Rain didn’t stop advocates and elected officials from gathering on the grounds of the old two-story Inwood Public Library, demolished earlier this May, to kick off construction on the new towering 14-story library and “affordable housing” development at 4790 Broadway on Tuesday, Sept. 28.

“I know how the library was mainly used by working class families, that this became like a babysitter for them,” said Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez. “So as a council member for this area I know this has not been easy and I know that we will continue moving forward.”

The building is named “The Eliza” after philanthropist Elizabeth Hamilton who was married to founding father Alexander Hamilton, said Executive Director of the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) Yvonne Stennett. 

“What we’re doing here is taking minds into the future. It is our responsibility,” said Stennett, “It is what we should be doing as brothers and sisters. To build for those who can’t build for themselves, to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.”

Stennett promised the housing component of the building would be “100% affordable” with 174 “deeply affordable units, a new 20,000-square-foot, two-story library, a STEM learning center, a community center with a teaching kitchen, and a universal Pre-K program.” 

Despite that, a coalition of community groups that formed in 2017 had hotly debated and filed lawsuit after lawsuit to stop the library’s redevelopment and the city’s “estimated $500 million Inwood rezoning plan,” reported Patch.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who spoke at the groundbreaking, noted that no one thought the library’s replacement would happen and there were indeed “enough lawsuits to sink a ship.” She said that the redevelopment was “a shining example” of public and private partnerships coming together for an exciting project.

Save Inwood Library was the voice of the most prominent activists and Facebook group. They commented in several posts that neighbors who “knew nothing about the destruction of the library” were “horrified” to see it go, calling it an “obvious sign of gentrification” in Washington Heights and Inwood. One post said that elected officials did not consult with the surrounding community before pushing the new library through.

The partners spearheading the effort to build the library redevelopment said today a new, more capable and well-equipped library was necessary and holds the community’s needs at its core. 

The Children’s Village President and CEO Jeremy C. Kohomban said that the main objective was to design something they would want to live in and that they plan on being held accountable to their future tenants. “Yvonne and I intend to make sure that our team is on the ground. We are not building and delegating authority and walking away. We intend to be accountable to the promises made,” said Kohomban.

NYPL President Anthony W. Marx said the new library will be the next chapter, complete with rooms for classes and programs, computers, quiet spaces for all ages, and all of the amenities that the “community needs, wants, and deserves.” He emphasized that the pandemic was an extremely stressful time, exposing gaps in the city’s education, economic, and health systems that can be corrected going forward. 

“Loved the old library. Hard to see it go,” said Marx, “The silver lining has to be how do we rebuild as we come out of that time.”

Many of the partners present at the groundbreaking also spoke fondly of the original Inwood Library, reminiscing on it being a safe space for many immigrant children, like themselves, after school.   

Rodriguez’s successor in his city council seat, Assemblymember Carmen de la Rosa, said that she spent a long time at the library learning skills to help her survive in a new country. 

“I immigrated to this community as an undocumented child in the ’90s, and there was a trailer on the other side of this fence and that’s where I went to kindergarten,” said de la Rosa. “I didn’t know a word of English; my mother was a home health aide who also did not know a word of English. But the library welcomed our family. And the structure that was here was a place where I spent many after school hours, learning English, to translate the documents, so that my parents could also move ahead.”

The project is led by a vast group of community non-profits including CLOTH and The Children’s Village, their partners Ranger Properties, Housing Workshop, and Alembic Community Development, with coordinated public-private partnerships from the NYPL, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC), and Robin Hood, the city’s largest poverty-fighting philanthropy.

The project was closed in April 2021 and construction is expected to be completed by October 2023. In the meantime, Inwood residents will continue to have access to library resources, services, and staff at a temporary branch located at 4857 Broadway across the street. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America Corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for the AmsterdamNews. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w