Notes From the Working Class: My Small Book

On a cold day in the Spring of 1982, Mrs. Elizabeth “Lee” Hipius made her way through the parking lot behind Yonkers City Hall. Small and compact, the 53-year-old Italian American woman moved briskly between her mother and her brother, who had joined her on this day to give her their moral support. Lee Hipius’s fingers grew numb as she clutched a sheath of papers to her chest. While she had always been active in her community, the prospect of talking to a group of public officials made her heart flutter.

Lee Hipius had formed a committee to save the Yonkers Carnegie Library from demolition. As President of the Committee, she had asked the Yonkers City Council if she could make a presentation, but she had been stonewalled. After many months of making polite but persistent entreaties, the City Council finally granted her request. Her tireless effort to save the library was finally paying off. As she came around the corner from City Hall, the moment she saw the library her anticipation plummeted to horror. One side of the library had already been bashed in.

By the time I spoke to Lee Hipius, she was in her nineties. She remembered that Spring day as surely as if it were yesterday. “I did appear before the City Council and talk about how we wanted to save the library,” she said. “But when we got up to the library, the building had already been punched out with a wrecking ball. The message was: ‘You can come here and talk all you want but it won’t do you a bit of good.’”

A few weeks after Lee Hipius made her presentation to the Yonkers City Council, the library was destroyed. A grainy black and white photo, taken by the Yonkers Herald Statesman in May 1982, reveals the library’s inner sanctum looking as dark as the collapse of a bludgeoned heart. A bulldozer is stuck in the library’s entrails. All that remains is a shell-shocked corpse, a pile of rubble, steel girders, twisted coil, shards of granite and yards of broken brick.

The Yonkers Carnegie Library was commonly held to be the most beautiful building in the city. I remember the library sat high on the hill and seemed to see the far corners of the world, beyond the Hudson River. The library took Yonkers for what it was—a city hovering in an undefined limbo, blurring the distinction among urban, suburban, and rural; and the rich, middle and working-classes, and the poor; and the people, black, brown, and white.

The most magical element of the library was the children’s room on the second floor. The sound of my footsteps to the second floor was hushed by the honed, low-luster, grainy white marble steps. Indiscriminate sharp lines bordered the edge of each step. The vertical-shaped window had frames forming ten panes of a certain X pattern. Sunlight streamed in through the window and fell on the mosaic floor, where the X shapes now seemed to be transformed by the light into the ethereal images of too many crosses to count. As a kid I felt dreamily compelled to count them all while scuffing my feet up the marble steps.

In the final years of the library’s life, its exterior walls faded the same way an older woman bears grey streaks in her hair but is still beautiful enough to turn heads. The library invited the attention of Hollywood. Its exterior was captured in the film Goodbye Columbus, shot there in 1968. Based on the novel by Phillip Roth, Goodbye Columbus spun the yarn of young librarian Neil Klugman, played by Richard Benjamin, who falls in love with a young woman, played by Ali McGraw. Although both are Jewish, the relationship is doomed; he is working-class, and she is from an upscale family in New Jersey.

Although Phillip Roth’s 1960s story focused on a rich man - poor man view of the world, its central theme related to class and money could easily be applied to the city of Yonkers circa 1982. Only by that time in Yonkers, the real divisions existed among the white east side and everyone else in the west; black, brown, white, poor, and working-class. Like Richard Benjamin’s character in the film, the library had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the tracks.  

Even if people in Yonkers hadn’t used the library since they were kids, they were aware of its presence, sitting on top of the hill next to City Hall. The library was beloved by the city’s inhabitants, and no one could conceive of its death.

As President of the Committee to Save the Public Library, Mrs. Hipius had drafted thousands of leaflets, made countless phone calls, and rang doorbells with the tenacity of a politician campaigning for reelection. Hipius was not alone in her mission to save the library.

Frank Cardone was born and raised within walking distance of the library in the Park Hill “Little Italy” section. As an amateur history buff (especially of old theaters and Yonkers history), his voice is passionate when he talks about the library. To Frank Cardone the library was more than a beautiful building but the yardstick by which he measured his early life—he “grew-up at the library.” Frank Cardone joined Lee Hipius to save the library.

