From “the most expensive pigeon roost in the world” to one of the world’s most unique libraries, Brooklyn’s Central Library has many stories to tell. We’ll dive into the history of Central Library, and bring you stories of small businesses, fashion shows, and one patron’s path from homelessness to determined author.

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Episode Transcript

Tammy Vaughn I remember, I was around five years old and I had a Barbie doll and Barbie was very influential for me in my career. And I remember my family, we were middle income but we didn’t always have enough money to get her outfit so I would get her paper towels, aluminum foil, old socks, paper and just make these designs. You couldnt tell me it wasn’t just as good as a store-bought outfit. And from there I was hooked. For life.

Felice Belle Tammy Vaughn was a participant in Brooklyn Public Library’s second annual Fashion Academy this past May.  

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Twenty designers were accepted to the program, went through sixteen weeks of classes, met professionals in the industry and made beautiful clothes. We talked to a few designers one day as they were choosing fabrics at the library. They told us about their early encounters with fashion. Here are Kenroy Tyrell, Dynasty George and Uniquia Parker. 

A model displays her outfit at the 2019 Fashion 
Show at Central Library.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Kenroy Tyrell What got me started was a problem. High school was homecoming. I had my outfit in my mind. Done. But I coulnd’t find a shirt. I went to like a ridicules amount of stores. And I got frustrated and I just decided I was just going to make the shirt. In my head I had an idea what it was going to look like. So I went to my local fabric store. I spent probably hours just staring at different fabrics. I ended up leaving with stuff I didn’t even need and from then I started to mess around with it.

Dynasty George I grew up Pentecostal so we would always wear skirts and dresses and a lot of ruffles and that has definitely influenced my style now. You know what’s funny when I was little since O had to wear skirts and I used to wear like jeans skirts and sneakers and it was terrible and I used to get made fun of all the time. And around high school I started discovering thirft stores and I started dressing better. And I started cultivating the style of like oh I can wear this because of my religion but I can also wear this because I like it. And then people were like, oh it's so weird why do you wear skirts?  And then it became like oh I love your skirts every day and people started to gravitate towards it.

Uniquia Parker I used to have curtains hanging up, woody woodpecker. I made a decision to cut woody woodpecker out and make an aplique and I sewed it on my jeans suit. And all of my friends were like, oh where did you get that? And I started to cut the other half and make someone else, and that was my first opportunity to be an entrepreneur. 

Felice Belle Maybe the library is not the first place you’d think of going when you’re trying to be an entrepreneur. But for these designers, the library was the perfect place to go. 

Lynnsie Augustin I realize the library is not books anymore. We really expanded. We want people to come in and learn about things they never thought they could learn about in the library.

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Lynnsie Augustin is an outreach specialist at the Central Library’s business and career center. She helped put together the Fashion Academy—and so far, it’s been a success. 

Lynnsie Augustin We had 15 designers last year. A lot have gone into fashion, one who has designed for the Grammys. Two have gone to teach fashion in high schools. There are two who are working in Harlem teaching low income women how to sew. So they’ve all gone on to do great things.

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras So if the library can help people launch their fashion careers, what else can it do? 

Felice Belle We're about to find out. We’re calling this episode “Work in Progress.” I’m Felice Belle. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed: Stories that start at the library. 

[MUSIC]

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Okay, Felice. I have an idea.  

Felice Belle I can’t wait to hear it. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras I’m going to read an article from 1931 and I want you to guess what it’s talking about.    

Felice Belle All right, let’s go. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras It’s going to be fun! This is from The New York American: “Practically all the boarded windows on the Flatbush Avenue side of the shell had been smashed and the building … had a more forlorn appearance than ever before. Boys who had been using the building as their own particular playground for months had ripped off the boards so that the pigeons might have easy access to the interior for nesting. This made the capture of the birds an easy matter for the young vandals. Bonfire ashes in many portions of the shell gave credence to the belief that there might have been many pigeon roast orgies by the youngsters.”    

Felice Belle … What?! [LAUGHTER]

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras The article also says that, “Pigeons are now guarded 24 hours a day, 30 days a month by Works Progress watchmen.” Would you like to guess what building they’re talking about?    

Felice Belle Well, there’s only one building famous for pigeon roast orgies. [LAUGHTER] It’s got to be that one! What are they talking about? Well, it’s Flatbush. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras It is Flatbush. That was a clue. 

