Philadelphia Rising

Philadelphia Rising

The mayor’s budget plan would close libraries. The people say, Think again.



Eleanor Childs describes herself as mostly apolitical. She votes during election time but doesn’t work for any political parties or groups. Her classes of first and second graders at the small West Philadelphia elementary school where she has taught since the early 1980s have been the overwhelming focus of her strong community spirit. In early November, though, when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter proposed permanently closing her neighborhood library, along with ten others across the city, in order to help bridge a $1 billion budget shortfall, Childs changed. “Girl, you’ve got to fight this,” she recalls thinking. “I’ve got to do it, and a lot of it, because we’ve got to save these libraries. And that’s what happened all over this city. They got a push back that was unbelievable.”

In order to illustrate the impact that closure of their branch–the Charles Durham Library–would have on their community, parents and teachers at Childs’s school organized Book-Trek. It began with a reading from a children’s book about the negative consequences of closing libraries–a book found, ironically enough, in the Durham Library by one of the students at Childs’s school. “Then,” Childs says, “we got up, put our coats on, because it was cold that day, and we walked from here to the next closest library.” It took the group–including students aged 3 to 10–nearly an hour. They even had a police escort to speed things up. Add another hour to browse the shelves or conduct activities with library staff, eat lunch, return to school and “that’s almost your whole day,” explains Childs. “So it’s like a field trip. And you’re not going to do that every week.”

According to Childs, the Durham Library is the heart of her students’–and West Philadelphia’s–cultural life. She escorts her students nearly every week to the library. They all have library cards. The branch manager, Mr. Ed, often reads stories to the kids and helps them get acquainted with how to use the library system for research or simply to enjoy a book. “We really take advantage of the resources of the city,” says Childs. “And our first neighborhood resource is the library.”

West Philadelphia’s Book-Trek wasn’t the first, or the last, grassroots action aimed at saving the city’s network of public libraries. Throughout November and December, an unprecedented amount of opposition to Nutter’s closure plan emerged in nearly every neighborhood of the city, though the majority of libraries slated for closure were in poor communities. As Philadelphia faces its greatest structural crisis since the early 1990s, when it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, citizen activists like Childs are at the forefront of the movement to save essential city services.

The backlash against Nutter’s proposal began just four days after his November 6 announcement, across the city from the Durham Library, in Fishtown, a modestly gentrified neighborhood in North Philadelphia, where coffee shops, bars and art galleries have sprouted up over the past few years amid large warehouse buildings–lingering reminders of the city’s industrial past. A.J. Thomson, an attorney in private practice, who was born and raised in Fishtown, immediately went to work on organizing a protest. “My personal inspiration,” he says, “was knowing that there’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood that use the library, and without it they won’t have anywhere else to go. If they don’t continue to have the opportunity to use it, then we’ve failed this neighborhood.”

Window signs in support of the libraries began to appear, and a popular neighborhood bar displayed a huge banner denouncing the proposed library closures. A few hundred people attended the rally, netting substantial local media coverage, which helped to push the fight for branch libraries front and center as the budget debate intensified.

Residents in Southwest Philadelphia, where abandoned buildings and troubled public schools are plentiful, were organizing to save another of the city’s endangered branches: the Kingsessing Library, opened in 1919 through an endowment from Andrew Carnegie. Two days after Nutter’s announcement, Gregory Benjamin, a neighborhood community organizer, gathered with other Kingsessing patrons to discuss the proposed closure. “We got to talking about how the libraries were going to be shut down,” he said, “and we decided that what we would do about it is have a rally. And we just started to work collectively. And the library closure issue spread through this area like wildfire.”

Just days after the Fishtown protest, about 300 people turned out on the Kingsessing Library steps. It was unlike any protest the neighborhood had hosted in as long as Benjamin could recall. Young and old, black, white and Hispanic gathered. Some held signs. Others just showed up, never having been to a protest. “Before, all you heard talked about was how Kingsessing is an African-American neighborhood,” Benjamin explains. “But at the rally you saw Hispanics, Caucasians and so forth. You saw people being empowered for the first time to say, We will not allow the few services that reach this neighborhood to be closed. There is no negotiation.”