By April 1982, the clock was ticking down on the Carnegie Library. Lee Hipius and Frank Cardone, along with other members of the Committee, had gathered over 5,000 signatures. It really didn’t matter how many people signed the petition; it would never be enough to stop the city from cleaving the library’s heart in two.

As a working-class kid growing up in Yonkers, the library in the square, as it was called, was my beacon. No one who lived in Yonkers during the library’s life can mention its death without getting teary-eyed; there is a collective weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many rumors flew about the library’s destruction. Nearly forty years later, the real reasons were still unknown. I made it my mission to write a feature article about what had happened.

I pored over thousands of media clippings. I read large collections, ranging from the history of the Carnegie Libraries to urban renewal. I studied the legendary Andrew Carnegie, the urban Kingpin Robert Moses and the highly respected author and urban planning visionary Jane Jacobs. I relied on periodicals, white papers, archived testimony, and legal documents, including the lawsuit U.S. vs City of Yonkers Board of Education.

I interviewed a dozen people, some of whom were integral in the campaign to save the library. Aside from Lee Hipius and Frank Cardone, former Yonkers city council member Andrew MacDonald had worked to save the library. Michael P. Rebic, who worked for the city of Yonkers for ten years as the Principal Historic Restoration Planner, also tried to save the library.

After many hours of research, a clear picture began to emerge. The library had been destroyed due to political corruption, cronyism, urban renewal run amok, and racism. Four years later, the story evolved beyond an article and into the slim volume of the book The Death of a Library: An American Tragedy.

But literary agents did not want to represent the book, and if you don’t have a literary agent, you can forget about getting a publisher. The rejection was never about the quality of the writing or the veracity of the conclusions about what happened to the library. Agents gave me the same excuse, “I can’t get behind this project at this time,” but noted it was a “worthy” project. One agent explained he could not sell the manuscript because it was too close in concept to Susan Olean’s “The Library Book.” Olean’s book dealt with damage caused to the L.A. Library due to arson; there was never the slightest whisper of political corruption.

Self-publishing meant certain death for my book. I would never be eligible for top-tier book reviewers, prestigious literary awards, and my book would never be placed in the narrow categories on Amazon that help to sustain higher search and sales rankings. Most important, I would never get the marketing budget that is only reserved for what the publishing houses deem to be big books. Cases of my books would not be shrink-wrapped and land on counters in Costco or Walmart. That shelf space is reserved for big books like Prince Harry’s Spare.

As an Indie author, I must pay for advertising. My book would not easily find its way into bookstores or for that matter libraries, even though the book is a cautionary tale about a library. There is the assumption that the work of an Indie author is inferior and not worthy of a real publisher. The bibliophiles working in bookstores look askance; this book has not been shortlisted for the PEN, nor is it entertainment for a summer beach read.

What I didn’t earn in royalties or recognition as an Indie author was more than compensated by knowing I made a difference among the people who loved the library like a grand old friend. I was able to settle some troubling questions about what had happened and that mattered deeply to some people. They cared about that library, and I care about them.

Ten years from now, few people will remember a Carnegie Library once stood in the center of Yonkers. But because of the book people will know. They will also know that Lee Hipius, Frank Cardone, Michael P. Rebic, Andrew MacDonald, and others put up a heroic fight to save the library. They didn’t win the battle. They did, however, win our respect. Lee Hipius said, “We have to remind ourselves of what’s important, otherwise we’ll lose what we have.”

My small book was published shortly before Mrs. Lee Hipius died. Her son Mike Hipius told me how much the book meant to her. She sent me a note of gratitude along with a small prayer card to keep in my wallet. She wished me courage, strength, and great grace. I didn’t put the card in my wallet. I keep the card on my desk as a reminder that a small book can be far more powerful than a big book.


Editor's Note: The Death of a Library: An American Tragedy will soon be on the shelves in Barnes & Noble (Yonkers).


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