Felice Belle That was a clude. Um... the library?  

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras That’s right. This is Central Library in the 1930s, being described in The New York American. So, Central Library was in a state of construction for 29 years, from 1912 to 1941, when the library officially opened to the public. Over the years, it was referred to as “a hole in the ground” and “that outlandish civic eyesore” and “the most expensive pigeon roost in the world.”  

The original design for Central Library with domes and columns, in 1907.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brookyln Collection)

Felice Belle Wow. I had no idea it took that long to construct this building. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras That long. So, the original plans for Central called for this really fancy building with marble columns and a dome and it was going to be four stories. It was this classic Beaux-Arts building… and then funding issues meant that it took until 1929 for even just a third of the building to be completed, that’s 17 years! Then the Great Depression pretty much halted construction again. So, fast forward to 1937, and Brooklyn Borough President, this guy named Raymond Ingersoll, pushed for federal government funds to complete the project. The library was totally redesigned at this point, without the fancy marble and the columns and the dome, and the job was finally approved by the city. And then in two years, Central Library was finally completed.   

Felice Belle Whew. The people of Brooklyn thank you, Raymond Ingersoll.   

Central Library mid-construction, in 1938.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras So, with those federal funds, the city used workers from the Works Progress Administration, or the WPA to get the job done. Brooklyn was part of a trend happening across the country during the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1941, the WPA gave 51 million dollars to build new libraries, repair old ones and refurbish 100 million books.

Felice Belle A quick refresher on the WPA, for those who might not know... That’s a program started by President Roosevelt’s New Deal, a plan to bring jobs back and pull the country out of economic depression. The WPA employed about 8 million Americans during the time it was in operation.    

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Right. And, what's interesting about the WPA is, no task was too small: Brooklyn Public Library’s WPA workers were assigned to battle “o-fillers,” people who sit in libraries and pencil in the o’s in books. That's actually a thing people do... So, WPA workers sat there and erased pencil markings in library books.  

Felice Belle During the 1930s, 800 new public library buildings opened across the country. Libraries became a refuge for the unemployed, and for those seeking knowledge and skills.  

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Libraries are still places that create jobs and help people find fulfilling work. 

Felice Belle Absolutely. And, I have a great example of that.  

[CHEERING SOUND]    

Felice Belle Okay Krissa now it’s my turn to have you guess what this is. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Okay, I’m thinking it is a competition between two librarians on who can reshelve books faster. 

Felice Belle Very close.   

[LAUGHTER] 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras That should be a thing, if it isn’t. 

Felice Belle It’s actually a pitch competition organized by the library this past February. It was part of a program called PowerUP!, which is a business plan competition. Anyone in Brooklyn can participate, take classes at the library’s Business and Career Center and then submit a final business plan, like an outline of the business, to the judges. The winner, the person with the best business plan, receives 20 thousand dollars to start their business! 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras So, it’s like "Shark Tank" at the library. 

Felice Belle It is exactly like "Shark Tank." And Brooklyn’s business plan competition was the first in the country at a public library… 

Arcola Robinson ...Based on the research from our illustrious librarians, yes. [LAUGHTER]

Felice Belle Those are the voices of Arcola Robinson and Maud Andrew. They run the Business and Career Center at BPL, and we sat down with them to hear about the history of PowerUP. The program started during another time of economic stress. Here’s Arcola. 

Arcola Robinson It was a result of the library's efforts to do their part in helping the city rebound after 9/11. A lot of people had lost jobs, weren't quite sure what to do and at that time, I think the city as a whole was in "let's help each other" mode. 

Maud Andrew Since 9/11, we’ve had a recession in 2008 where we've seen much of the same struggle for people who lost their jobs. Entrepreneurship becomes an alternative for them. 

Felice Belle PowerUP! has been going for 15 years, and has helped thousands of people understand what it takes to start a business. That cheering and applause I played for you a little while ago was from the final celebration for this year’s competition. That was the night when winners were announced. Participants gathered outside the auditorium, chatting with each other, and eating and drinking. Khalid, a previous winner of PowerUP!, was giving out ice cream from his new Brooklyn business. 

Khalid Hamid I’m Khalid Hamid and I’m part of a team, my wife and I, and we own a company called Island Pops. And we do West Indian-themed frozen desserts. We were actually 2015 winners. The funds we received from winning that year allowed us to get our start. Before we opened the business I was actually a psychologist. So I worked for a not-for-profit for 15 years. And then I got married and we decided, let’s build something that we can leave for the kids and the grandkids. 

