At a Library Gala, Janet Yellen Calls for ‘Community Capital’

The Brooklyn Public Library honors the former Fed chair, a borough native, at a time when the institution's ambition is soaring

In her remarks, Yellen said the library "offers safe gathering-places where people from diverse backgrounds connect, speak freely, share concerns, and build strong community ties” (Photos for The Bridge by Colin Clark)

What propelled Janet Yellen, a kid from Brooklyn, to the heights of power as chair of the Federal Reserve Board? She attributes a good part of her success to her neighborhood library, a sentiment that went over well earlier this week at the Brooklyn Public Library’s annual gala, which drew more than 500 partygoers and raised a record $1.1 million for the institution.

“Among my fondest memories are afternoons spent in the Bay Ridge branch, an inspiring light-filled place where I studied, browsed through books and periodicals in open stacks, received help from dedicated librarians, and developed a love of learning,”  said Yellen, who was one of two Brooklyn natives honored at the event. “My parents were sticklers for returning library books on time,” she noted. “While I only borrowed the books, I got to keep the ideas.”

Being an economist, however, Yellen expanded the concept to embrace the whole neighborhood and the support it offered young people, which she called “community capital.” That included not just the libraries but also the schools and community groups. “I believe that community resources can make a big difference in young people’s chances of success,” she said.

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Honoree Nicholas Gravante Jr., at left, with library CEO Linda Johnson and attorney David Boies, who introduced Gravante at the event

A parade of high-profile speakers at the event, which took place in the regal, twin-domed Weylin event space in Williamsburg, extolled the role of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in the free flow of information and the assimilation of immigrants into society. Mayor de Blasio called the library a symbol of “living, breathing democracy. We’re going through a national identity crisis about which path we’ll take, but in the library it all makes sense because of openness and freedom of thought,” he said. “For so many immigrants in this city, the library is where they acclimated to their new country. This is what makes NYC great. We aim to elevate everyone.”

The festivity of the sold-out event reflected the institution’s current vigor and ambition. The library is embarking on a $135 million capital plan to upgrade the Central Library, in addition to its plan to rebuild more than a dozen of its 59 neighborhood branches. Last year the library had more than 8.1 million visitors and offered 66,000 free programs including workshops and public discussions.

“We definitely have a lot going on all over the borough,” library president and CEO Linda Johnson told The Bridge. “We focused on the neighborhoods first and now we’re focusing on the Central Library. People come from all over the borough. It’s an inspiring building.” Among the features will be a spacious Civic Commons, she noted. “You can come and get a passport or IDNYC card, but there’s also an intellectual component to it: What does it take to maintain a democracy?”

The gala, in the Weylin event hall that was formerly the home of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, drew more than 500 attendees

The emcee for the evening was a new BPL board member, the comedian and bestselling author Baratunde Thurston. “Technically, this is my first day on the board,” he told The Bridge. “I always support libraries, because I’m a citizen. It’s a valuable public space. I’m a big fan of what the library does, which is welcoming instead of shunning or discriminating.”

Thurston, who has plenty of experience as a standup comic and TV host, noted before the event, “I hope that fans of the library are going to be a gentler crowd than at Caroline’s.” Once onstage, he warmed them up with a playful call-and-response. “When I say BROOKLYN, you say PUBLIC!” (Audience complies.) “When I say FREE, you say WIFI!” (Audience responds with a roar.)

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Baratunde Thurston, left, a new member of the library board and the night’s emcee

Several of the speakers took a walk down memory lane, remembering time spent among the stacks. As Nicholas Gravante Jr., a renowned trial lawyer and Brooklyn native who was honored for his service on the BPL board, recalled, “It played such an integral role in my life growing up. I remember the first book I ever took out of the Brooklyn Public Library. It was Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.”

De Blasio recalled how his children outgrew their Park Slope branch and started using the Central Library, which they regarded “like the Pantheon when they looked at the grandness of it.” Yellen, too, remembered her pilgrimages to the Central Library, the city’s largest lending library. “As assignments became more demanding, we found ourselves trooping over to Grand Army Plaza and hitting the card catalog,” she said.

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Said Mayor de Blasio: “One of the causes closest to my heart is the library. It’s very personal”

In keeping with her community-capital theme, Yellen noted that she was fortunate to attend three public schools in Brooklyn with high standards: PS 102, McKinley middle school and Fort Hamilton High School, where she was valedictorian and editor of the school newspaper.

After her strong start in Brooklyn, she earned an economics degree from Brown University and her doctorate in economics from Yale, where she was the only woman among two dozen PhD recipients at the school that year, according to fellow Bay Ridge native Maria Bartiromo, the TV business journalist who introduced her. Yellen became CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 2004, chair of the Fed’s Board of Governors in 2014, and is now a distinguished fellow in resident at the Brookings Institution.

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Borough President Eric Adams said the library is an important part of fostering good character in the borough– “We can’t have tall buildings and small people”–and hailed library chief Johnson for the diversity of the BPL’s programming: “She has pushed us out of our comfort zone”

When fellow honoree Gravante took the stage, the entire hall was filled with squeaking sounds as chairs pushed back for a standing ovation in recognition of his 14 years on the BPL’s board of trustees, including four years as chairman. It wasn’t an obvious role for him at the start, he said, recalling his family’s return to Brooklyn 15 years ago after living in Manhattan for years.

Hoping to get involved with a Brooklyn institution, he consulted then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, who suggested three: the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the BPL. Gravante chose the library for its unique role in the community.

“The reason the BPL is far and away the most important institution in our borough is because we make a difference in the lives of people who need it most,” which he described as “the unheard third, the one-third of people who live below the poverty line.” He noted that the library helps not only through its books, but its research assistance. “Any problem you have or information you need, if a librarian doesn’t have it today, you’ll get it tomorrow.”

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The gala included a performance by Anthony Ramos, a Bushwick native, Grammy and Tony Award-winning musician and actor who orginated two roles in Hamilton

As Yellen put it: “The library not only provides Brooklynites with equal access to information and resources; it also offers safe gathering-places where people from diverse backgrounds connect, speak freely, share concerns, and build strong community ties.”

And what about actual librarians, who were also represented among the crowd? Alex Tretiak, 32, a neighborhood library supervisor at the Brooklyn Heights branch, said what stands out about the BPL is that it “serves a particularly diverse community. We have people from all around the world coming into our branches and we’re finding ways to provide them with the services they need. They have different languages and different socio-economic standings–and our doors are open to all of them.”

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Lucille Thomas can take the long view, since she has served on the BPL board since 1993. In 2016, the library created an award for excellence in librarianship in her honor. Asked if this week’s extravagant gala was appropriate for recognizing such a serious institution, she responded: “To me, it is fitting for it to be glamorous because the library has such an important role in the lives of people, whether they realize it or not.” Has she retired yet from her career as a librarian? “Oh, yes, I’m 96 years old!,” she said. But her enthusiasm is clearly ageless.

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Lucille Thomas, a career librarian who has served on the library board for 25 years

The invitation suggested festive attire, and this library supporter came through

The gala drew supporters from many generations…

… including the younger set

The elegant event raised money to help support the BPL’s collections and programs, which span 59 branches in neighborhoods across the borough

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.