The Publicness of New York’s Mulberry Street Public Library

Mulberry street

Curating chaos, a contradiction in terms. Curation aims to create an order to things. How does chaos result from curation, and why would anyone embark on this counter-intuitive endeavor? These questions follow me in my investigation of Mulberry Street Public Library (MSPL); a location as chaotic in design as in peoples — its colors and chairs, sounds and stairs, matching the diversity of its inter-class, inter-race, inter-age patrons. Is it the overall chaos itself responsible for its diversity; if so, how does this come about? I propose three hypotheses with regards to theorizing the chaos in MSPL and its hypothetical ability in bridging diverse and distinct peoples. Three iterations of chaos come to foreground: its unruliness, its visual disorder, and its queerness. How are these employed as mediums between peoples and to what extent do they help the publicness of the place?

A. Unruliness as Medium

In schools, a chaotic class is usually blamed on either its unruly students or its complacent teacher. In what way is Mulberry Street’s Public Library unruly and who is being complacent about it? The screams of toddlers at the second floor is the first auditory disturbance that would normally invite librarians to check with the children’s parents. Interference is however rare since the second floor itself is reserved for toddlers, offering them, their babysitters or parents, a chance to read visual books or play with puzzles on low tables. This unabated chaos still makes its way onto the first and third floor, faint baby shouting becoming the background to which the library’s guests become attuned.

The second characteristic of the library’s unruliness is precisely its lack of rules — the place of books is filled with people without them; some sitting idly on their phone, some using the toilet, some babysitting, some tutoring; some just standing around if it’s cold outside. Mulberry’s branch is blessed with its spaciousness — the non-readers rarely strike out to librarians, unlike in its Upper East Side (UES) equivalent, where the latter usually, if not out of mandate, from boredom, scan the room for idler-byes. I did an experiment in the ritzy UES neighborhood, where I sat down seeming only slightly busy on my phone. After fifteen minutes, the librarian, walking around not too far from my seat, did not oust me but couldn’t resist asking me the do-or-die question: would you like me to help you with something?

What first makes MSPL a public space is thus the flexibility of its use — the lack of catalogue or set of rules that dictate how a library ought to be used. The fact that some young-looking tutors are monetizing their time there makes us wonder whether creative entrepreneurship requires no talent or degree but merely a space free for use in the manner they choose. The Latin etymology of choice, by no coincidence, is closely connected to the word intelligence.

A reference to leverage from for my understanding of MSPL’s unruliness is Erving Goffman’s work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman introduces to his readers two concepts in the work environments: the act of “make-work” and the act of “make-no-work,” (51). Opposites on a spectrum of “impression management,” these two modes of behaving at work — to pretend one is working or to pretend to be ready for work — are performative masks necessary “if a factory worker is to succeed in giving the appearance of working hard all day,” (52). This likely product of an increasingly neoliberal, capitalistic global economy is purely “dramaturgical” according to Goffman, with a “front region” and a “back region” that must necessarily be kept hidden from each other” (53). This performativity, which Goffman describes in chaotic work environments such as factories, ship decks and restaurant kitchens, can parallel the masks placed and removed at the public library.

I myself had to pretend carrying around a book with me during my own personal use of the library — observing it — and this performance is similar to that of individuals who I have seen enter the library, superficially observe the books placed in the first row, by the entrance, only to later sit down and never glance again at the shelves. A common habit is also placing a magazine next to one’s laptop, which, in my brief observations, was rarely re-visited. It is worth noting that the unruliness of MSPL creates a margin of leniency with regards to such performances and the fact that the librarian in the Upper East Side jumped to query me is testament to the relativity of this flexibility. Mulberry’s branch becomes unique because it allows Goffman’s “make-work” and “make-no-work” dialectics, which are accentuated or suppressed “in the presence of others,” (53). The police officers of public libraries become both its librarians and its patrons — an institutional eye and a social gaze — and MSPL’s publicness is boosted by its unruly “front” and “back” regions; which fosters, in its chaos, a sense of freedom.

