Greenpoint

An eco haven at BK’s northern tip: The Greenpoint Library and its Environmental Education Center

August 1, 2023 Tom Story
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EDITORS’ NOTE: The Brooklyn Public Library, first established by a state grant in 1892 when Brooklyn was still an independent city, now serves Brooklyn with 61 locations all across the borough. This makes BPL the institution with the largest direct engagement factor of any in Brooklyn. The 60 branches, combined with the main library at Grand Army Plaza, continue to make a strong cultural connection to Brooklynites of all backgrounds and ages. Thus, the Brooklyn Eagle has begun a series to profile each neighborhood branch.

GREENPOINT — This week, I traveled to Brooklyn’s northernmost neighborhood to visit the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center. The library is located at 107 Norman Ave. and is the branch’s third building over its lifetime.

The third floor of the Greenpoint BPL branch, which houses fruit and vegetable plants, as well as a pollinator garden. Photo: Gregg Richards

The first iteration of the Greenpoint library opened as a Carnegie Library in 1906, and the branch’s second home was a modest one-story building that served the neighborhood from 1973-2017. In 2017, the building was closed and demolished to make way for the construction of the current building. After delays in the construction process — thanks to COVID — and the removal of asbestos from the old foundations, the new library opened in October of 2020. The new space has more than double the square footage of the previous building and integrates a variety of indoor and outdoor areas across its three floors.

What most separates the new Greenpoint Library from its predecessors, however, is that it is not only a library but also an environmental education center. The reasoning behind the environmental influence dates back to one of Brooklyn and New York City’s most infamous environmental disasters: the Greenpoint Oil Spill. In 1978, it was revealed that an ExxonMobil petroleum processing plant had been seeping oil into the adjacent Newtown Creek for years, which not only contaminated the water but also rendered much of the unused land in the area unavailable for development, also presenting a health hazard for residents who lived nearby.

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However, from this dark chapter of Brooklyn’s history came at least one positive outcome. In the fallout after the discovery of the spill, millions of dollars were handed out to various organizations within the Greenpoint community, including a five million dollar grant to the library from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund.

The grant, coupled with further donations from the NY State Education Department and library and city funding, allowed the building of the new library to be built sustainably and with a specific focus on environmental activism. Though, in many ways, the library still functions just like most branches do, with workspaces and plenty of books for community members to utilize. It also has a dedicated Environmental Justice Coordinator who plans special events revolving around eco-activism and sustainability, and there are a number of reminders of the library’s unique identity both inside and outside the building.

The library is entered through a garden and sitting area on the corner of Norman Avenue and Leonard Street, which leads to an expansive first floor containing the library welcome desk, the children’s section, the bulk of the library’s collection and a number of desktops and workspaces for patrons to use. Throughout the floor (and the entire library in general) are reminders of nature and the sustainability of the building.

The meeting rooms, for example, are all named after types of wood native to Greenpoint (ash, red oak, and walnut) and feature walls made from those woods. Additionally, the library contains a relatively large amount of Polish literature, reflecting Greenpoint’s large Polish population (the area is known colloquially as Little Poland).

The cistern on the second floor of the Greenpoint branch of the BPL, which captures rainwater for the garden. Photo: Gregg Richards

The second floor of the library has a dedicated teenagers section much like the one in Brooklyn Heights. It features sliding doors that can be closed in order to give teens extra privacy and allows them to talk and make noise without disturbing others. Outside, the second floor contains the reading garden, a peaceful area filled with local plants intended to attract birds and insects. The garden also houses a cistern that captures rainwater used to nurture the library’s many plants, and for lab experiments. The second floor has a large meeting room with sliding walls that can be opened up for large events and labs, or closed off to create two separate meeting spaces.

The library’s top floor houses another outdoor garden space located on the roof. This features a planting garden with various flowers, fruits and vegetables grown by community groups as well as a permanent pollinator garden, containing plants that naturally attract pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. The garden has plants that bloom at different times to ensure it is busy year-round.

Abigail Garnett, the managing librarian at the Greenpoint branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Photo courtesy of BPL

Greenpoint’s managing librarian is Abigail Garnett, a relatively longtime employee of the BPL; she has been leading the Greenpoint branch since January of 2022, and she has only seen the library in its new eco era. Though her background is in library work, and not environmental activism, Garnett highlighted the importance of the library’s other role, “I certainly have an interest in [environmental activism]. How could you not?”

“It’s an extremely important thing for all of us to be considering and I really enjoy being a part of the programming and raising public awareness about environmental issues.”

Garnett indicated to the Eagle that the library seems to draw people from all over the neighborhood, and attracts groups and organizations that travel from across the borough due to the library’s environmental initiatives.

“We have all kinds of people, old, young, all different communities,” said Garnett.

“We will sometimes have classes come from schools that are further afield because they are doing an environmental unit at school or they’re interested in the design of the building. But we definitely have our community folks who are here every single day.”

Certainly, this seemed to be reflected in my visit as the library was packed full of people on the rainy Tuesday afternoon. The Greenpoint Library offers a unique take on a neighborhood branch and with its unusual architecture and environmental focus is well worth the trip up to the top of Brooklyn.

 


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