A week later, they gathered again. “What was really key about that rally was that it was one of the first extremely cold days, and normally people don’t come out in the cold,” he says. “But we had well over a hundred people; we had a really good day. We had young children reading pieces. I mean, it was just awesome.”

In December, as the nascent library movement continued to grow and began to target City Hall in earnest, longtime public interest attorney Irv Ackelsberg filed suit against the city, claiming that Nutter’s move to close the libraries violated a twenty-year-old city ordinance. Ackelsberg, who had previously filed cases on behalf of the city’s low-income residents, was shocked by Nutter’s budget cuts and moved by the amount of citywide organizing that was under way. “For a long time, Philadelphia has really been two cities,” he says. “But for once it wasn’t about racial difference or economic difference; all the neighborhoods rose up and came out in support of the libraries.”

Philadelphia, a city of 1.4 million, has been struggling economically since the near total loss of its once mighty manufacturing base decades ago. At 25 percent, its poverty rate is the highest among the ten largest US cities, and its level of unemployment exceeds the national average. The city’s education system is a shambles: 80 percent of its public elementary schools and 50 percent of its middle and high schools do not have a functioning library. The high-school dropout rate is the second highest among large US cities. Privatization has been the dominant mantra among school administrators. The digital divide is great as well–roughly half of Philadelphia residents lack a computer or home Internet access.

The city’s network of public libraries and recreation facilities, also facing significant funding cuts and closures, fulfill crucial professional, educational and recreational needs. “In some cases,” says Ackelsberg, “the public libraries are the only place where people can get Internet access, the only safe place were parents can send their kids for those few hours between when they get home from work and when their kids are finished at school, the only place where one can hold a community meeting.”

Spend a day in any branch library or neighborhood recreation center, particularly in the city’s low-income sections, and one can quickly see the enormous role these facilities play in people’s lives.

On a weekday afternoon at Kingsessing, several middle school-aged children huddle around nearly every one of the library’s seven computers. Nearby, in the branch’s substantially stocked children’s book section, six elementary school kids play computer logic games programmed especially for their age group. All are part of a city-sponsored after-school program.

Public libraries also fill an important niche as greater numbers of people are turning to them for employment resources. Bill Evans, a 53-year-old telecommunications specialist and daily visitor to Kingsessing, points out that many job seekers in the area rely on the library for employment training and GED manuals, online job listings and computers in order to apply for work. Indeed, just beyond the bank of computers where the middle school kids are mingling, several bookshelves are filled with reference materials geared toward job seekers. Evans says he often lends his computer skills to those in need: “A lot of people don’t know how to use the library or the computers here. So I help people write résumés or set up an e-mail account.”

But in Nutter’s changing Philadelphia, library patrons like Evans are feeling besieged; thus, when not aiding other library customers or leafing through a crime novel, Evans works with community activists around Kingsessing, such as Benjamin, in fighting to keep the library open.

In late January, Mayor Nutter finally acquiesced to public pressure and a court ruling in favor of Ackelsberg’s class-action suit, announcing that no city library would be closed through the end of the fiscal year–June 30. But with the prospect of a second $1 billion budget shortfall, Nutter has directed city department heads to submit budget proposals that incorporate 10, 20 and 30 percent cuts. Any of these scenarios is likely to result in severe cuts to public libraries as well as other essential city services, particularly those that residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods rely on.

On a near freezing night in mid-February, an estimated 550 people gathered in a South Philadelphia middle school gymnasium to participate in the third of four city-sponsored budget forums. The series of events was billed as an opportunity for members of the public to better understand the scope of the city’s fiscal crisis and to articulate their concerns about possible service cuts or tax hikes. Inside, forum attendees broke into small groups, led by professional facilitators, and were asked to put themselves in the role of balancing the city budget.

Many forum participants emerged from these breakout sessions simmering with frustration, not only at the mayor but also at the process supposedly aimed at incorporating their input. “It’s a big waste of time,” says Betty Beaufort. “You had to pick and choose between what to cut. But everything is too vital.” Beaufort, a retired office worker, says that it was the proposal to shutter the city’s libraries, including her local branch, Queen Memorial in South Philly, that got her out to the forum and to become active in the budget fight.

“The libraries are my baby. If they cut these,” she asks, “what are the kids going to do this summer?”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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