Places that Matter

Parkchester Branch of the New York Public Library

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Interior view from Second Floor stairs, Parkchester Library, 2016. Parkchester, Bronx, photo by Tazwar Choudhury
Interior view from Second Floor stairs, Parkchester Library, 2016. Parkchester, Bronx, photo by Tazwar Choudhury
Sculpture Garden, Parkchester Library, 2016. Parkchester, Bronx, photo by Tazwar Choudhury
Invaluable community educational institution
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Written by Tazwar Choudhury
The library as an institution is an invaluable asset to a city and its growing population. It provides people of all ages with resources to learn, enjoy themselves, and even better themselves. With free access to books, computers, classes, and more, the library plays a sizable role in creating an progressive community. For children, this opportunity is particularly important; growing up next to a library has incredible benefits for young people.
In my own childhood, I grew up next to the New York Public Library (NYPL) branch in Parkchester, and it grew to be one of the many places that I could call home. To me, it instilled the ethics of empowerment, responsibility, and social skills that I may not have otherwise had. Within its walls, I made an array of friends; an aspect of my life that allowed me to feel included into a new community in a foreign country. Having this library shaped how I grew up as an immigrant child from Bangladesh in a diverse community like Parkchester.
The NYPL branch libraries are a product of the NYPL working in tandem with The New York Free Circulating Library, a then separate entity, in order to have free library books be circulated around New York City. Funding was provided by steel baron Andrew Carnegie  in order to construct several branch libraries throughout the boroughs. The NYPL later contracted the city of New York to operate 39 branches in the Bronc, Manhattan, and Staten Island (Queens and Brooklyn had developed their own system by this time.)1 These branch libraries share resources with each other and the main library as a means to extend the influences libraries have on the city.
The NYPL opened the Parkchester branch in 1942 in the Parkchester Housing Development. It wasn’t until 1985 that it was moved to Westchester Avenue, the current location. The library, as it stands, is southwardly oriented and directly faces the 6 train station. The two-story structure has an open floor plan with its program dictated by the furniture (bookshelves, computers, desks, tables, chairs). The first floor is primarily for teenagers and young adults while the second is a dedicated space for children. The amenities provided for the children’s section are in actuality no way inferior to those given to the first floor; this scratches the surface of an important idea behind the children’s section: responsibility. The library was the only space in my childhood where I felt older and more mature than my years. 
As a red brick construction, the Parkchester library stands out quite effectively in the chaos of commerce that is Westchester Avenue. The 7,500 square foot, two-story building is oriented southward towards the 6 train station; its north end is flanked by residential constructions. The entrance to the library greets users with a semi-circular sculpture garden for children to play around in.  The south façade on both floors is covered in glass as a means to allow daylight in and for users inside to not feel isolated form the city. Just beyond the metal gates and the sculpture garden is the double doors that lead to the lobby space. Two sets of doors, in fact, would lead a user into the air conditioned open space.  
To walk through the double doors at eight years old and be greeted by a massive space over flowing with people was overwhelming. The prospect of books, however, was incredibly enticing to a child who had recently learned to read. There was a catch though; before I could take out a book, a library card was required. The library card would be the first “card” that many children received and one that would grant them significant power in the library. I wouldn’t receive my first Metro Card until high school or my first credit/debit card until college; my library card became one of my most prized possessions until I was fourteen years old. It granted me rights to a space that I could occupy for myself and where I reigned as king; a sense of authority that no other possession of mine could emulate. To a growing child, little was as important as a sense of responsibility and empowerment, and my local branch library granted me both.
The walk to the library helped reinforce an our sense of maturity. I lived three blocks from the library (an impossible distance for a child); in order for me to get to the library, my mother would walk my brothers and I down Metropolitan Avenue, around the Metropolitan Oval, and down Westchester Avenue to reach the gates of the library. The walk was always a populated one; the liveliness of the streets in the Bronx helped create a sense of security in the neighborhood. After a few years of accompanying us, my mother stepped aside, and we were allowed to walk to the library by ourselves; this walk itself was an accomplishment for us. It symbolized maturity and independence. It’s an experience that I shared with quite a few kids in the library, many of whom I became friends with.
