rebuild capabilities, and that most significant was the loss of relationships with US companies so that work would have to be done rethinking the historic relationship of those companies assisting the government as good corporate citizens.

When the government surveillance establishment learned that libraries and librarians, at least many of them, were not going to cooperate in being turned into instruments of wholesale surveillance do we think that they weren't annoyed and that these government officials just turned away and went home?  Or do we think that they decided to put on their thinking caps and construct another way to skin the cat?  Hence the very odd, and otherwise almost impossible to explain decision to hire Booz Allen Hamilton, ""an arm of the intelligence community” involved with the federal government’s “most controversial federal surveillance programs in recent years” to help reorganize the New York Public Library's most important libraries?

What is different at the libraries these days?  Books have disappeared, more and more of them moved off site.  You have to request them electronically, and if you request them electronically. . .  Or you might settle for obtaining them digitally, oddly, a more expensive proposition for the library.  Perhaps you'd like to settle for the the more corporate-culture, elite media froth that, promoted, bubbles up most readily to the surface of the internet (and hope that "net neutrality" such as we currently experience continues into the future with nothing like the TPP to bring us a son-of-SOPA).  . . .  It has become increasing difficult to go into a library and study and learn by just browsing.  The librarians who can help you, especially the experienced librarians, longest there with a sense of history, are disappearing too.  (For instance, here is more of what's in store: the NYPL research libraries once employed 829 salaried employees and 366 hourly employees, but it was recently announced that they will soon employ only 460.)

In the case of the NYPL's once world class and esteemed 42nd Street Central Reference Library, millions of books that have disappeared from the library went to the ReCAP facility site in New Jersey where they are now entombed.  Because ReCAP shares space at Princeton University nearby the Forrestal Campus, a complex which has stringent federal security requirements as a laboratory devoted to nuclear fusion and plasma physics research, a public demonstration to protest the books' loss was effectively prohibited.  That's ominous. Meanwhile, at this location the library's own books are being consolidated into the collections of others at this facility and  there is "de-duping" of books, destroying or casting aside as not valuable what they refer derisively to as "artifactual originals.". .

. . .  It is worth noting that duplicate books do have a purpose.  After World War II many of Germany's books had been purposely destroyed by the government, lost to its libraries.  One way that German library collections could be reestablished, the books replenished, was because there were duplicate books made available to the libraries in Germany from libraries in Australia.

It would be nice to know that the bad news about dismantling libraries laid out above stops here.  It doesn't.  Libraries, as we knew them, are being dismantled or "re-imagined" without their traditional access  to books throughout New York.

There is good news, but only partial.  It is good that the NYPL plans in connection with which the spy agency Booz Allen Hamilton was hired did not proceed exactly as envisioned due largely to the organized opposition of community activists, including the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, of which I am a part and Citizens Defending Libraries of which I am one of the co-founders.  Citizens Defending Libraries was one of the plaintiffs, together with a group of high-profile scholars, that brought two of the three lawsuits that stalled, through the December 31st 2013 end of the Mayor Michael Bloomberg administration, the NYPL's Booz-imprinted Central Library Plan that was otherwise destined to dismantle Manhattan's three most important remaining central destination libraries, the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, the Mid-Manhattan Library and SIBL.

Unfortunately, by this time the esteemed Donnell Library had already been destroyed, plundered by the real estate industry with the NYPL receiving an appallingly small pittance as its eyewash to explain the dismal shedding of such an asset.  Also unfortunately, while the Mid-Manhattan Library is no longer slated for sale and while destruction of the research stacks at the 42nd Street Library has been prevented or at least forestalled, there are still plans to shrink the Mid-Manhattan Library and millions of research books have not been brought back to the Central Reference Library.  Over a million books are also missing from SIBL, much of its recently built research bookshelf space has been sold, and the NYPL persists in its plans to sell the exceptional and still extensive public space that remains at SIBL-  The consolidation to cram what remains of SIBL into its premises is what will shrink the current Mid-Manhattan.  Up through at least 2001, the end of the Mayor Giuliani administration, the NYPL's plan had been the reverse, to nearly double the size of Mid-Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the kind of odd dismantling transactions that Booz Allen helped inaugurate at the NYPL were being replicated elsewhere in the city, expanding to the city's other libraries and systems.  New York's libraries are entrusted to three systems that historically grew up separately: The Brooklyn Public Library is in charge of Brooklyn's libraries, the Queens Library oversees those of Queens, and the NYPL has responsibility for all the rest, those in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too.

At the same time a shrink-and-sink real estate deal was concocted that would extinguish the central destination Donnell Library was devised and launched, a virtually identical shrink-and-sink real estate deal (with an overlap of people in the background) was ginned up for Brooklyn's second largest and most important library, the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library in Downtown Brooklyn at the confluence of all the city's public transportation lines in that borough.  The library, greatly enlarged and fully upgraded in 1993 is, except for the BPL's main Central Destination library at Grand Army Plaza, probably the most up-to-date and capable in terms of modern computer support.  It is also a Federal Depository Library, part of a system essential to providing information to the public and archiving history about the federal government.