Khalid Hamid dishes out ice cream from Island Pops during PowerUP's 2018 award ceremony.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Felice Belle Other participants in the crowd were nervously awaiting the announcement of this year’s PowerUP! winners.   

Warren Holder This is my first drink... I’m nervous.

Miguel Estrada I’m not drinking anything because I know as soon as water touches my tongue, I’m going to have to go to the bathroom. We don't have to pitch so we sit and smile and wave.

Warren Holder I’m Warren Holder...

Miguel Estrada ...I’m Miguel Estrada. We want to open an arcade bar in Brooklyn. It's going to focus more on keeping people together in a couch co-op or multiplayer situation.

Warren Holder Yeah, just to strengthen the community, and give back to the local neighborhood as well.

Felice Belle Those are the creators of the company The Electric Fox, and they ended up winning third place at the competition, which meant they were awarded five thousand dollars to start their business. The second place prize went to Brooklyn Tea—a new tearoom in Bed-Stuy. And the first place prize—20 thousand dollars—went to OnRout, a company that optimizes the best shipping routes and rates for package delivery. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Wait, so Felice, what happened at the pitch competition?  

Felice Belle So, after we found out about the overall winners, there was an audience-choice award for the best business pitch. So, a few PowerUP! participants were selected to make their pitches to the audience. There was one for a new hat company, another for a business that connects kids to computer programming classes, and a transportation service for seniors. And the winner was...

Keturah Suggs after winning the pitch competition at the 2018
PowerUP award ceremony.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Nick Higgins The winner is Keturah Suggs! [CHEERING]

Keturah Suggs This award means more than anything because you guys choose, and so you guys are helping me to help seniors really make a difference in Brownsville, Brooklyn. You've got to watch out for Graceful Travels!

Felice Belle Keturah Suggs won the pitch competition for one thousand dollars. After the excitement, we had a chance to talk to her about her business.  

Keturah Suggs It really came out of a need that life is to be enjoyed whatever stage you are.    

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Keturah Suggs is a resident of Brownsville. She’s really involved in her community. She’s, in fact, a representative on Community Board 16 for New York City. And, like so many of us, she has a grandma.    

Keturah Suggs One time I was on the bus and this woman was running and she was older, probably 70s, and she hit the window. And this bus driver, she reprimanded her. And then having friends and family, and a grandmom—my cousin has to take her everywhere. And so it’s like, yeah, that is what my service is for. I want to be able to connect older adults to places that they frequent, without making families feel overwhelmed with taking care of grandma and grandpa.

Felice Belle Keturah came up with an idea for a van service for the older adults in her Brownsville community. The service would have a few routes to the most popular places—church, shopping, and doctor’s appointments, and riders would pay about as much as one MetroCard ride to be helped onto a handicap-accessible van.   

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras And once she had the idea, she took it to the library because she had heard about PowerUP! 

Felice Belle She learned how to put together a business plan, did her research, and slowly saw her idea come to life.

[CHEERING]

Felice Belle PowerUP! is such an exciting opportunity. Sometimes, though, helping someone find satisfaction and success in a career requires something more than a competition.  

Natalie Canestra I find myself, as a librarian, I’m always trying to answer people’s questions. It doesn’t matter if it’s in my area of expertise or not. Even when I’m out in the street and I just think, Natalie stop looking at people because they’re not all... You know, they'll ask you something. I have that look on my face like I’m ready to help.

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Natalie Canestra has been a librarian for 25 years. For most of that time, she has been a business librarian, which means she helps people with everything from job searches to preparing for the civil service exam, and she works one on one with patrons to do business plan research. 

Natalie Canestra The most important part of my job is the time I spend at the reference desk answering questions. So, when I’m sitting at the desk, I do my best not to be working on anything else. I’m always keeping an eye on the room. Who’s walking in the room, who's sitting there already, just to see if they need help. So I started at Brooklyn Public when we were at the Cadman Plaza library in downtown Brooklyn. So I was only there for a year, and sometime during that time I do remember Vanessa coming in.

Felice Belle Vanessa Williams is a patron who started coming to the library a few years ago. 

Vanessa Williams Vanessa Williams is my name. I was homeless. I left my husband in 2014, and that’s when I first came to the point of coming in more on a daily basis. I was searching for somewhere comfortable that wasn’t dangerous. As you know, shelters are very dangerous. And my way of doing that was to seek out housing resources. So I would do it online, on phone, and of course the library was a refuge to get information through the newspapers.

