Biblioteca Popular at the Crossroads: an uncertain future for the six month old ad hoc people’s library

Posted on February 3, 2013


old broccoli never dies, it just becomes flowers; another lesson learned at Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez

After over five months of unbelievable transformation–from dark blighted encaged dumping ground to accessible garden and outdoor library—Biblioteca Popular is once again in crisis as the city has moved to shut down the space. On Wednesday, city workers abruptly arrived and removed our “Biblioteca Popular” sign, and the next day they put a lock on the gate that we and neighbors use to access the space.

This all comes at a critical juncture in the life of the People’s Library. When as activists we began this project in mid August 2012, we had minimal expectations. We wanted to draw attention to the unused building and the extremely toxic impact that it had on the neighborhood for nearly two decades. The decaying fence, rotting facade and overgrown grounds invite constant dumping both on the property and in front of it. And the negative space around the building encourages only negative transactions—prostitution, violence and drug abuse. Opening and stocking the building with books, we believed, was a message to this and other communities that positive control of their neighborhoods wasn’t a pipe dream; it was real and achievable. We also thought that creating a conversation around the building would fire a salvo against austerity logic, and up the ante for city governments, daring them to listen to the sleeping giant in their poorest communities or lose legitimacy entirely.

But when we began to do these things, providing the symbolic services that create hope and strength in a community—access to knowledge, green space and food production, an open, malleable space free to use for positive instead of strictly negative things—we found a deep reservoir of support. Neighbors wanted the space repurposed, and they knew that the city would never do that because only the oldest members of the community remembered a time when the space wasn’t shut up and fenced.

Biblioteca Popular was just too good and had too much potential to let go after a few days of activism. The initial group evolved into a hybrid structure with neighbors new to activism and community development. In fact, we were all new to that, and we all learned a lot as we progressed. With no small amount of enthusiasm, we together embarked on what has been, no matter the outcome, a rewarding journey.

From laying the first garden boxes, planning out our summer, fall, and then winter libraries, nurturing the garden and then, incredibly harvesting the food, for me and other neighbors and activists there were many lovely and wondrous firsts: I was surprised to learn that I like working with kids and that I enjoy gardening, despite having feet firmly planted in curmodgeonry. These and other things made us decide, despite the enormous amount of work and hard-thinking necessary for an ongoing project like this, to double down and see things through to their logical outcome.

The Winter library and garden

The Winter library and garden

The partnership was effective and got the city’s attention. It was obvious that a fight for the building was a long-term one and would require resources and dedication that we didn’t have yet. But there was not much of an argument for why the grounds couldn’t be converted into a positive space for people who lived there. Our first hurdle was removing the constant presence of police, who, despite claiming to protect a city under siege, were being tasked with threatening gardens and libraries. It was clear that many people would understandably not use the space if there was even the most minute chance of being arrested or cited. So we first needed to create a safe space for a population that already has various impediments to activism.

Our first idea was inspired by the work of organizations like Phat Beets and others around the US, in terms of getting some kind of written agreement to use the grounds on the North side of the building. We faced immediately our first hurdle when we were told that the city’s real estate agency would not separate, even temporarily, the grounds from the building. This, despite the city’s admission that it had no intention of either rehabilitating the building or tearing it down and repurposing it.

We eventually secured a tacit agreement to be left alone while we and neighbors developed some kind of long-term form for the space. The subsequent struggle was in handing off the responsibility for the space to a group that was predominantly members of the community and not just activists. This was also, unfortunately, difficult. We had several regular supporters of the space, and at times this number swelled to dozens from the community.

But there have been several sobering realities to work against. In the first place, rain, shortened days and cold weather obviously put a damper on the community building that occurred in the summer and warm fall months. But more importantly, life just gets in the way of even the most committed members of a community building process like this. Bottomliners come and go, and that’s natural; but for a project is just getting on its feet, relatively long periods without active input from neighbors can be devastating. In the short-term, our goals became survival until Spring and Summer—laying down wood chips to temper mud and aid in soil rehabilitation, and keeping a core set of books dry and available. Good weather in the spring would give families a renewed chance to plant crops and would invariably inject some much-needed life into the grounds.