At a March 9, 2015 public meeting about the proposed Heights library destruction BPL president Linda Johnson nonchalantly dismissed my question about the library's Federal Depository Library function saying.: “I am not even sure exactly what you mean by a Federal Depository.”   That kind of outwardly cavalier attitude, albeit by a non-librarian (essentially a political agent) put in charge of the borough's libraries, should concern us about how readily the nationwide program could be compromised.

Early on in minutes of the BPL, and ultimately in statements made publicly by Linda Johnson herself, it was clear that the real estate strategy effecting the shrink-and-sink plunder of the Heights library, the consequent banishment of most of its books, was one that would be extended to all of the BPL's libraries, all of the BPL's "real estate," that for the BPL the assault on the Heights library was just the first maneuver.  In fact, when the shrink-and-sink Heights deal went before the New York City Council on November 18, 2015, Johnson was ready to proclaim that it would be viewed as a model for other deals throughout the city and in all three systems as Ms. Johnson testified at City Council’s hearing on the matter.  Days later, December 15, 2015, much the same was said as the City Council approval of the library sale triumphantly reported to the BPL's board of trustees, who were told that this was a “huge turning point for the library system” and “across the city in general” and that Johnson was `pioneering’ the future of libraries.

The BPL trustees were also told at an earlier meeting that its plans would be a model for other urban areas throughout the country.  Insight about the kind of shifts being encouraged alongside the real estate deals can be gleaned from what the BPL trustees were told more recently at a meeting February 23nd of this year, when they had described to them an "exciting" "incubator" initiative, intended to have its librarians "change their roles" from being "information oriented," using what they learned in "library school" because "the profession has changed, it's not about reference anymore."  Instead, with the initiative that senior staff hoped to "scale" up and "push the envelope," the senior staff leading the library was seeking to quell or "manage" librarian's "risk aversion," and have librarians learn "project management skills,"  how to build and run projects working with "partners" from the private sector (all the librarians tapped for the first cycle of this new training "had to identify a partner").  The trustees were told that this initiative was being worked on at the library by the following departments: Strategy (translate real estate), IT (information technology), Government Affairs and Public Service had been working on.

Activism by resistant community groups including Citizens Defending Libraries has impeded or prevented some of the more city-wide plans that Johnson spoke about: Previously announced as a top priority along with the Heights real estate deal, the BPL's sale of the Pacific Branch is not currently being openly pursued. The BPL and Spaceworks backed off on a privatizing shrinkage of the Red Hook Library, although the alarm about Spaceworks was not sounded early enough to prevent it from taking over the second floor of the Williamsburg Library.   An alerted Sunset Park Community has mobilized and is in a much better place to defend itself against previously secret plans to turn its library into a multi-use real estate project.

Still, the fact is that battles are likely to be lost and new aspects of the unfolding plans continue to surface. At each of its last two board meetings the NYPL revealed that another of its libraries was being targeted for real estate deals.  One library, subject of negotiations with Mayor de Blasio's administration, is an unidentified library in northern Manhattan, likely Harlem.  In 2008 information came out, although not specific about plans for what appeared to be another consolidating shrinkage in northern Manhattan.  The second library which has not been identified is, from information a NYPL trustee let slip, is apparently the Jerome Park Library in the Bronx. 

But it has been a long time since the spy agency Booz Allen Hamilton was involved in all this dismantling. . . Or has it been?

In 2011 and 2012 all three library systems, the NYPL, the BPL and the Queens Library, engaged Booz & Co in a consolidated hiring arrangement that involved City Hall and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris.  Over the course of two years, a slew of meeting's were held at locations like Gracie Mansion and City Hall with Booz & Co attended by Ms. Harris and the library heads and representatives.  The meetings were definitely to touch upon matters related to the library sales (to "right size operations") and the announcement of the Booz engagement to the BPL board was at at the same meeting where it received a presentation about the borough-wide real estate strategy, but the engagement of Booz as explained to the BPL board extended to more than that:
to increase efficiency . . to develop strategic cost-cutting measures . . . improve efficiency and generally improve service to patrons . .  find areas for collaboration amongst the systems to improve the operations and reduce the operating costs of all three [NYC Library systems].
The October 13. 2011 Queens Library minutes describe the contract being pursued with Booz & Co. somewhat similarly:
to study technical services operations for best practices and potential cost savings through shared services.
Those minutes disclose that while all three libraries paying for this engagement much of the cost of the Booz & Co. contract was being picked up by Bloomberg's City Hall and the Revson Foundation.
  
Now, before getting too excited about Booz & Co. assuming these functions in connection with an extension of reorganization of NYC libraries similar to and seeming flowing out of the NYPL Central Library Plan for which Booz Allen was responsible, it is necessary to make a technical distinction between Booz Allen Hamilton and Booz & Co.  Booz & Co. was created by Booz Allen Hamilton and spun off from it in 2008 when Booz Allen Hamilton was being acquired by the Carlyle Group.  So arguably it could said that Booz & Co., the acorn falling far from the tree, might not be expected to engage in the spy business.  More recently, in 2014, Booz & Co. has changed names again merging with PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) to form the consulting firm "Strategy&."  But Tim Shorrock, author of "Spies For Hire" also lists PricewaterhouseCoopers as a company known to have done work for the NSA.

