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‘Lady Who Built Library’ Has Door Shut on Name

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They say time is money, but not at the Watts Branch Library.

Alma Reaves Woods has toiled four decades to promote literacy in her community: She lugged countless books from the cramped old library to pass out at the Nickerson Gardens housing project. She knocked on endless doors begging for a bond issue to build a new library. Now that the library is built, Woods is passing out invitations to next weekend’s gala grand opening everywhere she goes--even at a recent funeral.

That’s why friends, fellow activists and local Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. want to name the gleaming new $3-million facility after Woods, known in Watts as “the lady"--as in “the lady who built the library.”

But Mayor Richard Riordan’s Library Commission passed a policy two years ago reserving that honor for donors of $1 million, and the City Council went along.

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No matter that the policy, enacted to attract deep pockets, has failed: Nary a soul has emerged with such a stack of cash in Watts or anyplace else. No matter, commissioners told a throng of 20 Watts library lovers who stormed their meeting in Venice last week. That’s the policy.

Board members suggested naming a meeting room after Woods, or the children’s section, maybe a special book?

Nope, said the ladies from Watts. They want the whole thing.

“This is not just for Watts. This is for all communities, all citizens who have given their lifetime for some endeavor,” said Ann Miller, a member of Friends of the Watts Branch Library, an organization Woods heads that raises money, dollar by dollar, selling homemade cookies, T-shirts, used books and old clothes.

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“She’s Harriet Tubman, she’s Rosa Parks, she’s Mary McLeod Bethune, she’s Phyllis Wheatley all wrapped into one,” said Friends member Arvella Grigsby, ticking off a roster of female civil rights legends. “This would motivate the children walking by to think, ‘Maybe someday, something will be named after me.’ ”

Library officials say they are reviewing the million-dollar policy and may well erase it from the books by summer’s end. For now, though, no exceptions.

The Watts activists say it is just another example that shows that the mayor, a multimillionaire philanthropist, is elitist and out of touch. Their complaints echo age-old angers over the perception that government is more likely to honor rich--usually white--people rather than the increasingly minority and impoverished communities it serves in places such as Los Angeles.

“Alma Woods is not a rich woman, probably never will be, but she has donated more in her time and love to the community of Watts than any millionaire could ever donate,” Svorinich told the commission. “For a person who has enough to give a million dollars to the city to name a library after them, they’re giving of their surplus. For someone who has given 40 years of hard work in order that Watts has a quality library, that’s giving of love.”

Several other council members said that if the commission doesn’t name the branch for Woods, they will try to overturn the decision. Councilman Nate Holden denounced the naming guidelines as “lousy policy” but said, “If you turn your city over to an aristocrat, that’s what you get.”

“Public buildings should be named as a means of showing extreme respect and recognition for people who have made major contributions for the civic good,” said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. “I don’t deny that people can do that with money--they can. I just don’t think that is the primary way people can do it, and I certainly don’t think that’s the only way people do it.”

*

Alma Woods, 71, learned to read back in segregated Arkansas during the 1920s from her grandmother, who never made it past the seventh grade but pored over each day’s newspapers with the children and studied the readers they brought from school. As a girl, Woods loved to play school--with her in the teacher’s chair. By first grade, she read so well that she would help others in the class.

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“I’ve always felt that education is life,” Woods said in an interview last week in her pink-trimmed Watts home, surrounded by her favorite books: “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry, Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale.”

In the cozy sitting room, one wall boasts a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., with three of his famous quotes framed underneath. Another wall is a montage of memories: cards and pictures and crayon drawings from the scores of kids Woods has nurtured, and a framed painting of an African American girl leaning over an open book by a sunny window.

“It reminds me of me when I was a child--you see that book in there,” she laughed. “My mother used to get on my behind because I was supposed to be washing dishes and I was reading.”

Woods came West as a teenager, married and had three sons. She ended up a single mother in Nickerson, her dreams of earning a PhD in biology overtaken by the burden of an empty wallet.

In the projects in the 1950s, an activist was born.

Every day after work and school, Woods read, did puzzles and played educational games with her boys. When they brought home friends, Woods taught them, too. There was soup on the stove for those who hadn’t had lunch and books in every hand.

On her birthday, each Aug. 9, Woods skipped work and threw a big barbecue. Mom drank spiked punch while the children competed in spelling bees for prizes of candy or coins.

“She took time and tried to show us how we can take books, how we can read, how we can learn,” recalled Calvin Divinity of Compton, who now works as a fiscal officer in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Even today, she does the same thing with my kids when I take them to her house. Any child who was willing to learn and was open to have her teach them, she would do it.”

