Hip Hop artist Fat Joe was a surprise visitor to the Mott Haven Library’s new teen center last week, drawing attention to its recording studio for teens to create and record the next generation of Bronx sounds.
Students from Brilla College Prep Middle School in Mott Haven were seated quietly for what they thought was a talk about Bronx-based music from Library Manager Tiffany McCrae when Fat Joe was announced as a special guest, to gasps from the students.
The legendary rapper, who grew up at the Forest Houses public housing complex in Morrisania, talked about the importance of education and overcoming obstacles.
“We never really had role models, but now you guys have examples, a blueprint of how to be very successful one day, whatever your dreams are – they become possible,” he said.
One room away, the library’s new teen center invited students to show up Tuesdays at 4 p.m. to jam, using a variety of guitars hung on the wall, and to record their sounds in the center’s 21st century recording studio. Aspiring podcasters are also invited to use the studio.
“Kids have the opportunity to record music, make beats and just have fun, be themselves,” said McCrae, who brought Fat Joe to regale the children on her last official day as the historic branch’s librarian. She is being replaced by Nicole Nelson, who returns to work in her native Bronx after a period at the Harlem branch.
After touring the studio, Fat Joe gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s just another tool, another way of engaging the mind and getting them into the library. And on their way out, they can read a book.”
Music is not the only after-school activity on tap in the third floor teen center, which opened officially in September with a ribbon-cutting attended by Mayor Eric Adams and NYPL President Anthony Marx. Steps away from the recording studio are shelves of games and art supplies, and a 3D printer topped by displays of unusual artistic shapes and figures teens have used it to produce.
The teen center is the 20th city-wide in an NYPL library and the 11th in the Bronx, but the only one with its own recording studio. At the September ribbon cutting, Adams applauded reinventing the libraries into places not just for books but also creative expression.
“If you were to walk on the street and speak to the average young person and say ‘libraries’ they would think that there’s nothing cool, there’s nothing hip, there’s nothing positive,” Adams said. “How am I going to get you inside so you can not only see the wonders of a book or audio book but of different artistic ways of expressing oneself.”
In addition to the Open Studio program for aspiring musicians and podcasters, the library offers a “Teens Get Creative” program on Mondays, which involves teens in using the Arts and Crafts materials, which include the 3D printer. Wednesdays are for writing workshops, and on Thursdays, a “Game on!” program provides an hour of video games. The special Friday feature involves college readiness programs to assist with life skills students will need to succeed.
A designated library employee oversees the teen center and provide instruction in all of its features, overseeing each day’s special activity, but also being hands-off when teen visitors just want to “do their own thing.”
On a recent Thursday, a handful of teens sat around a table immersing themselves in a game of Dungeons and Dragons with the help of Young Adult Librarian Parker Gaidimas and Trainee Christina Garcia.
“The Teen Center provides teens with access to resources they otherwise would not have. We also aim to provide the teens with a safe space where they can be themselves without judgment,” said Gaidimas. “They’re comfortable with asking us to add new activities they’re interested in.”
At the ribbon cutting, Marx said the hope was the teen center would bring teens to the library and attract them to read books but also engage in civic projects, mental wellness and mentoring programs being offered within the New York Public Library system.