L.A. Renews Its Libraries as Modern Civic Centers

Times Staff Writer

On a dusty, hot summer afternoon in South Los Angeles, 13-year-old Joseph Robinson and 9-year-old Franklin Flores are in a favorite place -- huddled in front of a computer terminal playing RuneScape together.

For the boys, one black and one Latino, the new Ascot branch library at Florence Avenue and Main Street is their daily meeting place, a refuge from a gritty neighborhood where interracial tensions recently sparked violence at a local high school.

In the Pico-Union neighborhood, older residents go to their new branch for a library-sponsored Coffee and Conversation, which brings together strangers to talk about Iraq, immigration or whatever topic may be in the news.


And in Chinatown, dozens of immigrants flock to the 2 1/2 -year-old branch for a weekly citizenship class at which, between gossiping with friends, the students prepare for the test by shouting out answers to questions about the Constitution, communism and the Supreme Court.

This is the new face of public libraries in Los Angeles -- versatile and thoroughly modern places that have fueled a 70% explosion in library usage over the last decade.

It was not always so. For years, cramped and crumbling branches testified to a civic purpose sapped by riots, tax revolts and urban decay.

Today, Los Angeles is nearing the completion of a $317-million modernization program to build and renovate 63 branch libraries, finishing them on time and under budget. Librarians from as far away as Singapore and Sweden have come to see what the city has accomplished.

How Los Angeles rebuilt its libraries is more than just a public works success story.

In an atomized city where social isolation is almost a civic credo, the rebirth of branch libraries appears to reflect another side of the metropolis, both more prosaic and more humane. Libraries are filling a demand for community.

These public institutions are encouraging ties between immigrants and their new city as well as helping to bridge divisions of class and race with the simple act of bringing Angelenos together in safe, beautiful spaces.

“Perhaps we ought not to make too much of a library. It doesn’t make the poor un-poor. It doesn’t heal the sick,” said D.J. Waldie, a writer and longtime observer of Los Angeles. “But libraries are a charmed place.... And it may be that while Los Angeles values many things, from gated communities to exposed flesh, it also values communal places where people can find books.”

In South Los Angeles, Eric Johnson, a well-dressed 17-year-old senior, said he spends nearly every day at the Ascot branch.

Johnson, who heads the Black Student Union at Jefferson High School, has seen up close the tensions pulling at his neighborhood. A food fight at Jefferson last April turned into a racial melee.

“This is neutral territory,” Johnson said of the branch.

Sharing a scruffy corner with a Winchell’s doughnut shop and an auto parts store, the neatly landscaped, sleekly modern Ascot branch seems as incongruous as its mission is ambitious.

Inside, there are hopeful signs for those willing to overlook noise and horseplay that would have horrified an earlier generation of librarians.

On one side of the wide-open branch, painted shades of purple and decorated with neon lights, boys in a racially mixed group cluster around a computer to admire 9-year-old Edward Sanchez’s skill at blasting helicopters out of the sky as he dexterously plays Heli Attack 3.

Across the library, 9-year-olds Kelven Menchu, who is Latino, and Daquan Walker, who is black, sit at neighboring computer terminals and compare hot-rod designs on a game called Hot Wheels.

“People come here and they have to communicate with others,” Johnson said. “They have to respect one another.”

Los Angeles was once thought to embody that kind of optimism.

When city voters approved a bond in 1957 to build and expand 28 branch libraries, schools and universities, highways and subdivisions were being built for tens of thousands of Easterners and Midwesterners streaming into the Southland.

But in the decades that followed, the sheen came off the public libraries much as congested roads, smoggy air and racial violence tarnished the city’s shimmering place in the national imagination.

By the 1980s, branch libraries had fallen victim to earthquake damage and years of tight budgets. Circulation stagnated.

In 1986, a devastating arson fire at the downtown Central Library damaged more than a million books.

The disaster was a turning point.

“I think people in Los Angeles really realized the value of what had been lost,” said former City Librarian Susan Kent, one of the visionaries behind the branch library construction program. “The library really emerged phoenix-like from the ashes.”