So who exactly were the NYC library systems hiring back in 2011?  What kind of Booz?

BPL President Linda Johnson, explaining the hiring of Booz to her board February 8, 2011, told them that, "Booz came to BPL with extensive experience with libraries."  Was this "extensive experience" anything more than than the work Booz Allen Hamilton did for the NYPL when hired for the "radical overhaul at the NYPL"?  Similarly, the minutes say that when Queens Library President Thomas Galante met with his trustees in Executive Session (i.e. secret session) on April 28, 2011, reporting that he was meeting with Booz & Company about a possible future consulting agreement, the firm was described as having "been used by the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library for public service staffing model assessments."

The minutes of the NYPL do not seem to ever refer to its engagement of Booz and Co. at this time to advise it either on "right-sizing" its real estate footprint or with respect to these other matters like digitizing or introducing a new focus on metrics.  Notwithstanding, in that 2011 period the NYPL was very busy selling the bookshelves that held over a million books at SIBL and selling the 42nd Street Annex, another major piece of book-holding real estate serving as an ancillary facility for the 42nd Street Central Reference Library.  The February 9, 2011 NYPL minutes do say this however, "Brooklyn is also engaging Booz Allen, [not Booz and Co.] which served as consultants in assisting NYPL to develop its new strategy.  Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris has called on representatives of each of the three library systems to attend a meeting on March 7 to discuss potential for collaboration"  (one of the multiple tri-li meetings held).
  
Searching the website of "Strategy&." the continuation of Booz & Co., there are no apparent references to expertise on the part of the firm or "extensive experience with libraries."   Who were the Booz representatives that showed up at various meetings?  Although there are frequent mentions of Booz & Co. in available documentation of the meeting of Booz & Co. as a company meeting with the three library systems (tri-li meetings- "tri-library system" meetings) the apparently low-profile individuals representing Booz never seem to get named in relevant documents the way that representatives from other companies do.  Perhaps more concerning given Booz Allen Hamilton's reputation as a spy agency, with proper searching, it is possible to pull up a reference to Booz Allen Hamilton having conducted a management study of the Library of Congress in 1996.

It ought to be possible to provide a great deal more information about the Booz & Co. contract the City Hall entered into with the library systems in 2011 by virtue of the Freedom of Information act request for such information we made of the Brooklyn Public Library in 2014, but the BPL has stonewalled, refusing to provide the information it ought to have made public about the contract.

The potential distinction between Booz Allen Hamilton as a spy agency contracting directly with the government to conduct espionage versus Booz & Co. as a consulting firm working only for the private sector and accessing information the government can only get its hands on through other means is an important one legally and and from the standpoint of perceptual optics.  In national security law there is something called the "third party doctrine" which holds that US citizens give up their expectation of privacy and protection from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment with respect to information they willingly put into the hands of independent third parties.  Further, we think we have less to fear from private companies.  Since the private sector doesn't have the same capacity or arrest us or the same motives to target us (for things other than advertising), we a less likely to be perturbed when Google, not the government, roams streets around the US, and the world in general, collecting a comprehensive photographic catalogue of everything in our neighborhoods and "sniffing" unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic.

I have been asked by those suffering enormous frustration and bewilderment why the real estate shenanigans dismantling our libraries haven't been the subject of numerous and through investigations.  The rushed and secretive sale and shrinkage of the Donnell Library (with a subsequent "ratification" by the NYPL board) stank and looked like an obvious scam with only the merest pretense of an effective bid:  There were only two ostensible bidders on the secret scale and since both bidders were inevitably destined to be doing a coordinated real estate deal there was no real incentive for them not already to be acting in partnership.

The sale was kept confidential until the last possible minute.  It was finally announced publicly in November of 2007 only because, as a publicly traded company, the purchaser, Oriental Express Hotels Ltd., had to disclose the agreement within within four days of the execution of the transaction.  The NYPL was then prepared so that, when announced, the public relations firm of Howard Rubenstein, called the ''dean of damage control'' (for the powerful) by Mayor Guiliani, would be ready to handle the press which was furnished information that ultimately proved be a very inaccurate representation of the transaction.

There was also the Blackstone Group, its head Stephen Shwarzman on the NYPL board, then lurking in the background.

The extremely valuable five-story Donnell Library, almost 100,000 square feet across from MoMA on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was sold for a pittance, netting the NYPL less than $20 million.  The penthouse in the luxury tower that replaced it was put on the market for $60 million and other apartments in the building are regularly sold for more than $20 million.  The luxury hotel component in the building was sold to the Chinese in a record-setting transaction for more than $230 million.

Yet when this was brought to New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman whose office regulates charities such as the NYPL and is supposed to prevent the kind of abuse that apparently occurred here and endorse other laws that would likely be pertinent here he had no interest in investigating.

One must wonder whether, when it comes to investigating library sell-off abuses, our local New York politicians are a bunch of gutless wonders.  New York City Public Advocate Tish James, who came into office promising to stand up against the abusive sell-off of public assets specifically citing libraries in particular has, nearly four years later, never stepped into the breach to use the powers of her office to that effect.

