Library's New Chapter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 25 years after the Echo Park branch library was irreparably damaged by the Sylmar earthquake, local residents gathered this week to the mellow string bass of a jazz band and celebrated the long-awaited opening of their neighborhood library.

Even before the Echo Park branch library officially opened, hundreds lined up outside the modern block-and-tile building to get new library cards.

"We've been fighting for this for ages," said Vincent Rodriguez.

When the old building was condemned in 1971, the books were transferred to a "temporary" facility abutting the Hollywood Freeway, where they have remained until today.

Residents complained that the old building was dirty and that the surrounding area unsafe.

"That was one of the scary things," said Rodriguez, whose 7-year-old daughter Grace attends school nearby. "The kids had to go through an alley. People were drinking and lurking around. We wouldn't let our kids go there alone."

"Now she can come right down," he said. "She just got a library card. And she's out there picking out books."

Rodriguez and other parents hope that their children will be drawn more by computers at the new library than by video games at the corner market.

In fact, on Thursday after Councilman Mike Hernandez cut the ceremonial ribbon and the doors were opened, children flocked to the computers.

Daniel Giron, 12, and his friends played a detective game, absorbing information along the way. Eyes fixed to the screen, their voices mumbled through a geography lesson disguised as clues: "Rain forests of trees, mosses and ferns flourish on Washington's Olympic Peninsula."

Nearby, Grace Rodriguez bounded up to her father, excited about her book selections--"I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly" and "Selena."

While the children played, took origami lessons and listened to stories, adults clicked around the Internet and read books.

Eric Trules, a writer and assistant professor at USC, had managed to check out three Jack Kerouac books before the ceremonies began at 10:30 a.m.

"I think I was the first customer," he said.

Thursday's opening marked the end of a political and bureaucratic battle for the Friends of the Echo Park Library.

The nonprofit group was formed in 1988 by residents who had assumed since 1971 that a new library would be built after the old one, on Glendale Boulevard and Temple Street, was razed.

In 1989, a voter-approved city library bond issue allocated $5 million for the library, said Juanita Dellomes, president of Friends of the Echo Park Library. Construction of the 17,543-square-foot building began in 1994.

"It's an institution for the community," said Hernandez. "A lot of people have been feeling that the community is losing its sense of identity because it's losing its institutions. This is a library that the community deserves."

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