Civic leaders put together a proposal to add new libraries to the San Fernando Valley for the first time in more than a generation and to renovate more than a dozen aging branches.

In 1989, voters responded, with more than two-thirds backing a $53.4-million bond to fund the program. After that success, 73% of voters backed a second $178.3-million bond in 1998.

The new libraries were planned as a different kind of branch -- larger, higher-tech and consciously designed to be inviting community centers as much as repositories for books.

At more than 10,000 square feet (and sometimes larger), they are at least twice the size of those built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Each features more than two dozen computers hooked to the Internet.

They have meeting rooms to accommodate classes, neighborhood gatherings and art exhibitions. All feature airy open spaces where patrons can linger, reading, working, even quietly chatting.

Each has a distinctive design that marks it as a neighborhood landmark.

In Encino, an angled two-story wall of glass dramatically projects toward Ventura Boulevard. In Highland Park, the dark wood beams and river stones of the Arroyo Seco regional branch evoke early 20th century public park architecture. And in Pico-Union, stone moldings, classical arches and a red tile roof mimic the Italianate style of Carnegie branches built a century ago.

“I think of libraries now as the new public square, where people come to get information, to meet, to fill out a job application, to go on the Internet,” said Fontayne Holmes, who managed the construction program until she became city librarian last year.

Local history is replete with public works projects going over budget by millions, even billions, of dollars. The libraries were different.

Holmes teamed up with 30-year veteran city engineer Sam Tanaka in what Tanaka compared with “a fine marriage.”

The 62-year-old librarian, who can talk about steel prices and reinforced foundations as if she were a contractor, demanded creative and distinctive designs from architects.

The laconic engineer, who oversaw the construction of the downtown convention center and the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX, ensured that the projects stayed on schedule and on budget.

Both worked tirelessly to build community support for the new libraries, arranging more than 180 neighborhood meetings throughout the city to solicit input about sites and designs.

It wasn’t always easy.

In the city’s West Adams neighborhood, a nasty community spat over the site for a new branch prompted the library to hire a mediation service.

Library officials redesigned branches in Fairfax, where residents wanted a Spanish design instead of an Art Deco one, and in Pico-Union, where residents rejected a modern design in favor of a classic one.

In Lakeview Terrace, the library added hitching posts to a new branch to accommodate patrons on horseback.

In Echo Park, where the new Edendale branch covered a mural on an adjacent building, the library found the muralist who painted it and commissioned him to paint a mural inside the library depicting the neighborhood’s past.

Today, as the building program winds down, there are 16 renovated branches and 47 new ones either completed or in development, including five new ones funded with money saved during construction.

When the last new library opens, Los Angeles will have 72 branches, nine more than the city had when the building began.

To be sure, some grumble that the new libraries have lost their focus as books become just one reason for patrons to visit.

But the renewed popularity of the branch libraries has astounded even librarians. Since 1995, when library circulation dipped below where it had been a decade earlier, circulation has shot up about four times faster than the national rate.

“It has served as a model of how a community can come together and reinvigorate its library system, neighborhood by neighborhood,” said Clara Bohrer, immediate past president of the national Public Library Assn.

In Los Angeles, the new branch libraries are also doing something more profound, reinvigorating a sense of community often lost or obscured by the chaos of the city.

That is particularly important for a place like Los Angeles, said Robert Putnam, a Harvard University sociologist whose 2000 book “Bowling Alone” chronicled how the decline of civic institutions, including bowling leagues, has eroded the safety and health of many communities.

“The central challenge for America in general is to develop structures and institutions in which all of us feel connected,” Putnam said. “Los Angeles is one of the cities facing the biggest challenges.”

Putnam said the diversity of Los Angeles on top of its long commutes and suburban sprawl make the immensity of the challenge unlike almost any other city’s.

But there are signs in the city’s archipelago of neighborhoods that the branch libraries are helping to stitch together communities stressed by immigration, gentrification and other forces.