We buttonholed Comptroller Stringer just the other day and complained about his non-investigation of the library together with his failure to produce the BPL library audit he promised“I don’t investigate libraries,” he said.   We responded that his website, his press releases and public statements all represent that he does investigate corruption, fraud and abuse and the waste of city funds.  And Comptroller did produce an audit of the Queens Library where he went into details about much less significant matters, involving what were, comparatively, just a few dollars: How the former Queens Library head improperly used his library credit card to put gasoline in his other family members’ cars.

There is, however, apparently one criminal investigation: US Attorney Preet Bharara is understood to be investigating Mayor de Blasio's apparent pay-to-play hand-off the Brooklyn Heights Library.  Like the way that an effective and above-board bid process was apparently side-stepped with the Donnell Library to hand off the library real estate to a new owner for far less than its value, the Brooklyn Heights Library is being handed off for far less than its value to the public and is being given to a developer who was not the high bidder.

When the frustrated and bewildered ask about it, it is easy to account for the lack of investigation by our New York officials by blaming it on the usual suspects and say that it is all about the power and influence of the real estate industry on politicians through campaign contribution and otherwise.  That's no doubt part of it: the real estate industry in New York these days is regularly one of New York's most dependable villains.

But maybe something more is going on that can account for the strange absence of courage on the part of our local officials.  When it comes to surveillance by the government there is something called the "state secrets privilege."  When it comes to criminal conduct, fraud and abuse it can act as a "get out of jail free" card.  It can effectively halt both legal and criminal proceedings.  It allows the exclusion of evidence in legal proceedings based on assertions by the government (often enough, not true or justified) that proceedings involving the evidence might endanger national security.  If, without referring to that evidence, a plaintiff can't make their case a proceeding terminates.  If a defendant accused of misconduct, injuring another, or a crime can't make their case, without referring to that evidence, a proceeding terminates.

No doubt investigators and potential prosecutors are sensitive to the doctrine even in the earliest stages of inquiry and can be fended off.  The career of a US Attorney like Preet Bharara inevitably depends not only on his taking on corruption and major elected officials; it also depends on public perception that he is tough on terrorists. And it means weighing in on subjects like the government's surveillance and third party assistance in that regard.  It is frustrating how intricately connected this can all get.
   
Does this mean that if "national security" can be invoked and government surveillance is involved people can corruptly carve up and fire-sale our public assets like libraries with impunity?  Those involved with dismantling our libraries have certainly seemed to act like they have nothing to fear.  Unfortunately, one price we pay as the spending increases on surveillance and the dollars flowing out increasingly pervade the private sector is that transparency and oversight, the bulwarks against corruption, diminish. Notwithstanding, the state secrets privilege can be extremely problematic, but good investigators and prosecutors will do their best to make their case anyway even if it is more of an uphill battle. . .

Perhaps, given all these intersections, Preet Bharara is the perfect individual, with the perfect powers to be investigating these matters.  Perhaps not.  We shall see.  One bad thing about criminal investigations is that when they are underway the criminal investigators will never tell you what is happening or what to expect.  And I suppose, conversely, that one good thing about criminal investigations is that because they won't tell you, you can always, at least from the public's viewpoint, expect and root for the best to happen. That may keep the bad guys a little off guard.

Government surveillance is a national issue.  Can we expect, at least with libraries, something better from the next president?  Well, both candidates likely to win, the Republican and the Democrat, have connections to the NYC library real estate sales. . .

. . . The Brooklyn Heights Library is immediately adjacent to the Forest City Ratner owned building where Hillary has her national campaign headquarters.  The building is even, for development purposes, part of the same real estate development parcel as Hillary’s headquarters, thus constituting Hillary’s Forest City Ratner landlord a gatekeeper to the library sale, shrink-and-sink transaction.  Ironically perhaps, the library given the intersection of the streets where it is located, is the “Tillary Clinton Library.”  Hillary Clinton did not answer Citizen Defending Library calls to come forth and oppose this privatization of public assets.

. . . As for Donald Trump, remember that the shrink-and-sink sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library was modeled on the shrink-and-sink sale of the Donnell Library (with an overlap of the people behind both) and one of the principal financial beneficiaries of the secret sale of Donnell was Jered Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top campaign advisor.

Here is something to mull and wonder over, perhaps allowing us to conclude on a more heartening note?   It is so oddly coincident I would be remiss not to mention it.  On September 19, 2007, as the NYPL trustees were getting ready to sell Donnell and launch the destructive Central Library Plan, the trustees were thinking about the PATRIOT act-  Board Chair Catherine Marron brought it up her Chairman's report after telling the the trustees about a September 11, 2007 Celebration of Brooke Russell Astor.  She noted that  "an important opinion on the USA PATRIOT Act" had been handed down (September 7th) by NYPL Trustee Victor Marrero serving as United States District Court Judge Southern District of New York (appointed by Clinton in 1999).  . .

Judge Marrero's decision, in the same vein as another he issued, struck down controversial portions of the USA PATRIOT Act according to the Washington Post, ordering the FBI to stop its wide use of warrantless, secret "national security letters" (NSLs) to demand e-mail and telephone data from private companies.

