Brooklyn’s Bookish Ambition

New York has always been about jockeying for position, and being named to the board of the New York Public Library remains one of the jewels in an ever more exclusive crown; the current Board of Trustees counts among its members New Yorker editor David Remnick, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., humorist Calvin Trillin and former Harvard president Neil Rudenstine, not to mention several captains of industry, chief among them Blackstone Group chairman Stephen Schwarzman, as well as socialites such as Annette de la Renta. The annual Library Lions gala took in $2.6 million last year. Its 33-member junior board—the Young Lions Committee—is headed up by actor Ethan Hawke, and board members include film director Wes Anderson, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, author Malcolm Gladwell and novelist Marisha Pessl, among other budding social and literary luminaries.

Absent a famous last name, or a fancy job, or an award-winning book, or simply a boatload of cash, a New York Public Library board position is a long shot for even the most devoted bibliophile. But what about … Brooklyn?

Across the East River, the Brooklyn Public Library only started soliciting private donations ten years ago, and its board is populated by wealthy borough residents—cue J.P. Morgan, CitiGroup and Goldman, Sachs—and government employees (retired teachers and a Con Ed spokeswoman among them). Its annual gala took in around $350,000 last year; its operating budget, at $100 million, is less than a third of the NYPL’s.

And so it would seem that, given the combination of far fewer Social Registry-type names and much less institutionalized charitable giving, the earnest professionals currently streaming into Brooklyn’s shiny new condos and brownstone conversions are the perfect progenitors of a new philanthropic social circuit, one that would benefit the struggling Brooklyn institutions that have long been in the shadow of their better-endowed Manhattan siblings and, it should be said, make the usually exclusive charity circuit just a wee bit more egalitarian.

I went to chat with Kevin Pemberton, the rather dashing 37-year-old vice president at Lehman Brothers who is helming the new young contributors’ committee, modeled on the Young Lions, at the Brooklyn Public Library—called Brooklyn Vanguard—in his office on the 21st floor of a Midtown building.

“I have a committee that makes up the borough and its users,” said Mr. Pemberton. He was wearing a bespoke pinstriped suit with a blue pocket square, crisp white shirt and polished black shoes. His head is fully bald, and he speaks with a slight lilt—the result, he says, of a childhood spent partly in Trinidad, where his mother is from. His father, who is from the nearby Caribbean island of Tortola, found his first job in the United States at the Flatbush Branch Library at Linden Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, in the heart of what is still a heavily Caribbean community. His mother worked as a nurse on the 3-to-11 shift, and so the young Mr. Pemberton and his three brothers spent many afternoons at the Flatbush Library. Mr. Pemberton graduated from Fort Hamilton High School, in Bay Ridge, studied economics at Harvard, and got a graduate degree from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

He has a eureka-moment story about how he came to see the library as his calling, which involves standing in Grand Army Plaza, the traffic circle outside of Prospect Park that is also home to the imposing main branch of the BPL, and thinking, This place is changing. “It was a cultural renaissance and an economic revival, all at once!” said Mr. Pemberton. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I engage the library?’”

Mr. Pemberton is just about the perfect representative for the Brooklyn Public Library’s attempts to reposition itself, as he is in many ways the embodiment of the “new” Brooklyn and the social world it is struggling to create. When he lived in Manhattan, he attended his fair share of galas—the Young Lions, the Guggenheim Young Collectors and the like—and felt, after moving to Clinton Hill a year and a half ago, that the time was right for a new and different generation. “Society says you have to be at a certain station in life,” he said. “With the Vanguard, we’re rolling up our sleeves. We’re not standing on ceremony at an event or just trying to get the best photo op.”

And yet, this is, it should be recalled, also a Brooklyn where young residents recently resurrected the moribund, once-exclusive Montauk Club in Park Slope to serve as their own nouveau urban country club; the Junior League is active; and the competition for spots at Montessori preschool is fierce. Buried underneath the earnest and altruistic desire to help the library is, perhaps, a touch of social snobbery, a desire to use the opportunities afforded by the New Brooklyn to further one’s station in life.

Then again, that’s what nearly all New York-style charity has been about, and it’s unrealistic to expect this new group to be any different. And it must be said that the barriers to entry are lower: The Vanguard’s kickoff event Saturday, March 8—called “The Library After Dark”—will be held at the Library’s new Dweck Center and costs a very manageable $60. Becoming a Vanguard member is also a more economical venture than joining the Young Lions: $150 versus $350.

Mr. Pemberton says the Vanguard hopes to raise $10,000 this year, though with only 21 members so far, they have a ways to go. Still, the goal is to have 300 to 500 members by the end of the year, and other committee members say they envision “hundreds” showing up to the kickoff event. (At press time, however, only 22 people had RSVP’d on the Vanguard’s eVite. Work those list-serves!)

Brooklyn’s Bookish Ambition