At the recently opened Edendale branch serving fast-changing Echo Park and Silver Lake, Latino parents and their children share the tables with hipsters in oversized sunglasses and stylish jeans.

“It’s like common ground,” said Annalisa Robles, who moved to Echo Park four years ago. Robles contrasted the library with the neighborhood’s restaurants, which often accentuate the community’s divisions by catering to vastly different clientele.

“There are no rules with a library,” Robles said. “Anyone can go.”

The branches are also helping to build new communities in Los Angeles by integrating the latest immigrants into the city in neighborhoods that include Pico-Union, Highland Park and Chinatown.

Since it opened in 2003, the Chinatown branch -- which replaced a converted public school auditorium -- has become the city’s second most popular branch and a bustling neighborhood gathering place.

The library’s collection of 35,000 Chinese-language materials and more than 40 newspapers and magazines from China and Taiwan draw scores of older neighborhood residents.

And the community room daily hosts programs that draw teenagers, students of English and aspiring citizens.

At a recent citizenship class, more than 40 people crammed around tables as teacher Johnathon Wong did his best imitation of a no-nonsense immigration officer, firing off questions: “Why do you want to be an American?” (Correct answer: Because I love America) and “Are you willing to bear arms?” (Correct answer: Yes).

Wong, an adult education teacher who has taught the class for six years, said his class has also developed into a social occasion.

A table of women spent much of the hour giggling at one recent session while, in the back of the room, an old man serenely read a newspaper in the company of the class.

“This may be the first stop for many immigrants, who want to do better and want better for their children in their new country,” said Chinatown branch librarian Carol Duan. “They find out how this new country of theirs works.”

In Highland Park, a neighborhood of mostly Latino immigrants, the new Arroyo Seco regional branch drew a Latino father looking for geometry books to home-school his children.

And in the branch’s colorfully decorated children’s section, Maria Aguilar, a Mexican immigrant who moved to Highland Park 12 years ago, sat at a table with her daughter, two sons and a stack of books she planned to check out to help her children read English.

“My children love the story time,” Aguilar said in halting English, with the help of her oldest son, Marco, a fifth-grader.

Beyond the books and the CDs and the computers, these new libraries also provide a more intangible benefit, said Humberto Camacho, a longtime Pico-Union resident who emigrated from Mexico more than 50 years ago.

“Hope is a very important thing for areas like ours,” said Camacho, a retired union leader who heads the local neighborhood council. “People see things happening -- the new schools, the new library -- so they think things are getting better, and they better get out and get jobs to help their kids.”

“Now people feel like they are part of the community,” he said, “even if they are not citizens.”



Neighborhood involvement

As part of a $317-million program, the Los Angeles Public Library is adding 47 branches, bringing the city’s total to 72. The new ones are designed to be large, high-tech and inviting.


Building communities

Many new branches, designed with input from the neighborhoods they serve, have become landmarks and have helped to strengthen the sense of community in Los Angeles.


Branch: Pico-Union

Size: 12,500 square feet

Monthly circulation: 14,094

Completed: May 2004

Fact: Originally given a modern design, the branch was redesigned to resemble an old Carnegie branch at the request of the community.


Branch: Arroyo Seco

Size: 14,000 square feet

Monthly circulation: 13,519

Completed: June 2003

Fact: Inspired by early 20th century park architecture with dark wood and river stones, the branch also preserves a beloved mural that was on a wall of the old branch, which was torn down.


Branch: Chinatown

Size: 14,500 square feet

Monthly circulation: 37,950

Completed: February 2003

Fact: The second-busiest branch in the city, the ultramodern library is bigger than most thanks to the financial support of the local community and has more than 35,000 Chinese-language materials.


Branch: Canoga Park

Size: 12,500 square feet

Monthly circulation: 17,612

Opened: August 2004

Fact: It is the sixth new library to open in the West San Fernando Valley since 2002.


Sources: Los Angeles Public Library; American Library Assn.