He said in his opinion it was "the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values."  The FBI usually orders that the national security letters be kept secret, thus creating much the same impediment to policy-setting and/or in any way challenging these actions, that Snowden addressed because Americans didn't know that they were subject to surveillance and probably actually believed that they weren't.  Marrero said in his opinion:
The risk of investing the FBI with unchecked discretion to restrict such speech is that government agents, based on their own self-certification, may limit speech that does not pose a significant threat to national security or other compelling government interest
Well enough that that Judge and NYPL Trustee Marrero issued such an opinion for the protection of the public, but we must return again to the big unanswered question we are addressing here: Why was a top U.S. intelligence spy agency engaged for radical overhaul of libraries as we have traditionally known them?

Even if you believe that libraries should be re-envisioned so that they no longer constitute the zones of privacy as they traditionally were in the past, and instead become zones of surveillance, what about public debate of the related questions?  The reduced and restricted availability of knowledge?  The dumbing down of the American public?  (Could this presidential election cycle ever be more dumbed down than it is?)   What about resisting pressure to altering libraries in other ways that might be good for others, like those in the internet and tech industry, but not good the public?  For instance, as the NYPL trustees were considering how they would re-envision their key NYC libraries under the Central Library Plan they were cautioned by NYPL president Tony Marx about not treading into the territory that should be reserved for "Google" and "Amazon."

As Snowden made clear with his revelations, there can be no effective debate if the public doesn't even know what is happening.  In other words, there is a high price in our democracy for maintaining `perfect security' . . . . And we must ask whether that is, in fact, exactly what is going on here.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oddly Timed 2008 NY Observer Article Pumps Up “Ambition” For The Books- A Pitch To Those Who Would Like to Be Trustees of Brooklyn Public Library, If Not Actually Trustworthy

Found on the Massey Knakal a real estate firm website.  Text highlighted in yellow calls attention to the involvement of one of their brokers.   It is probably just a bizarre coincidence that there is a large ad for Baccarat given that when the Donnell Library was sold it was replaced, in part, by a luxury hotel using using the name.
I came up with a wonderful it-only-takes-a-little-reading-between-the-lines New York Observer article from 2008 about who should consider for themselves the prospect of becoming a trustee of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The article came out in February of that year, just a few months after Jared Kushner, the owner of the Observer (and Donald Trump’s son-in-law) had locked in a deal that benefitted from the sale of the Donnell Library that trustees of the New York Public Library tossed out munificently to the real estate industry.. . . The public, of course, losing out.

Interestingly, I didn’t come across the article on the Observer’s site; I came across it on the site of Massey Knakal, a real estate firm, where they had posted it, highlighting text in the article to show how one of their brokers, Landon McGaw, was participating.

The article starts out saying that maybe getting onto the exclusive NYPL board with Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone (the world’s largest real estate investment firm plus much more) is out of reach when you are “jockeying for position” in New York,  but “what about Brooklyn” for opportunities?

Answer: “Cue J.P. Morgan, CitiGroup and Goldman, Sachs-and government employees (retired teachers and a Con Ed spokeswoman among them).”  Brooklyn is a borough of “Brooklyn's shiny new condos and brownstone conversions.”

Put into the words on one of the people reported on there is, “a eureka-moment story about . . . .  standing in Grand Army Plaza, the traffic circle outside of Prospect Park . . .  the imposing main branch of the BPL, and thinking, This place is changing. . . . `Why don't I engage the library?'"

Consider this startlingly frank assessment from the article (emphasis supplied):
Buried underneath the earnest and altruistic desire to help the library is, perhaps, a touch of social snobbery, a desire to use the opportunities afforded by the New Brooklyn to further one's station in life.

Then again, that's what nearly all New York-style charity has been about, and it's unrealistic to expect this new group to be any different. And it must be said that the barriers to entry are lower. .
The article spotlights BPL trustee Janet Offensend as being the BPL official leading the charge for the advertised transformation, bringing in a new set of individuals who “love a good party” (one must wonder about whether such phases are code words or dog whistles when buried in with the recitation of a lot of other altruistic claptrap.).  The article tells us about Ms. Offensend:
Janet Offensend, a fixture on the Brooklyn charitable scene for many years whose husband is the chief financial officer of the NYPL, is a library trustee who has helped marshal the Vanguard through its first few months.
What is not noted is that Ms. Offensend’s husband David Offensend, mentioned as the chief financial officer of the NYPL, is the one who arranged the sale of the Donnell Library in a deal benefitting the aforementioned Jared Kushner, owner of the Observer.  If you know that you don’t need dog whistles to figure out much more.

For further documentation about the recomposition of the Brooklyn Public Library Board of Trustees achieved in this era consider the following page of information from Citizens Defending Libraries:
Brooklyn Public Library Trustees- Identified + Biographical and Other Information Supplied
Point of disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, formed in 2013 in reaction to breaking headlines about library real estate deals benefitting developers, not the public.

