If We Only Had a Library…

Activists hope a new branch will revive Oakland's struggling Laurel District.

A sign at the corner of 38th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland reads simply, “Shop in the Laurel Area.” But with the white background showing through the block letters, it’s hard to tell if the painter has yet to come back and finish the job, or whether the sign is fading, a reminder of more prosperous times.

Either way you interpret it, the placard is appropriate. In decades past, the Laurel District — roughly defined as the stretch of MacArthur between 35th Avenue and High Street — was a prosperous neighborhood sporting a bustling retail strip which included several supermarkets and a couple of movie theaters. Like that of so many other neighborhoods, the Laurel District’s downfall began when Interstate 580 took away much of the traffic along MacArthur Boulevard, resulting in a predictable proliferation of empty storefronts. More recently, however, the Laurel has been stirring again. New restaurants and shops are opening next to the manicurists’ salons and vacant buildings, and a million-dollar-plus street improvement project is set to get underway soon. In the words of one Laurel resident, the district is “on the edge of being an up-and-coming neighborhood.”

A group of locals would like to further that progress by bringing back what many see as an indispensable feature of any thriving neighborhood: a public library. But just like the ongoing efforts to improve the Laurel itself, it will take a lot of time and work, with no guarantee of eventual success.

The idea for a neighborhood library was first broached earlier this year at a meeting of the Laurel Community Action Project, recalls LCAP member Carolyn Knoll. Somebody mentioned the old post office building on Maybelle Avenue, which had recently been replaced with a new one a few blocks away, and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a library in that space?”

If only it were that simple. “What we’re here to do is strategize,” Knoll told three other fledgling library activists gathered soon afterward at a local coffeehouse. Residents had called their city councilmember and the library administration, but had little in the way of hard information about exactly what would be required to bring a branch library to the Laurel. One of the group, Ann Mariposa, had grown up in the neighborhood, and remembered walking to the small library that was then located nearby. “It was like a second home,” she said. “Having a library would bring more people down to the area,” said Knoll. “A lot of people in this neighborhood don’t frequent the stores along MacArthur.” The nearest library is the Dimond Branch on Fruitvale Avenue, which is several miles away. “I think it’s a real disservice to the kids to not have a library in the neighborhood,” said Mitzi Richardson, who recently moved to the Laurel. “I’ve never had to walk so far to get to the library in my life,” she added.

Unfortunately for the community effort, that vision of a small, old-fashioned neighborhood library differs from the contemporary view of modern library administrators. Most modern libraries require at least 6,000 square feet to accommodate the space needed for computers, meeting rooms, and other amenities, and according to Julie Odofin, the Oakland Library’s manager of branch services, “That’s considered a small library,” she says. In the last couple of decades, Oakland has closed a number of smaller buildings in order to concentrate resources on much larger regional facilities, such as the Dimond and Rockridge branches.

The Oakland Library is starting work on a master plan for its future, Odofin says, and it will be analyzing use at each of its existing branches, and also seeing if new facilities are needed. State funds are available for expansion and renovation, she notes, but there’s a lot of competition for those dollars. Several other areas are also looking for new libraries, including the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood, whose branch is currently housed in a tiny building leased year-to-year from a nearby bank. Odofin adds that there is also pressure to upgrade branches throughout the city, and to keep them open longer hours.

In order to get a new branch, the community would have to be well-organized, and convince the city manager and council to back their plan. “It’s a rather lengthy process,” warns Odofin. The last neighborhood-based drive to open a library was in Rockridge, where neighbors voted to levy a $25-a-year tax assessment in order to pay the construction costs.

Councilmember Dick Spees, who represents the Laurel, offers the neighbors his cautious endorsement. “I’m not at all opposed to having a library in the Laurel,” he says. “However, a lot of thought and effort has to go into it.” Spees agrees that a new branch would complement a revitalized MacArthur Boulevard very nicely. He points out that he recently spearheaded a major street improvement plan for MacArthur and last week the Metropolitan Transportation Commission gave the city $938,000, which will be added to city funds to redo the sidewalks and pedestrian crossings between High Street and 35th Avenue. He also hopes that new developments, including a mixed-use project on 35th, and a new Everett & Jones restaurant on High will provide “gateways” to the district.

On the other hand, Spees says he is concerned about spreading the library system’s resources too thin, and points to the new Rockridge branch as an example — after it opened in 1997, it was discovered that there was not enough city money budgeted to buy books and other supplies. Many of the shelves stayed empty until the Friends of the Library kicked in $50,000 to buy books. Odofin says things are better at the library now, but acknowledges that all branches, including Rockridge, are still suffering from an ongoing shortage of materials.

The extended neighborhood effort to build the new Rockridge branch could provide any number of lessons to the Laurel activists, but the most important one might be that old saw from the I Ching: “Perseverance furthers.” In 1987, when the original Rockridge branch was forced to close because of a huge rent increase, library supporters estimated that it would cost no more than $800,000 for a replacement. (A story about the closure in these pages ran beside one headlined “Nervous Days at the [Berkeley] Co-op.”) The neighborhood activists had to acquire a quick education in civic affairs, attending countless meetings of obscure commissions that might be potential funding sources, mounting a campaign to get eighty percent of neighborhood voters to approve their proposed assessment district. In the end, it took ten years of work before the shiny new, multimillion-dollar library could be opened.

Despite this daunting example, Carolyn Knoll and her allies sound like they’re ready to undertake the long journey. “We’re just starting — can you tell?” she says with a laugh. “All I know is I want to do this — it’s wonderful.”

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