All of that may still happen. Renewed activity of the past month or so, in fact, seemed to be turning things around. Some of our founding kids began to reappear, after burrowing at home with game boxes and TV, many had just assumed we’d left—and with the short attention span of most activists, I can’t say I blame them. We began to do a regular harvest and mini-library on the sidewalk which became popular. Some of the naysayers that typically gave us the cold shoulder actually inquired about getting more involved. One of our most obstinate neighborhood detractors, in fact, began to give us some hard-won praise.

And then, without any warning, city workers appeared and with them, at first police. This had happened before, of course, but not long after we managed to score the “pinky-swear” with the city and we were able to assure people with reasonable certitude that there were no repercussions for participating in the project. Now, of course, that’s an assurance that doesn’t pass the laugh-test. Despite obvious benefits from a people’s space in a neighborhood bounded by regular violence and where young people naturally gravitate towards nearby liquor stores instead of distant parks, the city would rather have the space return to service as a demoralizing trash heap.

While the People’s Library remains at this crossroads, its important to note that despite any failings the project may have had, it would be difficult to manage the space and building in any worse fashion than the city has. Despite the fact that the city’s own historic preservation department regards buildings like Miller Library as generators of income and stability for neighborhoods, the city has squandered the space with obvious effects on the area.

Communications between the city’s Planning and Real Estate Agencies reveal the corner the city’s misuse has painted the community into. When approached by a potential buyer of the building—a well-known gentrifier who wanted to demolish, not purchase the building—the city’s historic preservation specialist was forced to admit [pg.47] that the building was virtually unsellable for such purposes. In the first place, it is against federal law to demolish historic register buildings “especially if the deterioration came about through neglect.” The city offered the developer tax credits for the necessary refurbishment, but noted that these would only be available if the building would be income-generating. That meant that even if a developer wanted to create a community center there, there’d be no economic help to do so.  Nothing became of the offer in any case, since it couldn’t make money for anyone.

Thus, even with the city’s developer friendly disposition, it is virtually impossible to sell or demolish the Miller Library. The city’s lack of planning and  ideas leaves the community with the burden of an ever deteriorating building that takes up a huge amount of space on the struggling neighborhood—half the block on the Miller side, and at least a quarter of it on the 15th street side. The city doesn’t even properly seal the space from the community.

This apathy towards the needs of the community is further highlighted by the recent revelation during a city council meeting that the city had applied for—and then failed to spend—a 600,000 dollar state job training grant. Though difficult to believe, the supposed beneficiaries on the funds were Biblioteca’s non-profit neighbors: the under-utilized Youth Employment Partnership which shares the North fence with Biblioteca Popular; and Volunteers of America, the organization that runs the transition housing across the street from Biblioteca and that once used the library building for job training until it lost the funding to do so.

All of this points to the fact that more Biblioteca Popular’s are needed throughout the US and world to challenge the austerity logic and apathy of local governments. British community and occupy activists recently won a hard-fought battle to save a local library by Occupying and running it, in much the same way as we did at the People’s Library. The Friern Barnett Community Library project in London had some natural advantages over our own action—the building had recently been decommissioned and needed no repairs. Nevertheless, it was resuscitated almost instantly into a community model because its importance in the community still echoed. The community drew a line in the sand, and the activist/community partnership that thus developed is now negotiating a permit to run the building as a library and community center.

Communities and neighborhoods can win significant victories in these kinds of organizing models. These can lead to new politicization of depoliticized communities and can also deliver tangible victories, while providing an answer to the never-ending grind of austerity logic. Disempowered communities pushed forever to the margin in favor of the economically powerful now have a powerful way to say “not this time”. If Biblioteca Popular has contributed in any way to that emerging reality, then our victory is far greater than we could have ever imagined.