The Observer article appears on the Observer’s website:
The Observer: Brooklyn's Bookish Ambition, By Doree Shafrir, February 22, 2008

And, as noted, on the site of real estate firm Massy Knackle.
One additional little secret to share: I also found the article because it mentioned Ethan Hawke.  Click for more information here: x

Ethan Hawke Appointed as a Trustee of New York Public Library- At Eventful Meeting Iris Weinshall (Sen. Schumer’s Wife) Reports NYPL Is In Discussion To Sell “Upper Manhattan” Library

Ethan Hawke, NYPL's newest trustee, at his first trustees meeting.  NYPL president Marx seated on right.
It was a change of pace, with the trustees of the New York Public Library meeting yesterday afternoon in Harlem for their trustees meeting rather than their regular 42nd Street Central Reference Library digs. . .  and it was an eventful meeting.

What will probably grab the headlines is that NYPL just appointed Ethan Hawke, actor (“Boyhood,” “Dead Poets Society, “Gattaca” many more), writer and novelist (“Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight,” “the Hottest State,” “Ash Wednesday”), and director (“Chelsea Walls,” “A Lie of the Mind”).

What is likely to get skipped over as important, is news, delivered by NYPL Chief Operating Officer Iris Weinshall (Senator Schumer’s wife).  For the first time since Donnell and the NYPL’s ultimately derailed Central Library Plan, the NYPL trustees were told that the NYPL is looking at selling another library in another concocted  real estate deal.  Noticing New York previously reported that the NYPL has, since at least 2008, had the idea of doing such real estate deals in “northern Manhattan” (i.e. Harlem?).  Information beyond that oblique fact was not available from the NYPL.

The Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson recently told the City Council that all three city library systems, her BPL, the Queens Library and the NYPL, were looking at the sale of the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library (at a huge public loss) as a model for future transactions.  That would bring things full circle back to the NYPL, because the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library closely replicates the NYPL’s sale of Donnell.

This is what Ms. Weinshall told the NYPL trustees, which is still pretty oblique:
I just want to tell the board about another interesting initiative that has come our way: A major foundation here in the city of New York has approached the library about working with us on one of our libraries in upper Manhattan to create affordable housing on the site, but the plus for the library Is that this foundation along with HPD, which is a city agency, is prepared to provide the library with the total funding for reconstruction of the library on the site. So this would present a great opportunity for us in a facility that, uhm, has, many opportunities like the lower floor of this building, to create a brand-new library in upper Manhattan. And there will be more discussion and Tony [NYPL president Marx] and I are involved with the foundation in discussion. Thank you.
.  . ."one of our libraries in upper Manhattan" . . . "major foundation"?

By the “lower floor of this building” Ms. Weinshall was referring to NYPL’s 115th Street Branch of The New York Public Library where the meeting was being held, built with funds given to the city by Andrew Carnegie and opened in 1908.  It's three above grounds floors plus the “lower floor,” a basement floor a community space languishing in disrepair.


The deal Ms. Weinshall described sounds more like the BPL’s proposed Sunset Park Library sale: The Donnell and Brooklyn Heights library deals involve luxury towers going up on squashed shrunken libraries pushed down into underground space.

The NYPL trustees got a report on the “replacement” for Donnell, closed in the spring of 2008 with a promise it would be replaced within 3-1/2 years.  It's still not "replaced."  They were told that the “53rd Street Library” (there is apparent embarrassment to call the library replacement by the name of Donnell) is “almost finished," which according to the other reports means may be as soon as the fall of 2016.  It was not reported that the luxury hotel, the luxury condominium building, the luxury restaurants replacing the Donnell Library all opened more than a year ago in March of 2015.  The trustees were told that they would be pleased with the modernity of this largely underground, largely bookless library.. . . Which is interesting because, at least once, it was suggested to the trustees in their meetings that the Donnell scheme was a mistake.

There was also this update about another library sell-off and shrinkage, a modified vestige of the $500+ million derailed Central Library Plan that the NYPL still plans to follow through on: The trustees were told that they will soon see plans showing how an “entire floor” in what is now the Mid-Manhattan Library will be given up as a “replacement” for the 34th Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL).  That shrinking of space that is now devoted to the Mid-Manhattan Library is so that SIBL, a quite valuable facility as it now exists, can be sold.

Discussing library usage SIBL, it was noted how SIBL, a 1996 research library, has become perhaps the most important of the NYPL’s libraries providing a focus on employment pursuit and research.

There was also a discussion of library usage statistics (“metrics”).  One must wonder whether there was hope behind how they were collected and presented that they might support the idea of “the changing nature of what a library is” (NYPL president Tony Marx’s words), and thereby generate acceptance for some of this real estate shuffling and shedding.  The statistics seemed to report a reversal somewhat in line with recent Center For an Urban Future ideas about making libraries less about books and more about . . . whatever.  Previously the reported “metrics” weren’t in line with those ideas.

In 2013 the Center For an Urban Future reported that NYC library usage for the decade was way up, 59% in terms of circulation (most of which was was physical books) and 40% in terms of programs.  In 2015 another report from CUF said that library space should be converted to program space?- The metrics reported to the NYPL trustees were that in the last five years NYPL program use was up 75% while circulation was actually down, mostly because streaming (Netxflix, for instance, if one can afford to subscribe to their current catalogue), is replacing the borrowing of the DVDs the library has available.  Physical books are the vast bulk of the circulation, but the fraction of digital books being borrowed, a very small number, is recently, after having been introduced quite a few years ago, reportedly going up by multiples (14x).