The interior of the first floor is almost all open space, and broken only by several large columns. The layout of the space is entirely determined by the furnishing of the books stacks and tables, although this organization has changed from what it what during my to childhood. After being greeted by the lobby, my sights were always aimed towards the stairs not too far from the entrance. To the left was an open space with tables that held the young adult sections and other materials such as mangas and textbooks. At the opposite ends of the entrance was another section for young adults but more so non-fiction books. Towards the right hand side of the entrance was a room used for classes.  
As a nervous child, I had always had an easier time talking to my peers than to adults. On the second floor, I would see kids reading, sleeping, conversing, playing games on the computers, and doing homework. We had access to books, computers, and could even borrow movies (back in the days of VCR and eventually DVD). It was a smaller version of the space downstairs and that filled us with glee. To know that we would transition down there one day as adults was something we anticipated. But whilst we were up there, we only had each other; there was no room to be unsociable and no need for it. We seemed to feel that as we were relative strangers, no one had any reason to be rude or cruel. We would read together, to each other, recommend books, play together on the computer. The library was almost a second school without the mundanity of homework or classwork. It was a gathering place for kids and one we would relish and hope to return to daily; in fact, not returning often left me in tears. Making friends allowed for me to be more comfortable with communicating with others and this did in fact help me through the final (optional) step in any library, checkout.
All libraries require a checkout for book distributions, age notwithstanding. This process itself for a child is heart wrenching, at least for me it was. I was new to the city, new to its facilities and its people, so meeting strangers was usually a giant bête noir. But my mother wanted me to grow up more sociably, so I was often forced to ask for book for myself, as were my brothers. This simple act of waiting in line, walking to a stranger, and asking a stranger to borrow a book was terrifying, but once the deed was done, I was not only filled with immense relief but also a feeling of significant accomplishment. I had walked to the library by myself, I had gotten my own library card, I had made friends, I had talked to a stranger, I had borrowed a book from a library in a foreign country; these simple gestures were enough to instill in me a great sense of pride and responsibility as a child. It was through the daily or weekly repetition of these acts that helped me gain more confidence as a kid and impart upon myself a social characteristic, to reach out and communicate with others.  
At 7500 square feet, the institution ecompasses a relatively large space, one that naturally felt even greater when I was young. Every corner and bend held intrigue, and every turn and staircase held possibilities. I went to the library mostly between 2002 and 2010, and stopped for the most part once my high school work started piling on. When I was young, the library was more crowded with people and books than it is today, a result of the changing times. We now live in an era where almost everyone owns a home computer or a laptop and thus no longer needs to go to the library for access to processors; today books can be found in digital format. This is an era of expedience, one in which the culture moves too fast for institutions like the library. However, prioritizing convenience does not diminish the thrill of holding a physical copy of a book. The screen can never replace the texture of the pages, the smell of the cover, or the sense of weight as the bound volume rests in ones' hand, whether magazine or young adult novel.
The Parkchester Library of yesterday had more stacks (book storage); there were more racks and less space. Space, however, was never a problem. In fact, the arrangement of the spaces often created more intimate sections. Often I would find myself under the staircase, besides the adult horror novel sections. I went through a phase of vampire obsession and had chanced upon Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Looking back, it certainly was an odd sight -- a child perusing through adult horror novels. As of two years ago, these racks no longer exist and the adult horror section has been relegated to a corner in the far reaches of the room. The more intimate spaces have since been cleared away and replaced with open floor plan, much to the chagrin of many who remember exploring fast realms of fantasy from the safety of a cozy nook.
The NYPL provided the Parkchester community with free access to computers and at the turn of the twenty-first century, modern computers with a steady Internet connection were invaluable to people in this neighborhood. Back then, it became a second home and a second school to me. Today it remains a core of the Parkchester community, providing tools for the city's youth, as well as those young at heart and imagination.    
(May 2016)