North Lawndale group wants aging library replaced: ‘It’s like being in a prison’

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Water damage streaks the walls of the Douglass Branch Library in North Lawndale. Community members are calling for the Chicago Public Library board to replace the nearly 90-year-old building. | Photo provided by North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council

A library is as much of an anchor in our communities as a school or a church.

But in some neighborhoods, the buildings housing libraries are in such disrepair that residents are reluctant to use them.

On Tuesday, a group of residents in North Lawndale invited me to join them at the Douglass Branch Library where they pointed out conditions they feel are unacceptable.

Their complaints included water damage, peeling paint, suspected mold, rat droppings, and the kind of wear and tear that occurs in a structure built in 1929 and redesigned a half-century later.

OPINION

Richard Townsell, executive director of Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC), whose organizing efforts ultimately led to the city replacing the deteriorating Carter Woodson Library on the city’s South Side, is hoping the same activism will result in a brand new library for North Lawndale.

Richard Townsell and Karen Castleberry point out peeling paint at the Douglass Branch Library. | Mary Mitchell/Sun-Times

Richard Townsell and Karen Castleberry point out peeling paint at the Douglass Branch Library. | Mary Mitchell/Sun-Times

“We want to make North Lawndale a place that we can attract people to move back and rebuild the neighborhood. One of the things we noticed is that the library was in severe disrepair,” Townsell said.

A group of homeowners inspected Douglass and presented a list of findings to the Chicago Public Library board at its public meeting on Jan. 16.

The homeowners “walked through every nook and cranny” of the library and came up with a formal report that included photos of “safety hazards,” Townsell said.

“When we showed up at the library board meeting, they were doing a presentation about a library on Western and Pratt—a beautiful, well-designed structure with a river running through the middle of the library,” he said.

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The new West Ridge Library will be housed in a multi-purpose building that includes one-bedroom apartments for seniors, as well as community areas and gardens.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) and library officials to break ground on the $12 million renovation of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Library branch.

“It is just amazing to us that libraries are being built in other parts of the city, and our library is basically being run into the ground,” Townsell said.

The group asked library board President Linda Johnson Rice and CEO Brian Bannon to tour libraries in Chinatown and Little Village, before taking a tour of the North Lawndale’s branch on Feb. 16.

A sump-pump system is exposed at the Douglass Branch Library. | Photo provided by North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council

A sump-pump system is exposed at the Douglass Branch Library. | Photo provided by North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council

Johnson was unavailable and a liaison has been in touch with the group to reschedule.

“We hear the concerns of North Lawndale residents and are continuing to make investments in the Douglass branch to ensure the library is a safe, welcoming place where residents can gather to learn, connect and thrive,” said Patrick Molloy, CPL’s public affairs director.

Some minor repairs have been made since the group’s inspection, but it’s not enough, said Alice Stallworth, a long-time North Lawndale resident.

“I think our community and our children, we need better. We need a brand new library. The library is very underused because it is in such disrepair,” she said.

Stallworth, who walks with the aid of a cane, said the library is not handicapped-accessible.

“They do not have an area where you can go roll your wheelchair up to and use the computer. The updates that they would have to do to this existing dilapidated building — we could spend that money on something that is more beautiful, more attractive, more accessible,” she said.

I suppose all libraries would have to worry about thefts, but Douglass’ windows are reinforced with wire and the fencing is topped with wire.

“All of the other libraries have glass all the way around and lots of natural light,” Townsell said. “Here it’s like defensive architecture, like we are afraid of the neighborhood. It’s like being in a prison.”

Karen Castleberry lives four blocks away from Douglass, but takes her children to the Harold Washington Library downtown.

“We have to hop on a train, which is nice because it ends up being an adventure. But why do I have to leave my neighborhood each time my children want a book?” Castleberry asked.

“Why do I have to leave my neighborhood for everything that I want? It’s timeout for us as a community to be left behind all the time.”

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