While the trustees asked about causes for the slightly reduced circulation, none of them asked whether any of it could be due to the absence of books in the libraries, the empty shelves, the broken habits of formerly more regular patrons with cutbacks in library hours and upkeep (even if some of that has just recently been somewhat remedied).  Nor was it suggested to the trustees that such things  might be factors to be considered.

There is also the question of whether digital books (the only immediate satisfaction when NYPL shelves are empty- “three clicks” to get them said Marx) are being pushed.  President Marx said that while he personally preferred to read physical books, digital books should be available to library users, “not just those who can afford to” get electronic books “on paid subscription services.”

Marx’s perhaps reflexive reference to getting electronic books through “paid subscription services” rather than buying them outright (at least for your current platform) as most of us do is interesting.  Libraries tend to rent their ebooks through subscription arrangements with the archival function of libraries going by the wayside.  There is no preservation of history this way. They can say that they are driven to that decision by the pricing by the content providers wanting to retain control.  What most people don’t know is that the ebooks that are still much less preferred by the public are actually more expensive.

During the discussion the trustees were told that the NYPL had used a service (Shopper Tracker) to collect data on how many people were coming to the NYPL libraries, the amount of time different individuals were spending there and for what kind of purpose.  One category of people reportedly spending more time at the library is researchers because they come to do what they cannot do elsewhere.

With NYPL president Marx citing the fact the NYPL had a privacy policy it needed to follow, the trustees were assured that when people’s use of the libraries was being monitored during the collection of these metrics face recognition technology was not being used and they were further told that after the data was collected the underlying records were destroyed.

New York State has a statute (Civil Practice Law and Rules §4509) requiring that library usage and related right of free association information “shall be confidential.”  The problem is to what extent this statute has been superseded either legally, or from a just plain practical standpoint, by post-9/11 federal surveillance laws or practices.

All of which is to say that Mr. Hawke has arrived at the NYPL at a very interesting time and is faced with the job of handling a multifaceted set of challenges.  It is hard to resist the very bad and obvious pun to ask whether, to do that job, he will be watching like a hawk.

Point of disclosure: I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries formed in 2013 in reaction to breaking headlines about library real estate deals benefitting developers, not the public.  Since that time it has become important to broaden that focus to be alert to other private and government interests leaning in with a desire to change “the nature of what a library is.”

Post Script?:  It's been called to my attention that Ethan Hawke made and directed a documentary, "Seymour," about a beloved 87 year old New York piano teacher, Seymour Bernstein.  One of Mr. Bernstein's piano students is New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, who in 2013 followed in Ada Louise Huxtable's footsteps influentially savaging the the NYPL's still pending Central Library Plan real estate deal: New York Times: Critic’s Notebook- In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions, by Michael Kimmelman, January 29, 2013.. .   Interesting?

Friday, April 1, 2016

Councilman Brad Lander Announces Participatory Budgeting 2.0- The Next Phase of Participatory Budgeting- “With Meta-Participatory Budgeting We Demonstrate Democracy Without Training Wheels”

Democracy without training wheels
Councilman Brad Lander, the city’s most joyously fervent exponent of Participatory Budgeting, took the opportunity of this spring season’s focus and rampant advertising for the Participatory Budgeting program to release information about the program’s next phase, which Mr. Lander promised will be bigger and more real than anyone imagined.  It wasn’t until release of the carefully timed announcement that anyone even knew a next phase was in store.  Lander is referring to the program’s second phase as “Participatory Budgeting 2.0” although its more formal name, which refers to the extra layers through which it works is “Meta-Participatory Budgeting.”

“Now that we have demonstrated what we can demonstrate with the original version of the program, and we always referred to it as a `growing program,’ it is time to take the baby into the big time,” said Mr. Lander.  “We are ready to spend some real money and make the kind of commitment that will get real attention.”

The current form of Participatory Budgeting program that is now operating was introduced in New York City for the 2012 budget year cycle and was announced in September of 2011 by Mr. Lander, who had pushed for it as an effort to “increase people's faith” in how the government is spending the people’s money.  The New York Times describing the PB “experiment” that began that year reported that “New Yorkers jumped into the trenches and dirtied their hands with democracy.”

Councilman Stephen T. Levin praises Participatory Budgeting, what it is and what it is to become- It's an "antidote" to being distracted by the malfeasance of elected officials
That Times article premiered a refrain still used to promote the program by elected leaders like Councilman Stephen Levin, assisting Lander, explaining it as an opportunity “to counter people's cynical view of government by inviting them to participate in the very process they mistrust.”   Said Levin in a similar vein more recently, “You know, all too often people see government gone awry, elected officials engaging in malfeasance or dysfunction . . .  . . and you know people get. . . it’s easy to get cynical when you see that.  And this is an antidote to that!
Councilman Brad Lander- He brought us Participatory Budgeting and now brings us Participatory Budgeting 2.0 -“Meta-Participatory Budgeting”

Heretofore, the PB program has been used to allocate capital expenditures, a portion of the available councilmatic discretionary funds that each of the City Council members receive annually.   Council members joining in the program have made available $1 million apiece each year for a process where members of the public could redirect their energy to identify and vote on projects they valued.   Councilman Lander recently made even more than that available, an extra $.5 million in his district for a total of $1.5 million.  In all, the public that engaged was recently allowed to vote on the about $35 million in expenditures across those districts running the program.

