Update on the People’s Library in Fruitvale

Posted on August 16, 2012

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People’s Library in the First Hours of its Brief Life

On Monday morning, in the first recent action of its kind, anti-austerity, Occupy activists and radical librarians converged on a newly opened derelict building in the Fruitvale district and began to stock it with books. The building at 15th and Miller Avenue had been a library for over six decades, then an alternative continuation school founded by radical Chicano activists, and an adjunct to a halfway house across the street; but it had been abandoned for over a decade since. The libary was part of a national set of Carnegie grant donations, still known for their architectural beauty; the building remains in the National Registry of Historic Places. But long years of absolute neglect have meant a decaying facade. A crumbling barbed wire fence keeps families and children from using the green space on the building’s grounds, and for years has created a dark corner where drug-addicted people and street sex workers escaping police harassment have sought refuge; not surprisingly, and with other things on their minds, they left a pretty foul mess inside and out, that the city had little interest in addressing.

That all changed on Monday morning. Having gained access to the building and grounds, the main gate mysteriously moved aside and the door wide open, activists and community members spent hours cleaning the built-up and stagnant refuse of the forgotten interior’s accumulated detritus. Others brought milk-crates full of books and stocked the shelves, still in place over forty years after the building had ceased being a library. The call out to resurrect the library brought more books; one activist estimated that there were well over a thousand books on the shelves, sorted by author and subject—non fiction, fiction, young adult, children’s, poetry and Spanish language. Activists suffered under no delusions about the permanency of their act—they realized that at any moment the police could arrive and evict them. They were only a handful for the first hour or two, but the community immediately appreciated the significance of a sudden library in the middle of the neighborhood. The first patron was a sex worker who picked up a romance novel; then a Spanish-speaking resident on his way to work, beaming with joy and surprise.

By noon, kids and families from all over the community were stopping by the new library and picking up books. Books were checked on the honor system and no card was necessary; as one activist put it, “your soul is your library card”. The response from the community was overwhelming: “thank you for doing this, please stay”. With such an incredible amount of public support for reversing the neglect caused by the city’s austerity logic, it was not surprising to face an exaggerated respressive police response. What did surprise activists was its quickness; less than an hour after a rousing inaugural potluck and poetry reading and the ground-breaking of a community garden bottom-lined by the neighborhood’s children, police cordoned off four square blocks around the library. Dozens of squad cars descended on the neighborhood; police threatened those inside with arrest and gave them scant time to rescue the books and leave the area.

Activists took the books to safety, and, disheartened, agreed to meet at the library again the next morning and decide how to proceed. No one involved had high hopes. The dejected group sat in front of the newly secured space—the front door blocked with plywood, the gate awkwardly fastened with hard plastic zipties—but couldn’t decide what to do. The kids who had set up the first garden-beds showed up, asking if they would be able to finish their work. Somewhat bolstered, the group decided to bring the books back and arrange them in front of the fence. By afternoon, the current sidewalk iteration of the library was open, and the banner had been transferred to the fence. The new stacks looked oddly triumphant and unbowed in their ad-hoc milk crate bookshelves. Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez was back, after only a brief pause in its newborn life.

The Resurrected Library on the Sidewalk in Front of the Building

The community seemed more engaged at this point, not less. There was a great deal of anger against the police reaction, not surprisingly—residents roundly denounced the response, given the awful impact of the decrepitude of the building and its new, empowering incarnation as an aggregator of community. More books were brought out by members of the community. Another potluck was held; one member of the community, a master chef, undocumented immigrant and resident of the community for decades, brought home-made fettucine al pesto and flan. It was a bribe, he said, to convince the activists to stay. The community had never had anything like this and needed it. Dozens of similar interactions have followed. Neighbors nightly bring out gallons of coffee and cookies; another neighbor brought a bag full of the tamales he makes and sells for a living to help the activists who guard the books from being taken by police. The answer from the community has been overwhelming; don’t leave. And the activists and the community have responded; as one passerby put it today, “Alright, you’ve got the books on the sidewalk. They ain’t stopped nothin’.”

That doesn’t mean the nascent community library doesn’t face problems. Activists can’t keep this up forever. Running a sidewalk library with an antagonistic 24-hour police presence is far from easy or manageable. While incredibly supportive, a large proportion of the community faces legal challenges for a variety of reasons in participating—from being undocumented to having already been through the justice system. At best this is a working class neighborhood—but many of its residents are society’s most precarious workers. The odds of gaining entrance into, much less holding, the building again are not good, either.

But the repurcussions of leaving and then doing nothing with the space are also untenable. To allow the city to spend tens of thousands of dollars in police repression to turn the building and grounds back into a dark ugly garbage hole is repugnant to both activists and members of the community—though pleasing to garbage-advocates and violence-fans like the district’s supervisor Ignacio de la Fuente. Activists and community members have begun to set their sights on the grounds as the final target. De la Fuente claims that the building is unsafe to occupy without costly earthquake retrofitting. That may or may not be true—the building was being rented out by the city to Volunteers of America as late as 1998 without the retrofit. There can be no practical or moral argument for keeping the children from growing the garden that they designed and built on the grounds, however, or any reason for keeping residents of the community from using the area for a community center and garden. Now that the question has been opened for discussion, city hall must argue why it must deny the community access to the grounds. And it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.