2. Visual Disorder as Medium

Beyond its unruly guests, Mulberry Street’s library is a visual chaos. Rather than offering a grand, spacious staircase similar to the public library on Fifth Avenue, its stairway, narrow and cranky, crisscrosses in rectangular fashion the three floors of the branch. Seating area is dispersed: one circle of guests, usually with their laptops, sit around tables; others, on their phones or magazines, sit on couches that circle the first round of guests — creating two layers of patrons visually and behaviorally distinct. Random seating areas are also available — by the toilet, by the computers, behind the staircase, next to room entrances. The colors of the rooms are vivid and poorly cohesive — yellow paintings with strokes of red and blue; pink or green posters pinned on glittered boards, some in landscape view, others in profile. Some of the flooring is wooden, with the shades of yellow altering from tile to tile — similarly to the darker tiles of the brick walls. The teen space is also filled with hanging decors of different colors.

The patrons of the library also add more visually-distinct elements: there is not the unison we find in the business-as-usual attires of the Upper East Side’s branch nor the multi-colored yet nevertheless cohesive touristic feel of shopping-bags-laden and selfie-taking patrons of the Fifth Avenue branch. Instead, the visual disorder at MSPL comes from the bright yellow vests of construction workers vs. the monochrome colors of the homeless man, the bulk and black HP laptops vs. the slick and grey MacBooks, the suited middle-aged gentleman vs. the trendy hipster youth. Finally, though overall spacious; in busy hours, especially when babysitters get set to take children home; strollers start crashing like shopping carts and patrons wait in line by the staircase, which is too narrow to go up at the same time.

B — Analysis

To better understand the nature of MSPL’s visual disorder and its impact, I turn to Themis Chronopoulos and his analysis of Victor Moses’ slum clearance campaign in New York City. The author recollects the brochures distributed by his team to receive green light on the urban clean-up; “glossy paper and filled with statistics, graphics, charts, maps, photographs” — to the point where Moses had “instructed his staff that he did not want long texts,” (207–8). Chronopoulos interprets these curated brochures, which “made the built environment appear disorderly, obsolete, and beyond repair” as “a way of seeing a slum, of selecting and emphasizing some aspects and not others.” (208). The author’s emphasis here isn’t on the relativity/selectivity of visual disorder — but rather how subjective our outrage or neutrality toward it could be. A fan of “rational scientific principles” and “nicely ordered, geometric simulations of normal life” (209), Victor Moses would have surely bulldozed Mulberry Street’s narrow and visually-chaotic library and built more branches akin to the Fifth Avenue one — ordered, geometric, rationally built.

But Chronopoulos doesn’t stop at the esthetic implication of such urban obsessions — to him, it is a political question par excellence. Indeed, the author reminds his readers that Victor Moses’ ideals find their root in “the events of 1789”, (the French Revolution), “which confirmed the fears of political elites that society was essentially disorderly and unstable and that measures had to be taken so that it would not degenerate into chaos,” (212). What Victor Moses fears about slums is similar to people’s potentially prejudice fears of locations like MSPL — their narrowness and clusteredness conceal, rather than reveal; making them places of organic, spontaneous conglomerations that are not easily policed. The most pertinent statement of Chronopoulos, however, would be his statement about the old Parisian streets revamped by Haussmann:

“The older neighborhoods were conducive to revolts because people frequently barricaded the narrow streets for defense purposes during times of upheaval; the new urban design displaced and dispersed many of these rebellious populations while the wide avenues allowed troops to easily march into certain neighborhoods and restore order,” (213).

