Monday, July 2, 2012

Library Way:
Reading and Walking Along NYPL's Street of Words

Walk of Fames exist all over the world.  There are walks in Australia, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Hungary, India, Russia, and the Philippines. Surfers have one in Huntington Beach, California. There is the International Civil Rights Walk in Atlanta, the Music City Walk in Nashville, and the U.S. Space Walk in Florida.
Nothing compares to Hollywood’s illustrious strip for pizzazz and stardom.

The Walk of Fame is located at one of the world’s most famous corners, Hollywood and Vine. The names of almost 2500 celebrities are inscribed in five-pointed brass and terrazzo stars. They are embedded in the sidewalks along a 15-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard and on three blocks of Vine Street. Each star contains one name. Millions visit annually and pay homage to the entertainment industry’s (film, radio, music, television, theater) biggest stars - Charlie Chaplin, Sophie Loren, Clark Gable, Johnny Depp, Paul Robeson, Mickey Mouse, Michael Jackson to name a few.

Far less celebrated and on a much smaller scale than the movie capital’s version, is the New York Public Library's walk of fame, or Library Way, as it is called.

Library Way is located on the north and south sides of East 41 Street. It starts at Park Avenue’s Grand Central Viaduct near Pershing Square and extends east to Fifth Avenue, to the New York Public Library's flagship building.
The Library’s magnificent marble Beaux Arts building, completed in 1911, has an imposing massive staircase and grand entrance. Two large stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, watch over Fifth Avenue perched on pedestals on each side of the staircase. The library is the second largest research facility in the United States, after the Library of Congress.
Library Way has 96 bronze plaques honoring 45 of the world’s greatest novelists, playwrights, poets, philosophers, and artists. They hail from 11 countries and date back to 100 AD. Some names appear on two plaques. There are several Library Way informational panels.

Mark Twain

The Grand Central Partnership spearheaded plans for the project in the early 1990s. The city formed the Partnership, one of its business improvement districts, to revitalize various commercial neighborhoods. This one covers the neighborhood around Grand Central Terminal. The walk received support from the New York Public Library, the city's Department of Transportation, property owners and commercial tenants on 41st. The street got its first panel in 1998. The city officially dedicated Library Way in 2004.

The panels measure 2½ by 1½ feet. Each one contains an important quote and an image reflective of the text. Both are set in bas-relief. City librarians submitted quotes to a group of literary scholars, selected by the Partnership, the New York Public Library and The New Yorker magazine who in turn selected quotes for each one.

Sculptor Gregg LeFevre designed the panels. He created his first outdoor sculptor in 1974 and has completed projects all over the country. He did the New Jersey Hall of Fame in Newark, New York City’s Union Square Park Timeline, and works in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis.

On a weekday visit to Library Walk few people stopped to read the panels. The street’s heavy foot traffic and the frantic New York off-to-the-races pace makes it impossible for passers-by to even notice the panels.
On weekends the pace is less hectic. During a ninety-minute visit one late Saturday morning I saw a number of people read and photograph the panels.

Tall commercial buildings line 41st street. The street is often covered in heavy shadows or brilliant sunlight depending on the time of day and the weather. On that Saturday visit, a brilliant blue sky day, shadows darkened the south side. On the north side, a glaring light bounced off the bronze panels and made it almost impossible to read them.

The Library Hotel-northeast corner of 41st and Madison
The contrast of light and darkness often hides the splendid architectural character of the streets older handsome buildings designed in reverence to Grand Central terminal. This includes 295 Madison Avenue with its distinctive 47-story tower on the southeast corner of 41st, 12 East 41st, and the Library, a boutique hotel at 299 Madison. The street is also home to Berkeley College, the stylish Dylan Hotel, the upscale Benjamin Steakhouse, Madison and Vine, and O’Casey’s Pub.

Emily Dickinson

I stood before Emily Dickinson’s panel. Cleaned and polished and set in a blue grey stone. It looked brand new. “Wow,” I said to myself amazed by its mint condition considering how other panels had gum markings and smudges.
A maintenance man standing in front of the building where the Dickinson is located heard me.
“I polish it every week. I don’t like when they look like that,” he said in an accented voice pointing to a tarnished one in front of a renovation site.  “I don’t know this person” referring to Dickenson. “I like her words. I like all the words on the block. This is my library.”
This is a classic case of a library without walls and how the NYPL has extended its boundaries to the people on the street.

Photos: Rudi Papiri   *You can enlarge an image by clicking on it
Library Way located on East 41st Street from Park to Fifth Avenue. 
New York Public Library - Stephen A. Schwarzman Building 
at Fifth Avenue & 42nd Street, New York, NY 10018; 917-275-6975. 
Hours: M-Th-Fri-Sat 10-6; Tues-Wed 10-8; Sun 1-5.

A follow-up article contains the complete list of all 45 names on Library Way. There are also brief notes about the lesser-known figures. I also included brief bios about my favorites writers, plus photos of several very attractive panels.