The cramped public library at one of the Chicago Housing Authority’s most historic developments will be replaced by a new library that doubles as a “community center,” thanks to an innovative partnership that Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to duplicate.
The new library will be built on CHA-owned land along 130th Street, near Ellis Avenue, adjacent to the Far South Side’s Altgeld Gardens development. The CHA will pick up the $7 million tab for construction. The city will operate and maintain the facility.
“To both the libraries and public housing, I want to congratulate them — like our libraries and public schools over in Back of the Yards — [for] thinking past the walls that used to divide departments and agencies in the city and serving one community, one neighborhood, one child in a comprehensive way,” Emanuel said Tuesday.
“That is a different approach. You’re gonna see more of it.”
CHA CEO Eugene Jones Jr. called the partnership with the city the “first of many” to provide a constructive alternative for young people living in public housing.
“It gives them something to look forward to. When I get home from school, I can go to the library. I can research. I can do other types of things or meet my friends over there. We can sit and work on a report together. Also make music, look at designing things,” Jones said.
“We’ve got an old library here. We want to expand it. We want to make it state-of-the-art just like other facilities in this city and get the kids more involved.”
Library Commissioner Brian Bannon noted that the new library will be at least three times the size of the old one.
“There isn’t a meeting room. It’s really small in terms of availability for collection. There’s a children’s program packed full of kids. But, space is an issue. There aren’t study rooms. Just a lot of the programming that we often provide in our branch libraries is limited here,” Bannon said.
“Having advanced technologies — like a digital media lab for teens — is important in every community. But, especially in those where broadband adoption is lower in the homes. I don’t know what the broadband adoption rates are in Altgeld. But, we have communities in the city where folks don’t have access to the internet from home. The library is the only place.”
The partnership is patterned after the joint-venture between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Public Library that put a new community library — open to the public — in Back of the Yards High School.
By pooling diminishing resources, CPS and City Hall were able to offer “teen-focused collections and digital learning amenities” and still operate a public library for all Back of the Yards residents, who had lost their storefront library to flooding.
Local Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) called the new library for Altgeld Gardens the latest in a series of triumphs for a housing development that was not part of the CHA’s original Plan for Transformation. He had to fight to get Altgeld Gardens included.
“Here we are today $435 million later with a completely rehabbed facility. A few years ago, Carver was one of the worst high schools in the city of Chicago. We turned it into a military academy and from that day, I have not gotten one phone call about problems out at Carver Military,” Beale said.
“That’s a great testament [to the fact] that, if we put money in education, we put money in housing, we create jobs, we can rebuild a community. This [library] is another big step. A few years ago, we had water damage at the original library location [in an Altgeld building] and we worked with CHA and the city to move this library over here at the school. Now, we’re allocating funds for a brand new state of the art library.”
Altgeld Gardens was one of the nation’s first public housing developments. It was built by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to house African-American veterans returning from World War II. Control over the project, named after former Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld, was transferred to the CHA in 1956.
On Tuesday, Emanuel apologized to Altgeld residents who “have lived through a lot” and waited longer than they should have for housing and community amenities.
The master plan for Altgeld calls for a gut rehab of 218 housing units in 25 buildings. To date, 142 of those units have been completed. The rest of the work is expected to be finished in a few weeks.
“Some of the changes were promised in the past and the delivery was not as quick as it needed to be — both on the housing side and the grocery store,” the mayor said.
“I know we were here about a summer ago on the new Park District facility. Now it’s the announcement of the new library.”
After reading to excited kids inside the old library, Emanuel joked: “You guys look like my dad’s pediatric office.”