Is a revolution currently in the works at Mulberry Street? Perhaps not, but the scarcity of locations such as MSPL is alarming, politically speaking. Indeed, if all public spaces looked like the library at Fifth Avenue — grand staircases, marble flooring, shiny posters on walls one is too intimidated to lean on — then there may very well be a political crisis in urban spaces. The real danger of this crisis, however, is the pretext under which it is unfolding — in Chronopoulos’ words, for the sake of “rational scientific principles” and how a “dynamic, modern city” ought to look like. This is perhaps the biggest sham of modernity — that public spaces, or anything from nightclubs to schools to malls, must, in this age of modernity, look the part; shine and be immaculate, polished and sanitized. This is why the visual disorder of MSLP is a rare but valuable remnant of a post-modern society — its disorder, far from alienating and segregating peoples of different classes and political ideologies, creates a space where these antagonisms can meet — making it a democratic and potentially-action-driven public sphere, in the way Hannah Arendt understood it, a modern agora.

3. Queerness as Medium

Unruly and visually-chaotic, Mulberry Street’s library is above all a very queer space. By queer, I mean whatever comes from notions of difference, deviance, eccentricity or aberrance — nothing ‘normalized’ or set as standard. This manifests not merely in a queer space with regards to sexuality — a Stonewall 50 poster, a YA booklist filled with gay themes — but also in the vast meanings of queerness; indeed, we find in the library a whole section for migrants prepping for the American citizenship test; posters and guidance sheets for the unemployed; workshop calls for women artists; family literacy programs. Whoever defines themselves as being in the margin of society — based on their gender, sexuality, age, job or nationality status — is seamlessly accommodated at MSPL. Its queerness is therefore its ability to amass whoever doesn’t define themselves in the center of the normalized spectrum of mainstream society.

To understand the importance of the space’s queerness, I turn to Samuel Delaney and his dissection of Times Square’s sex district in the 70s and 80s. In his book, the author describes the grimy-like but social scenes of sex and porn theatres; he juxtaposes the Disney-land Times Square of today, where contact among its clusters of peoples is superficial and rare, with the Times Square of the past, where contact between different social classes was the motor of the sex scene — our libidos, after all, do not discriminate. Delaney indeed theorizes upon a “conservative, stabilizing discourse that sees interclass contact as the source of pretty much everything dangerous, unsafe, or undesirable” — despite the fact that grimy-like places like the old Times Square contradicted these “Kafkaesque, if not Orwellian, nightmares,” (164).

It is not difficult to transpose the perceived griminess and danger of TS onto Mulberry Street’s library; it is easy to imagine the reaction of rich parents had they regularly accompanied their children down there, instead of delegating the experience to their baby-sitters. They will have preferred locations where their kids resembled all the other kids; where they were not waiting by the bathroom next to a homeless man, where their strollers didn’t have to stand out next to less-complex and clearly less expensive strollers. This emphasis on visual beauty and safety is primordial in Delaney’s argument; according to him; “the best way to combat [urban] ugliness” is by “hid[ing] the small, the poor, the dirty, the grubby — shrugging them off to the edges, putting them behind a veil of park land or public greenery,” (164). What Delaney pushes back against is this primacy of glamor and its false correlation with safety; in order to combat the least likelihood of trouble, instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt; we erase them from the picture altogether; we segregate them away. The interclass contact at MSPL becomes another rarity that fetishes of glamor couldn’t conspire against — and this may indeed be possible thanks to the overall chaos of the location, which simultaneously hides and reveals the mix of its patrons; rather than erasing them altogether for the sake of order.

Defending his street art, Harlem artist De la Vega stresses that the “intention of his art is to uplift rather than debase the neighborhood,” (104). This binary way of seeing the same paint on wall; as either washing-worthy vandalism or Instagram-worthy art, summarizes the urban, esthetic, and political tensions explored through the Mulberry Street Library; a space that owns up to its duty to be public by celebrating its amalgamations of identities and contradictions in ideologies.

Works cited

Chronopoulos, Themis. “Robert Moses and the Visual Dimension of Physical Disorder.” Sage. (2014). 207–233.

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blues. New York University Press. (2001).

Erving Goffman. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin. (1990).

Rayyan Dabbous is a Lebanese author. His recent books include DIY Creative Activism: A Handbook (2019) and Psychoanalysis of a Teenage Novelist (2020).