Natalie Canestra At that time, I wasn’t familiar with her circumstances at all. Most patrons do not open up with personal matters and we don’t ask. Whatever is going on back there, I treat everyone the same and just try to help with an informational need in the moment.

Vanessa Williams Boy, was she an amazing guide for me. She would give me so much information that I actually forgot that I was homeless. I got so much peace from her. So I was able to not only gain housing for a little while, I was able to explore what I needed for my book, my autobiography.

Patrons working at the Business and Career Library in 2017.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras People ask all sorts of questions at the Business and Career Center, but Vanessa’s question was out of the ordinary. She wanted to know to write a book about the experiences that shaped her life. 

Felice Belle Above all, Vanessa was looking for encouragement and kindness, and she found that in Natalie. It wasn’t just the information Natalie gave her, but the way Natalie treated her that had a lasting impact. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Vanessa has a place to live now. And about a year after she first met Natalie at the library, she started coming to the Business and Career Center to work on her book. 

Vanessa Williams The library has been a part of saving my life. It’s amazing how enriching it is when someone just says, can I help you? And they’re sensitive and they care. Everyone needs that kindness, it costs us nothing.

Natalie Canestra I do keep that in mind when speaking with people. That everyone's going through something in the moment, and it’s my job to be kind, like she said... and I think it’s easy. I think it’s easy to be kind. That's why I love being a librarian.

[MUSIC]

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Next up is our BookMatch segment. Business librarian Valerie Livingston has a list of books to help you get on your way to a better career or start a business.    


Valerie Livingston I’m Valerie Livingston. I’m a librarian at the Business and Career Center. You know, it’s kind of a hidden corner at the Central Library. So I think when people discover our little library, then they realize just how much there is to learn and to explore.  

My first book recommendation is The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias. Tobias is a very good writer and definitely an irreverent, entertaining storyteller first, and then an investor. He tells some funny stories about different investment schemes and different ways people lost or made a lot of money.  

The next book is Ask a Manager by Alison Green. Green has turned her workplace advice blog, also called “Ask a Manager,” into this book. In it are the top 150 or so questions that she’s been asked over several years of this blog, relating to everything from having private conversations with one’s boss about salary negotiations, navigating various annoying qualities of one’s co-workers, and finally meeting one’s tough job interviewer. 

So this book is called Minding the Store: A Big Story about a Small Business. This is a great graphic novel about starting and running a store called Fishs Eddy which is all devoted to dishes and mugs and plates in downtown Manhattan. Julie Gaines who is the author of this and the co-owner with her husband Dave... the story, illustrated by their son, Ben, makes a great case for finding one’s niche in unlikely places. I like this book for many reasons. The art, the story is charming, like the store, but in terms of recommending a book for entrepreneurs, it’s a relatively quiet story. Not flashy in any way. It’s about finding one’s idiosyncratic obsessions and mindfully bringing a business idea to fruition.   

The next book is a test prep book for anyone who wishes to become a bus operator. It is one of the most popular civil service exam preparation books that we have in our collection. We don’t really advertise these books, but we’re one of the few people that have them. And they’re expensive to buy. Other popular books in this Passbook series are civil service exams for being a school guard safety agent, a court stenographer, a 911 emergency operator, an urban park ranger, a light maintainer, and one of my own personal favorites: hoists and rigging inspector. So many possible careers and lives, so little time. 


Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Krissa Corbett Cavouras, and Felice Belle. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts, as well as a link to the Book Match list. We’ve also put links there to articles about Central Library’s history, and more information about PowerUP, the Fashion Academy and other business and career services.  

Felice Belle Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast.  

Felice Belle And as long as we’re recommending books on Borrowed, why not recommend another podcast? Bushwick Podcast features stories of Brooklyn’s small and independent businesses as well as local arts and culture. Listen to their two-part episode about a new bilingual book shop in the neighborhood called Mil Mundos. That’s on Bushwick Podcast, hosted and produced by Luke Griffin. You can hear it on the Heritage Radio Network, which is also based in Bushwick, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras And while you’re there on the podcast app, leave us a rating and review! It helps. We promise. 

Felice Belle That’s it for this episode. 

Kirssa Corbett Cavouras Thanks for listening. Now get out there and do your work. 

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