The Jefferson Branch Library, closed 19 months ago after a local gang torched it, reopened Thursday, sporting a new name and a new, secure look.
However, area residents and staff members fear that the same gang that set fire to the building in 1983 still "has it in" for the small South Los Angeles library and will try to destroy it again.
Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilman Robert Farrell officially reopened the new Vassie D. Wright Memorial Library at a ceremony attended by about 500 people, many of them local schoolchildren. The library is named for the woman credited with introducing the study of black history and black culture to California nearly 40 years ago.
Fresh, blue graffiti dripped down a long wall behind the temporary stage set up for the ceremony in adjacent Leslie N. Shaw Park on West Jefferson Boulevard, and library workers said it was not a coincidence.
"They seem to have it in for us," said Louise Tracer, children's librarian, adding that she is sure the gang will try to vandalize the building again.
"The word on the street is that they're going to try to destroy the building," said Gilbert Gaines, a Los Angeles Public Library security officer assigned to the branch at 2211 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Area resident Lyle Adams, who said he had been in touch with some of the gang members, said he did not know why they picked on the library. However, he said, "What we need to stop them is permission to bust a few heads."
Gaines, a burly California State University, Los Angeles, graduate in criminal justice, said the trouble started when "we got intense" and tried to stop gang members from selling drugs in the (Shaw) park.
At about the same time, said branch librarian Frances Moriwaki, library staffers painted over gang graffiti adorning the white, Spanish-style stucco building built in the 1920s. Shortly after that, Moriwaki said, the library was broken into and set afire.
Community leaders pressured Farrell's office to come up with the funds to renovate the building.
Farrell obtained council approval for the job, which cost the city $105,000.
The building is surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence; wrought-iron grills are in place on all the windows, and a security alarm has been installed in an attempt to keep vandals out.
However, nothing short of a more sturdy fence and around-the-clock protection will keep determined gang members out, Gaines believes.
"Nothing much around here has changed," he said. "Kids who three years ago were in blue jeans selling weed are now wearing Fila sweats and gold chains and peddling cocaine. They still use the park and the library to symbolize their defiance."
In 1945, Wright, the library's namesake, founded the Our Authors Study Club. The group met at various Los Angeles libraries and churches to discuss books by black authors, said Mary L. Sanders, one of the club's founding members.
In 1950, Wright introduced Negro History Week to Southern California, the forerunner of Black History Month, and was instrumental in placing black history on the curricula of public schools.
Wright died in 1983 at the age of 92.