A crowd of more than 350 swarmed the new copper-colored building in South Los Angeles on Monday like shoppers in search of holiday gifts. But the plastic they carried wasn’t credit; it was library cards.
“I’ve been up since 5 because I was so excited about this,” said Sarah Perry, one of those at the opening of the city’s newest library. Not only had the 78-year-old retired nurse awakened before dawn, but she had walked eight blocks from her house to see the new stacks and computer terminals at the Hyde Park-Miriam Matthews branch library. “It’s very impressive,” she said with a smile.
Tucked amid the blocks of aging storefronts lining Florence Avenue, the building is the latest product of an ambitious $278-million plan to renovate or construct almost 70 branches of the Los Angeles Public Library -- the largest library construction project in the nation.
The Matthews branch is a mile from the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, the flash point of the 1992 riots. It was there that a white Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and beaten the day that a jury acquitted four LAPD officers of beating Rodney King, an African American.
“No repeats of the riots -- that’s what this library is about,” said retired postal clerk Patricia Sheppard, who attended the opening. “Let’s do whatever we can to prevent problems later, starting with books and education.”
“Libraries tell a community that they’re valued,” said Peter Persic, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Public Library. “What it tells people is that whether or not they live in Hyde Park, the Palisades or Porter Ranch, they have equal access to information and resources.”
Some said the new branch has been a long time in coming.
The old library branch on Crenshaw Boulevard, they said, was cramped and difficult to get to. The new branch at 2250 Florence Ave. is twice the size of the original.
Library patrons Monday said they appreciated its rows of public-access computers, its garden and a community meeting room.
“The old library didn’t have a meeting room,” said Arthur Pond, the librarian who once ran it. “Whenever people wanted to do things, it meant the entire library had to participate.”
“It’s a building you can’t miss,” said David Hollaway, a publisher of children’s books. “It’s a great place to encourage reading.”
Built for $4.8 million, with the help of bond money approved by voters in 1998, the branch is named for the city’s first African American librarian, who worked for the library system from 1927 to 1960.
During her career, which included supervising a dozen branch libraries, Miriam Matthews faced gender and racial discrimination while “breaking down not the glass ceiling, but the stone ceiling,” said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose district includes the new library.
Architect Hsin-Ming Fung said the building’s copper-colored metal exterior, accented by a tile mural, was designed to be inviting. The library also has high ceilings, clerestory windows and lattice window coverings to prevent glare.
Designers had met with residents and community leaders, who vetoed a bland, boxy structure in initial plans. “People wanted a building that has a presence,” Fung said.
Library officials said they were pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd for the library opening.
“As we open new libraries, we’re learning that not only do people love libraries, they’re particularly passionate about their own branch,” Persic said.
Los Angeles voters approved $278 million in library reconstruction bonds in 1989 and 1998 -- enough money to double the size of library branches throughout the city. In all, the city is renovating or replacing 68 branches. Among those projects are new libraries in Playa Vista, Westwood, Edendale and Pico-Union.
Throughout the day, visitors to the Hyde Park library scoured shelves for their favorite things.
Najjiya Coussey, a fifth-grader at Overland Avenue School, came in search of humor and mystery books. Reading is important to her, she said, because “when I’m older, I probably can get more education.”
Branden Hester, 10, had computer games on his mind when he walked into the library. “I’m going to be on the computer all day,” he said.