Volume 19 Issue 54 | May 25 -31, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Matthew Haahr, 6, and his mother Susan Karp, were among the first users of the children’s room in the new Mulberry St. branch.

New chapter in Soho’s story: A library

By Jefferson Siegel

Until this week, Soho residents thirsting for knowledge had to schlep to the Public Library’s New Amsterdam branch on Murray St. or over to the Ottendorfer on Second Ave.  

On Monday, the neighborhood welcomed literary relief as the New York Public Library system opened the first branch library in Soho, on tiny Jersey St., just below Houston St. between Lafayette and Mulberry Sts. 

The new Mulberry St. Library occupies three levels of an 1886 building that used to house the Hawley & Hoops chocolate factory. Many original building elements were incorporated in the construction, including the old wooden beams and cast-iron fixtures. Outside, the below-ground-level windows, brick arches and original vault walls are visible.  

“Every book in the place is new,” Paul LeClerc, New York Public Library president, said as he stood in the lower-level adult reading room. With its soaring 20-foot ceiling, this room once housed the factory’s boiler. “We took this space in this historic building, which had been industrial space, and devoted it to this great, great library,” LeClerc said with enthusiasm.

The branch was more than a decade in planning and construction. As the ribbon-cutting ceremony was being held Monday afternoon, the first patrons were already coming through the door.  

Former City Councilmember Kathryn Freed, now a judge, was instrumental in seeing the project through to completion.

“I lived about four blocks from here in 1973,” Freed said as visitors perused the stacks, “and the community had very few amenities, very few parks and no libraries.

“We had demonstrations,” she recalled. Locations for a branch were scouted, including the old East River Savings Bank building on Spring St. When Freed ran for public advocate in 2001, her campaign headquarters was in the Mulberry St. building. “So, I knew the owner, I knew the building and I talked him into it,” she explained.  

Allie Haahr, 1, Matthew’s sister, went straight for the computers.

Once the location was decided, funds had to be committed to an operating budget before other money could be pledged for a capital plan for the construction.

“Again, lots of demonstrations and a vocal community certainly helped,” Freed said. 

Councilmember Alan Gerson, also a player in the library’s creation, was unable to attend the ceremony. His liaison for arts and culture, Paul Nagle, spoke on Gerson’s behalf. Calling it a “great example of adaptive reuse on behalf of the community,” Nagle praised the inclusion of public art by local artists, as well as a large selection of Chinese- and Italian-language books reflective of the community’s character. 

Six baseball-themed artworks in a figurative-realist style by Downtown artist Vincent Scilla hung in one brick-walled room.

“I was probably the last Italian-American born on Mulberry St.,” Scilla said. His work will soon be joined by that of other local artists. 

One of the first to take advantage of the new branch was Susan Karp and her son, Matthew Haahr, 6.

“I lived in libraries when I was a kid,” Karp said, “and I worked at the Glen Oaks branch in Queens,” she said while balancing Matthew and a large picture book in her lap. Her daughter Allie, 1, stared at one of the 28 computer stations located throughout all three levels. 

The 12,000-square-foot library also offers wireless Internet access, a community room with a flat-screen television and a teen area with lounge chairs.  

The Mulberry St. branch, the 87th in the city’s library system, stocks an impressive 32,000 books, DVDs and audio recordings. The branch will employ five librarians and four clerks. Hours of operation are Mondays from noon to 8 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Fridays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Downtown Express is published by Community Media LLC. 145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 | Fax: (212) 229-2790 | Advertising: 646-452-2465 | © 2007 Community Media, LLC

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.