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Trimming Branches

Do we really have "too many libraries"?

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By Ben Joravsky

There's a battle over books going on in West Town, though one side is too savvy to say it's a fight.

The central office of the Chicago Public Library wants to replace three neighborhood branches with one larger facility. Many organizations and residents don't want to lose what they've got even if the system's promising to build them something better.

"The library officials don't even want to say they're closing something--they call it consolidation," says Pat Stahl, a lifelong West Town resident. "But it's really very simple. They want to close three branches and we're fighting very hard to keep them open."

This isn't the first time central library officials have found themselves at odds with locals over consolidation--a similar dispute erupted in Lakeview over the Southport branch. The debate goes back to 1994, when library commissioner Mary Dempsey asked her staff for a "strategic plan" that "examines the library's strengths and weaknesses." A year later the staff issued a report that said one weakness was "too many libraries."

The neighborhood branch, they argued, had become obsolete. People these days want big, snazzy facilities with plenty of computers to play with and videos to rent. Better, they said, to ditch the old branches (many lodged in cramped and decrepit storefronts owned by landlords charging too much rent) and replace them with fewer but bigger, and more centrally located branches with plenty of parking.

"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," said the report to Dempsey. "The Library needs to address this issue by continuing to consolidate facilities and by enhancing access to information via electronic technologies."

For the most part the strategy seems to be successful. In Lakeview, for instance, the central office rode out the storm when the Southport branch was torn down to make way for condominiums.

The decision to close West Town's three branches was quietly announced in a 1997 capital improvement plan. "In 1997, 11 library construction projects will begin," the report read, including a "new 13,000 square foot facility to consolidate three leased facilities of West Town, Midwest and Eckhart Park branches."

As word of the plans spread, opposition grew. "We'd already been through this once before [in the early 90s] when they wanted to close the West Town branch," says Stahl. "It was located in an old dilapidated building on Milwaukee [near Division]. I remember going to meetings where dozens of people were pleading for the library."

With two other residents, Marjorie Isaacson and Roberta Hansen, Stahl organized a group called Friends of the West Town Branch. They eventually convinced the central office to open a new West Town branch in the shopping mall on the 1200 block of Milwaukee. "We had our opening ceremony in 1996," says Stahl. "Marjorie and I donated coffee cakes and Mary Dempsey was there. And everyone said the library's great. It's a beautiful space. Kids can wait while their parents go shopping. It's close to several neighborhood schools. It's worked well."

The Midwest branch, at 2335 W. Chicago, is popular with senior citizens in Ukrainian Village (it has a large collection of works in Polish and Ukrainian). The Eckhart Park branch, at 1371 W. Chicago, is widely used by working-class Hispanic families.

"There's a lot going on in the Midwest branch," says Belna Reyes, a Head Start teacher at Northwestern University Settlement House, a local social service agency. "It has its own personality, its own feel. It's so much a part of the community. There's a little table and chairs and children's books and they have this colorful rug for storytelling. And there's this rabbit--the kids love to pet it. It's such a cozy place."

According to Reyes and Stahl, the West Town community--which stretches from the Chicago River west to Kedzie between North and Kinzie--still needs three branches. "They act as though West Town is one compact area that could easily be served by one large library, but that's not so," says Stahl, a book editor. "The Eckhart Park and Midwest branches may both be on Chicago Avenue, but they're about ten blocks apart. That's a long way for people who don't have cars.

"You know, things haven't changed that much since I was growing up around here [in the 60s]. My dad came from Greece and worked as a barber. My mom was a clerical worker who worked the night shift. I was the kind of kid who loved to read books. I was always in the library. We didn't have a car. I walked to the library. I wasn't alone. There were many working-class kids like me."

There are still many families who would be inconvenienced by consolidating the branches. "Not everyone has a car," says Reyes. "The library officials say, 'Don't worry--you'll be able to get to the new branch by bus.' But why make it harder for seniors and mothers with small children? If you have something that's good, why replace it?"

By the fall of 1998, opposition to consolidation had grown to include West Town United, a community organization, as well as many churches, public schools, and social service agencies. In October the residents held a meeting attended by Martin Castro, chairman of the library board's facilities subcommittee. "It was packed," says Stahl. "Over 100 people showed up and everyone was pleading to save the branches."

Now the central office was in a bind. They didn't want to find themselves in another Lakeview-like dispute. Yet they didn't want to abandon their policy of consolidation.

So they've taken a crafty tack. They're pretending that the dispute doesn't exist.

Whenever critics call to ask about the West Town branches, library officials talk about all the new branches being built. Since 1989, they point out, branches have been (or have been scheduled to be) built or renovated in over 50 communities, from Pullman on the far south side to Rogers Park way up north. In short, they say that Dempsey and Mayor Daley are beyond criticism on this issue.

"These library construction projects are a primary focus of Mayor Richard M. Daley's Neighborhoods Alive initiative to ensure that every neighborhood of Chicago has access to fully equipped and modern library facilities," claims one recent central office press release. "All Chicago Public Library locations provide library patrons of all ages with new bestsellers, in-depth juvenile, young adult and adult collections, up-to-date reference books, periodicals, [and] free access to the Internet."

When residents wrote Dempsey about the need to keep the branches open, she told them not to worry--they will have a say in where the new library's built. "The Library has not yet begun its site selection process for this new library," Dempsey wrote to a representative of West Town United. "If you or others in the neighborhood wish to provide us with input, the Library is always happy to have that information for evaluation."

It's a stand library officials are sticking to. "It's not really a big issue," says Lois Berger, the system's director of communications. "We are gathering information on where we are going to put a [West Town] library. We won't even build this until 2000. Those three libraries are very much in service. Right now we don't even have property for a new library. Nothing's going on. So it's premature to say what's going to happen."

Stahl and her allies disagree. "They keep assuring us that we'll have a say in site selection and we keep telling them that that's not the main issue--the main issue is that we don't want to lose these branches," says Stahl. "Sooner or later they're going to have to address this disagreement."

To make sure that the issue is not overlooked, someone from West Town attends every meeting of the library board's facilities subcommittee. "They meet every month at different libraries around town," says Stahl. "Last month's meeting was at the Chicago Bee branch at 3647 S. State. I was there. I think they were surprised to see me because it's right near the Robert Taylor Homes. Mary Dempsey was very polite. She said, 'You won't drop off our radar screen if you miss a meeting.' But with all due respect, we're not taking any chances. This is too important for them to think we've just gone away."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pat Stahl, Belna Reyes photo by Jon Randolph.

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