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Trimming Branches

Neighborhood libraries face the ax as the system moves toward centalization.

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By Ben Joravsky

The chiefs of Chicago's library system thought they were doing the north side a favor with their proposal to replace the little branch on Southport with a larger, newer facility.

But so far their plans have sparked little more than local outrage and opposition, as residents rally to save a funky old neighborhood institution.

And there's a larger issue at hand, library activists warn: If North Lake View goes, other storefront branches may follow as the central office pursues its policy of consolidation.

"We're not alone. The library bosses say they have too many branches," says Peter Donoghue, president of the Lake View Citizens' Council (LVCC). "I'd like to know how in the world can you have too many libraries? That's like saying, 'Oh, no, people are reading too many books.'"

The fight over North Lake View says as much about change on the north side as it does about changing library policies. The North Lake View branch, a one-story brick building on the corner of Grace and Southport, opened 25 years ago, when rents in the neighborhood were affordable and the community was mostly a blend of working-class whites and Hispanics.

Then as now the branch basically served two groups, recreational readers and kids, one drawn by paperback best-sellers and the other by hardcover picture books. It's always been a busy branch, with circulation rising year by year. There's usually a batch of strollers near the front door, as young parents and their children mingle with retirees.

"We never pretended that this was a research facility," says Teresa Gallo, chair of the LVCC's library committee. "It's the kind of place where you can go to read the daily paper or a popular magazine or the latest best-sellers. It's a place you walk to, a neighborhood place."

These days, however, it seems as though the newest residents of Lakeview aren't looking for places to walk to. They're a hard-charging bunch of upscale professionals who like to drive to where they're going so they can get there fast. Their presence has escalated real estate prices, driving away the working class and bringing in pricey restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques.

The library survived these changes mainly because its rent was unbelievably low for the location; that changed last year, when local developer Bill Moran bought the property.

About his plans for the property Moran has no comment, other than "We continue to have discussions." But residents who have met with Moran say he told them he raised the library's rent last year from about $1 to $8 a square foot and asked library officials to sign a long-term lease for much more. The library balked, saying the system can't afford much more than it already pays, and the two sides seem well beyond compromise. There's a sign on the library advertising the building for rent, and rumors race through the neighborhood that Moran's already issued a vacate order and struck a deal to rent the space to a coffee shop.

For better or worse, Southport appears to have got too expensive for a storefront library.

"I understand the new landlord's a businessman and he has the right to get market rents for his property," says library commissioner Mary Dempsey. "But we have to worry about our bottom line. We have to ask what's a reasonable amount of money to pay for a storefront space."

Coincidentally, Moran's demands for a rent increase came as Dempsey was considering sweeping changes in library policy. In 1994 Dempsey asked her staff to prepare a "strategic plan" that "examines the Library's strengths and weaknesses" and "sets forth strategic directions for the Library in the 21st century."

In 1995 the staff issued a five-year plan; on a list of the system's weaknesses (next to "cynical staff with ingrained beliefs" and "inflexible work rules") was "too many libraries."

A few pages later the planners got more specific, writing: "The Library's limited budget is diluted in its attempt to maintain a major central library along with the highest number of branches [79] in the United States. The Library needs to address this issue by continuing to consolidate facilities and by enhancing access to information via electronic technologies."

Or as Dempsey says, "You have to keep pace with changes in the city and changes in demands. The idea of a subbranch where you can get your best-sellers and juvenile books may have passed. People expect libraries to be full-service centers, and it's difficult to put full service in small spaces."

Instead, Dempsey envisions a series of larger, more centrally located libraries with enough space to host book clubs, community forums, science fairs, lectures, movies, and children's programs. Most importantly, each branch must have computers and plenty of parking.

"Our mission is to provide equal access to information--you can't have people cut off from computers or the information age," says Dempsey. "We have always strived to put libraries on routes accessible by public transportation, but clearly many people are driving now and you need parking. That's the realities of life in the 21st century."

For the moment, Dempsey has not determined which small branches will be closed or where the new facilities will be built. In this case, she says the central office would probably close North Lake View and Hamlin Park (a storefront branch on Belmont near Kedzie) while opening a bigger branch near the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland intersection.

"We need to look at a variety of locations," says Dempsey. "We have looked at sites in the vicinity of Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland. We've looked at sites around Clybourn and Diversey. We are looking at changing population trends in order to determine how to best serve our library users."

But critics contend that Dempsey and her strategists are in danger of overloading libraries with too many functions. The strain can already be seen at regional libraries, where the wait is long at the book checkout counter and too many books are unshelved, in part because staffers are busy doing other things, such as checking out videos. And for all the hype over the new age of technology, the much-vaunted computer catalogs are always breaking down, leaving old-timers to long for the return of the card catalogs.

"I respect the fact that commissioner Dempsey has her vision for the future, but I have to wonder if we're asking our libraries to do too much," says Gallo. "These fundamental questions about the library's future require community input."

The City Council moved ahead with the strategic plan last year, approving a $50 million capital project that will allow Dempsey and her staff to close old libraries and build new ones.

Nonetheless, Lakeview residents vow to press ahead with their efforts to keep North Lake View open, or at least to move it somewhere close by. They've met with Dempsey and have won the backing of 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen, who's brought the matter to Mayor Daley's attention.

Residents might find Daley reluctant to get involved, even with Hansen's lobbying. Lakeview already has a fairly modern library on Belmont, and there are nearby branches in Uptown and Lincoln Park.

In addition, many Hamlin Park residents are eager to replace their old storefront with a newer branch, even one that's not within walking distance. "We have to make sure that services are fairly spread throughout the city," says Dempsey. "I appreciate the fact that people around North Lake View support their library, but there are other branches relatively close by."

North Lake View's users are worried that Dempsey's trying to dismiss them as a bunch of pampered yuppies.

"We aren't asking for more, we're asking to keep what we've got," says Gallo. "There is still a place for the neighborhood branch. I have an 81-year-old neighbor. If this library closes she's isolated--she doesn't have much social interaction She's not going to go to Carlucci's. She can't afford to pay $2 for a cup of coffee. I know it's hard for a lot of people to imagine, but for entertainment she likes to go to the North Lake View library and read. Shouldn't the library be looking out for people like her?"

Gallo says she and her allies will work with other neighborhoods to keep the central office from closing too many storefront branches. "We're pretty organized, but even we were surprised to hear they were closing North Lake View--no one asked us for our opinion," says Donoghue. "No one's brought this issue to the community. Do we want to cut the number of libraries? I think they ought to ask the people of Chicago about this. These are big decisions that will have ramifications for years after Mary Dempsey and Mayor Daley are out of office." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Teresa Gallo photo by Cynthia Howe.

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