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Back then, Woods had her own little lending library, filled with tattered paperbacks from the thrift store or 50-cent Golden books she grabbed at the supermarket. At the public library, she would sign out as many books as they allowed, then prance around Nickerson like the book fairy. Eventually, she convinced the city to bring its Bookmobile to the housing projects each week. It still comes today.

“I stayed in Nickerson 35 1/2 years,” Woods said. “I really didn’t have to stay there as long as I did, but I became so involved with the children I couldn’t leave.”

Woods kept pushing children to visit the Watts library, but there was hardly enough room to hold them. Built in 1960 to replace the old Carnegie library, which had been damaged by earthquakes and the rumbling of trains nearby, the 3,600-square-foot branch could fit only 35 people.

In 1989, voters approved a bond measure for libraries around the city--including $1.3 million for Watts. Two years later, the Community Redevelopment Agency added $1.5 million, and the project was off the ground.

Woods toured the city’s other branches to get ideas for the new 12,500-square-foot facility. Her favorite part of the new building is the brick fireplace surrounded by soft chairs. And the shiny columns that give the place a historic feel. And the picture room, a rotunda where sun pours through a skylight onto tiny chairs awaiting tiny bottoms.

There is room for 45,000 books in all--more than three times what the old library held. It is one of the largest in the city’s network, and thanks to a private grant there will be a computerized “virtual” library as well. There is a courtyard and kitchen off the community room for evening meetings, a language lab, private tutoring rooms upstairs and a homework center.

“This is my home,” Woods said as library staff hurried to shelve books and take plastic off of furniture before the opening. “We got a new jail out here in no time. But look how long it took us to get a new library.”

*

Nobody quibbles about what Woods has done for the library, for Watts. Branch librarian Norma Anders and City Librarian Susan Goldberg Kent both rave about her contributions. Commissioners, too. They say that’s not the point.

In 1991, the Library Commission policy was to give branches geographic names to help build community identity. “If the name of an individual is to be included in the branch name, the person so honored must be deceased, and their name must follow the geographic designation,” the rule stated.

Then in 1994, a Riordan-appointed commission looking for donations changed the policy to say branches could only be named for donors who gave $1 million ($2 million for a regional library, and no promoting of alcohol or tobacco). The money would go 25% to the branch, the rest to the neediest libraries citywide.

The City Council approved the commission’s million-dollar policy in May of last year, and shortly afterward the library entered a one-year agreement with its foundation to enforce the policy. Although that deal recently expired, the policy remains on the books.

“The idea behind it was really a good one at the time,” Kent said.

Riordan could not be reached for comment last week. His press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez, said the mayor supported the million-dollar idea as an innovative way to raise money in tight times but declined to offer an opinion on whether the guidelines need adjusting.

“The Library Commission was the one that came up with the policy, and they’re the ones that enforce the policy. It’s not the mayor,” Rodriguez said.

Four of the five commissioners did not return calls for comment last week. The fifth commissioner, Julia Simmons--who was appointed after the policy was enacted--says she wants the rules changed.

“I’m not in favor of buying immortality,” Simmons, who grew up in Watts and still lives nearby in South Los Angeles, said at last week’s hearing. “Based on what I’ve heard here from the community, this person has put in her heart and spirit, which is worth more than money.”

Other commissioners at the meeting stressed the importance of having the library bear the community name “Watts.” No problem, said those pushing Woods: Call it the Alma Reaves Woods/Watts Branch Library. Or even the other way around. Just get her name up there.

National experts on charitable giving said the city’s policy is troubling because it puts public buildings up for sale and leaves out valuable volunteers. Around the country, they noted, there have been heated controversies over naming sports stadiums for corporate sponsors rather than great athletes, and for allowing controversial figures such as junk-bond banker Michael Milken and disgraced stock trader Ivan Boesky to plaster their names across synagogues or university buildings.

“Technically, when you make a charitable contribution, you’re not supposed to get anything in return,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

“It’s extremely ironic that no one has coughed up a million dollars--that should be a message in itself,” said Beth Daley of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. “It seems to me that people who have committed their lives to the well-being of others, especially in impoverished communities, should be honored.”

When the ribbons are cut in Watts on Saturday, mariachis will play, ballet dancers will twirl and Alma Woods will be standing at the microphone as mistress of ceremonies, offering some of her trademark inspirational sayings.

The plaque on the wall says “Watts Branch Library.” The name “Riordan” is on it, and “Svorinich,” but not “Woods.” Not yet.

“We’re just like Popeye,” warned Woods’ friend Grigsby, wearing a crisp Watts Library T-shirt with a row of hand-drawn books stretched across her chest. “We’re going to eat our spinach and fight to the finish.”


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