Lander has staunchly defended the program against critics who say the funds directed by the program are so paltry as to create little more than a sideshow, given the total city capital budget, the total city budget and even just the amount that is available through elected officials as discretionary capital expenditures.  The city’s capital budget has been averaging about $8 billion a year (of which PB’s $35 million would be about 00.4%) and the separate NYC operating budget for this year is proposed to be over $80 million.  Each of the city’s 51 council members gets $5 million in discretionary funds with total elected officials discretionary funds totaling about $400 million (Borough Presidents also have discretionary funds).

It was noted by Noticing New York that the PB amounts available are so very small that they are not even a fraction of the amount that it has been said would be necessary to address repairs now withheld from some of the public’s libraries, like air conditioning repairs for the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library.  Those needed repairs are being cited as reason to sell off the libraries.  “Have the public vote to repair the libraries we want to sell and turn into real estate deals?” asked Mr. Lander. “That would be counterproductive.  There is a reason we have made the amount for stated necessary repairs to libraries we want to sell such high figures.”

Mr. Lander said that people who complained that the amount of funds heretofore channeled through the program are relatively small don’t understand that the purpose of the program is to “demonstrate that government can be good.”  “Having done that,” he said, “we can now open the program up in new ways to set up the expenditure of more funds.”

Steve Levin said this was exactly the case, that the program was to offer “a positive experience for folks” and that it meant that, “people have faith, through this process they know, at the very least, where that funding [the PB funding] is going.”

Lander said that the purpose of the first phase of the program was this restoration of “faith in government” and also for members of the public to “enhance skills and learn how to be active citizens.”  He said that now that the first phase had succeeded it was time to proceed to phase two: “We are going to take the training wheels off Democracy,” he said, “and it means spending real money as well.”

Asked what kind of financial commitments the real money of “Participatory Budgeting 2.0- Meta-Participatory Budgeting” involved, Mr, Lander explained that the commitment of financial resources was so extensive as to be essentially open-ended.  “We are talking about, as eligible, virtually all of the online scheduled capital budget items for the city, but not just that, because there are also commitments that have substantial value in terms of deployment of resources valuable to the public like zoning policies and real estate variances and regulatory overrides that don’t show up as line items in the city’s official budget.  All of these are up for grabs as part of the Meta-participation program.  The more resources we can direct through it the better.”

The first action to get PB 2.0 rolling will be the appointment of an informal and rotating board of advisors, essentially a panel, to judge, consider or reject proposals that may possibly come from the public interested in “reconnecting with government” and wanting to “take control over their own public resources and steer a path.” 

Administrative costs for the panel will be kept extraordinarily low, next to nonexistent, through the use of a public-private partnership approach where those choosing to be on the panel will bear their own expenses, almost undoubtedly meeting on an ad hoc basis in gatherings at private residences or dinners where discussion of proposed projects can integrate readily with other business and social interactions.  It is expected that panelists will already be of means as they will also be expected to make public-spirited contributions to the essential business of funding NYC elections and the related need of running of campaigns.

According to Mr. Lander, the efficiency of the program structure that is being rolled out is that whatever the panel can be convinced by the public is a good idea has a very high probability of being effected with very significant commitments of public funds backing them.  Not only is the likelihood of effectuation enhanced, the process is much more direct than relying on council members as conduit decision makers.  In addition, whereas government has always been subject to lots of “procurement rules, red tape and regulations that need to be in place,” Mr. Lander said these approvals would provide the sort of “done deal” imprimatur that would help assure they move through to completion.

Council Member Levin said that it was exciting to see the PB program “blossom in this way” furnishing the “ramped up growth” and “innovative ways of expanding the program beyond City Council capital budget expenditures that were promised.”  He said the structures being formalized and now explicitly laid out this way ought to “give people more faith in the transparency of government, in the fairness of government, that there is some responsiveness and accountability.”

The names of those on the informal panel will not be known since it is considered that they will have a freer hand to vote their conscience, making the inevitably hard decisions that will confront them, if their privacy is protected.  Both Lander and Levin agreed that members of the public wishing to steer a path while not knowing who in actuality would be considering their proposals could help surmount their frustration by considering themselves as addressing the same decision makers as have always had ultimate say about the city’s affairs.

Lander said that whatever is lost in terms of transparency by not publicly identifying these decision makers is more than made up for by bequeathing those members of the public engaging through the program “the much more real and actual experience of the way Democracy operates that they ought to be asking for.  Those who engage thereby become a much more educated platform of voters than they would otherwise be.”

Mr. Lander said that one of the main purposes of the Participatory Budgeting program when it was introduced was to “get people to start asking questions about their government” and “with more things left appropriately concealed there are more questions to ask.”

Councilman Lander said that his press release announcing the launch of Participatory Budgeting 2.0 -“Meta-Participatory Budgeting” was timed so that the first year of its actual implementation one year hence could also be the same date: April 1st.
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